Anger, Locked Synagogues and a Divided Community: Brooklyn Jews Grapple With COVID Restrictions

While most condemn the violence that erupted after NY governor announced new coronavirus restrictions, many in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community feel singled out and left out

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
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Members of the Jewish Orthodox community speak with NYPD officers on a street corner, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York, October 7, 2020.
Members of the Jewish Orthodox community speak with NYPD officers on a street corner, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York, October 7, 2020.Credit: John Minchillo,AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK After a night of violent protest against new coronavirus restrictions, tensions were running high in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on Wednesday.

Hundreds of Orthodox Jews took to the streets on Tuesday evening, setting fire to a pile of masks, assaulting some people and at one point running a reporter out of the area.

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The late night demonstration came after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced new restrictions that would close schools, limit attendance at synagogues services to 10 people and close nonessential businesses in areas experiencing a spike in COVID-19 in Brooklyn, Queens, Rockland County and Orange County.

The new restrictions will go into effect by Friday, as Jewish communities begin celebrations of Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah, the last of the fall holidays, which are generally celebrated with large gatherings and dancing. The rules will be in effect for 14 days. If the infection rate diminishes at the end of the designated period, they will be eased.

For weeks, Orthodox community leaders have expressed frustration with city and state authorities for their failure to do meaningful outreach in the community, and for “running to the media before even trying to understand the complex situation and come to an agreement with the community,” as Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for the website Jewish Insider and a member of the local community, told Haaretz earlier this month.

The Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America criticized Cuomo's decision to impose new restrictions as appalling to all people of religion and good faith.”

While the group said [w]e cannot allow our – perhaps justifiable – anger at government to imperil our neighbors’ health,” it pointed out that the governor had a call with Orthodox community leaders only hours before announcing the restrictions. According to Agudath Israel of America, that conversation was “largely a one-way monologue, and contained no mention of this new plan.”

Ripped signs warning against the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic posted on a wall in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NYC, October 07, 2020.Credit: Michael M. Santiago - AFP

“There was absolutely no discussion of reducing houses of worship to 10 in the conversation with the governor,” Orthodox community activist Chaskel Bennett confirmed to Haaretz on Wednesday.

“What Gov. Cuomo did was blindside and undermine the community leaders and organizations that had already been working hard to tamp down on rising COVID numbers,” he said. “We were seeing some success and this punitive decision by the governor has undone that progress.”

Bennett said community leaders feel “completely betrayed by this unilateral decision.” According to him, it alienated an “already skeptical and suspicious” community.

“The anger and dismay are real,” he said. “Our schools and shuls are the lifeblood of the community. I worry this sets us back significantly in the ongoing fight against the deadly virus.”

In a joint statement released on Tuesday, elected Orthodox officials also slammed Cuomo for “utter lack of coordination and communication."

“We have been disincluded from conversations with the governor and his leadership team as they made devastating decisions affecting the people we serve,” added the statement, signed by State Sen. Simcha Felder, State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein and City councilmen Chaim Deutsch and Kalman Yeger. 

Nevertheless, the officials said they will continue to encourage total compliance with mask-wearing and social distance guidelines, echoing Bennett’s comment that “in recent weeks we have seen a vast increase in compliance throughout our communities.

“Sadly, instead of working alongside our community to build on our work, the governor has chosen to respond with threats and aggressive enforcement,” they noted, adding it was “disgraceful” for the governor to impose these sanctions in the middle of the Jewish holidays.

While many community leaders criticized authorities for their handling of the situation, some said they were shocked by Tuesday night’s protests.

“Woke to photos of shockingly unacceptable and disgraceful behavior in Borough Park and Crown Heights last night,” community activist Yacov Behrman tweeted on Wednesday. “There is no excuse for bad and dangerous behavior.

“Stop with the excuses,” he added. “Bad behavior doesn’t justify more bad behavior.”

In Rockland County, legislator Aron Wieder, an Orthodox Jew himself, published a video calling on his constituents to wear a mask, despite the frustration they feel toward authorities.

In the Yiddish-language video, Wieder criticizes Cuomo’s “utter lie” that he consulted with community leaders about imposing the restrictions. “But, my friends, are we wearing a mask because Gov. Cuomo tells us to? Or because Mayor de Blasio wants us to? No, we wear a mask because it’s the right thing and what God wants us to do,” he said.

The controversy went all the way to Washington, via Hollywood, as a recovering President Donald Trump seemingly endorsed a tweet by staunch Trump supporter and actor James Woods calling the New York mayor an “anti-Semite thug piece of shit.”

Rounding up the Jews’ is an optic that I would never have expected to see in my American lifetime,” Woods wrote, retweeting a video of police forcefully breaking up Tuesday night’s demonstration. The 73-year-old actor, who is not himself Jewish, has been known to make incendiary comments on social media before.

“Wow, what does this grim picture remind you of? I am the only thing in the Radical Left’s way! VOTE,” the president wrote on Wednesday in response.

Community members told local media that additional protests were planned for Wednesday night. 

JTA contributed to this report.

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