After Large Wedding and 240 Coronavirus Cases in N.Y.C. Orthodox Community, Rabbis Called on to Act

Three clusters of COVID-19 in Borough Park and Williamsburg Wednesday came just after the community was widely criticized for hosting a large wedding ceremony, sparking fears of anti-Semitic reprisals

Signs on a tent at the entrance of Chai Urgent Care in Brooklyn's Williamsburg community, asking people who suspect they have the COVID-19 disease to wait inside the tent for screening, March 18, 2020.
Bebeto Matthews,AP

Almost 250 Orthodox Jews in Borough Park and Williamsburg were confirmed Wednesday as having the coronavirus.

According to the New York Post, the cluster of cases affected three health centers in the two New York suburbs, with Williamsburg having the greater number of casualties.

The community’s satmar rebbe reportedly issued an edict to close all religious buildings in response to the health crisis.

A representative for Asisa Urgent Care, which caters predominantly to the Hasidic community, told the Post they had 243 positive cases from the three Brooklyn locations.

Pressure had been increasing on the community’s leaders to act after the news broke that hundreds of Haredim had attended a wedding in South Williamsburg on Tuesday – the same day New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.

Empty Tel Aviv from bird's-eye-viewTomer Appelbaum

That story was reported by the New York Times, which wrote that the event, held at a yeshiva, was eventually dispersed by the New York Fire Department.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upturn life around the world, New York City has taken increasingly dramatic steps to try to curb the spread of the disease. Residents have been asked to practice social distancing, bars and restaurants are restricted to takeouts and deliveries only, and some 1,800 public schools have closed, joining many private ones that had already sent students home for at least four weeks.

Following reports on Orthodox communities in New York and elsewhere continuing to hold large gatherings despite the health crisis, the White House held a phone briefing with community leaders on Tuesday.

Hasidic Jewish men reading literature posted on a synagogue's exterior, closed due to the coronavirus disease, in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, March 18, 2020.
ANDREW KELLY/ REUTERS

The call, made in an attempt to convince them to better implement the guidelines for slowing the spread of the virus in their communities, included some 15 community leaders, most from New York and New Jersey.

“We’re living through a time that is very critical, a time that none of us have ever experienced,” Avi Greenstein, CEO of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council, told Haaretz by phone. “It’s a global pandemic, a global catastrophe, the ramifications of which we don’t know the extent of at the moment,” he added, speaking while in self-isolation.

Although the crisis is unprecedented, New York’s Orthodox community was also at the epicenter of last year’s measles outbreak – the city’s worst since 1991 – which brought with it much prejudice and a wave of anti-Semitic incidents.

Reports of Orthodox Jews breaking the new rules, Greenstein warned, could have a similar effect now.

“I’m concerned that there is a level of [people viewing] us as communities not caring for the well-being and safety and health of our children and our families – which could not be further from the truth,” he said.

“I think it’s important to realize that there are strong directives from the community leadership on obeying the guidelines from the city and state health officials, and of course federal health officials.”

“The acts that are irresponsibly done, I believe, are outliers, and there is only that much control that one has. But the vast majority of our community have been hearing the calls of the doctors, of the rabbis, and it’s important to realize that,” Greenstein said.

He added that part of the challenge of making sure people respect the instructions of social distancing is the uncertainty that characterizes the current situation and the rapid rate of new information emerging.

Hasidic Jewish men gathering for a morning prayer outside of a synagogue, closed due to the coronavirus, in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, March 18, 2020.
ANDREW KELLY/ REUTERS

“We know today a lot more than we knew Sunday, let’s be very frank about that,” he said. “People need to be wise. We definitely need to work on that, but never forget this is a new concept that we are dealing with.

“My point is, it’s easier today to tell us what we should have done last week. We’re learning about this disaster everyday more and more.”

The novelty of the crisis, Greenstein said, is “not a unique situation to a specific community, it’s just a huge change in many people’s lifestyles.” However, he said, it is particularly difficult for the Orthodox community, which has a “very deep social bond” and is used to congregating.

“The fabric of our social society is being shaken. It’s a day-by-day process, as it is for every community,” he said.

Over the past week, Greenstein said, an “avalanche” of posters and signs were displayed in Brooklyn’s Orthodox neighborhoods and beyond by religious leaders and community groups, urging residents to take social distancing seriously.

“Going out in public while exhibiting symptoms is pikuach nefesh. YOU ARE KILLING PEOPLE!” a notice published by the emergency service Hatzolah stated, referring to the edict that saving a human life should take priority above all else. “There is no beating the system!” it added.

“There are very well intended people who are trying to work hard to raise the alarm and do the right thing. But I’m very concerned that it may create that type of unfortunate generalizing and exaggerations that have caused the previous outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks,” Greenstein said.

As synagogues and religious schools have closed – some even before being ordered to – Greenstein said he feels that “what’s being unfortunately reported is highlighting how long it’s taking, as opposed to seeing this in the big terms of understanding the social background and how difficult the situation is.”

That said, Orthodox leaders must come together to find a way to set up a system allowing for information to flow, he said, and for “the proper procedures – should this ever unfortunately happen again –to be in place so that the leadership, the rabbis, can make a decision a lot quicker.”

For Greenstein, the past week has been particularly busy with the majority of his time being devoted to offering social services to residents.

“Businesses that are closing down, people that are suddenly without a job, the food lines that are being interrupted – there is an overload of work figuring that out” he said.

The community in Borough Park, he added, is “extremely worried” about the COVID-19 outbreak.

“People reach out to me, my office, my organization, just for help. We’ve been bombarded with requests for assistance for Passover food; it’s never been requested in the past,” Greenstein said. “There is a sense of uncertainty like there has never been before.”