Coronavirus Puts New Jersey’s Orthodox Community in an Unwelcome Spotlight

Members of New York and New Jersey Jewish communities express concern that the coronavirus epidemic could spark anti-Semitic incidents

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Orthodox Jews arrive at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Orthodox Jews arrive at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, for a celebration of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of study of the Talmud, Jan. 1, 2020.Credit: Jeenah Moon/Reuters
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

As Orthodox Jews in New York have taken dramatic measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, their counterparts in New Jersey are also getting used to life in quarantine.

“You go out to pick up something that you need and the streets that are usually full of traffic are empty,” Eli Steinberg, a resident of Lakewood in Ocean County, New Jersey told Haaretz by phone on Thursday. “People are not out at all.”

Over the past two weeks, daily life in Lakewood has gradually shut down. Schools, synagogues and other institutions have closed and kosher groceries have limited purchases to curbside pickup and home delivery.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71: A tale of two crises: Coronavirus vs. Constitution

“In my lifetime and in the lifetime of everybody that I know, we’ve definitely never seen something like this,” Steinberg remarked.

Lakewood – which is home to a large Orthodox community that is thought to constitute some 70 percent of its more than 100,000 residents – has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus outbreak. According to data provided by the Ocean County health department, there have been 321 coronavirus cases in the county as of Wednesday at 2 P.M.: Lakewood accounted for 141 of them.

“It’s a time right now when people are very scared, mostly because nobody knows anything,” Steinberg said. “I know people in critical condition, and people who I wouldn’t say I’m close to but [whom I] have interacted with before have died from this.”

In New Jersey as a whole, there have been 4,402 COVID-19 cases and 62 deaths from the virus as of Wednesday afternoon. The state of New York is by far the hardest hit state in the country, with 30,811 cases and hundreds of deaths.

After the coronavirus began taking a toll in Jewish communities across New York state, the Anti-Defamation League warned that the crisis could trigger anti-Semitic incidents – as occurred during last year’s measles outbreak, which struck the Orthodox community particularly hard.

According to Evan Bernstein, the ADL's northeast division vice president, anti-Semitic rhetoric has already surfaced on social media in connection with the coronavirus. This includes conspiracy theories blaming Jews, and even Israel, for the pandemic.

On Monday, an Orthodox Jew was refused service at a garage in Goshen, New York, where an employee told him he had to leave because he was “spreading the virus.” The encounter was caught on video.

“We cannot allow fears about COVID-19 to spark bigotry,” the ADL tweeted after the incident. “This virus does not discriminate and neither should we.”

New York area media outlets have focused considerable attention on the Jewish community in recent weeks, after one of the first cases in the state was diagnosed in the Jewish community in the northern suburb of New Rochelle, which became an epicenter of the epidemic.

Orthodox Jews, who have been the victims of the overwhelming majority of hate crime in New York over the past few years, have been a particular focus of media attention recently.

Last week, the New York Times reported that hundreds of Orthodox Jews held a wedding in the South Williamsburg section of Brooklyn on the same day that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people due to the coronavirus.

Members of the community have expressed the sense that the media spotlight on Orthodox Jews has stoked hatred against them.

In a conversation with Haaretz earlier this week, Chaskel Bennett, co-founder of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition in Brooklyn, said individuals in the Orthodox community who ignore health warnings over the coronavirus “are part of a stubborn minority and by no means speak for the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Orthodox Jewish Americans.”

“Bigots feed off of news media reports that place an outsized focus on Orthodox Jews when everyone knows COVID-19 is a worldwide pandemic,” he added. “It is dangerous and the media should give thought to the repercussions of their reporting.”

Dramatic steps

Such generalizations are all the more upsetting for Orthodox Jews in light of the prominent community rabbis and Orthodox organizations that have been regularly urging people to comply with official social distancing guidelines – going as far as calling for the cancellation of large Passover gatherings and a reduction of holiday preparations to what is essential.

In Lakewood, too, dramatic steps have been taken to slow the spread of the virus – to “flatten the curve” – including the shuttering of the town’s Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva (the largest in the United States).

“The streets are empty,” an Orthodox Lakewood resident who goes by the name of Donovan Presley on social media said. “Almost everyone I see is wearing gloves and/or a mask,” he noted, adding: “We receive at least three to four robocalls a day from rabbis and community leaders urging us to stay inside, not pray with a quorum,” a reference to the minimum of 10 men normally required by Orthodox religious law for group prayer.

Fellow resident Eli Steinberg added that “anybody who would walk into Lakewood would be able to see with their own eyes how the community is influenced.

“It’s night and day from what it was before,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t see it, it’s because they are not interested in seeing it.”

Social media

Lakewood’s Jews have been all too familiar with anti-Semitism in recent years, as some of their non-Orthodox neighbors have accused them of causing overdevelopment in the area and of placing a strain on local resources. Much of the anti-Semitic sentiment has been spread on social media.

Steinberg and Presley expressed concern that the coronavirus epidemic could trigger more hate. “Social media has been a cesspool,” Presley said. “Unfortunately, the Orthodox are not immune from our share of idiots,” he added, noting that some people in the community have been invited to large gatherings.

“Those are inexcusable, but it seems the entirety of social media is using those three to four incidents to cast judgment on almost 100,000 Lakewood citizens who are by and large complying.”

“People are scared,” Steinberg said, “and when people are scared, the natural instinct is to look for scapegoats. And [for] people who want to incite, this time is made for them.”

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