For N.Y.C.’s Orthodox Jews, Protests Inspire Solidarity – but Also Raise First Amendment Concerns

While expressing solidarity with the demonstrations calling for racial justice, members of the community slam Mayor de Blasio for alleged double standards. ‘If thousands can protest, why can’t children pray in shul?’ asks one Jewish activist

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Members of the Orthodox Jewish community watching as protesters walk through the Brooklyn borough on June 3, 2020, during a "Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter" protest.
Members of the Orthodox Jewish community watching as protesters walk through the Brooklyn borough on June 3, 2020, during a "Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter" protest.Credit: AFP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

As thousands of New Yorkers continue to take to the streets calling for racial justice following last week’s killing of George Floyd, members of the Orthodox community are calling out Mayor Bill de Blasio on what they see as a “double standard.”

They are asking why large-scale demonstrations are taking place despite restrictions still being in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic, while houses of worship are shuttered – and after the Jewish community was singled out by de Blasio at the height of the outbreak for a perceived contravention of lockdown guidelines. Many, like the mayor, reject the comparison between the right to protest and the right to convene in religious institutions, but the position, voiced by some in the ultra-Orthodox community, highlights the growing divides between them and the city.

“The double standard is blatant and shocking,” said Chaskel Bennett, co-founder of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition. “For months, we have seen our community come under unrelenting scrutiny by ‘gotcha’ media coverage of Hasidic Jews not social distancing or wearing masks, while the overwhelming majority of religious Jews in New York City were doing all the right things.

“After watching the thousands of protesters given free rein to exercise their constitutional right to protest, it begs the question: Isn’t religious freedom protected by the very same Constitution?” Bennett asked. “Is there one rule of law or selective enforcement? It seems the mayor thinks differently.”

In April, after an Orthodox funeral procession through Williamsburg became chaotically overcrowded, de Blasio threatened “the Jewish community” with arrests if it failed to comply with citywide restrictions. The tweet caused much uproar and Jewish groups accused the mayor of generalizing the community and fanning the flames of antisemitism.

Hundreds of mourners attending the funeral procession of a prominent Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, April 28, 2020. Mayor Bill de Blasio was highly critical of the event.Credit: Peter Gerber,AP

Following the furor around the funeral, which had been approved in advance by the New York Police Department, the police presence in Orthodox neighborhoods was heightened and some synagogues received “cease-and-desist” orders for reportedly still holding services. A yeshiva in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant was also shuttered by the NYPD last month.

When a reporter from the Jewish publication Hamodia asked de Blasio about a potential double standard at his daily press briefing on Tuesday, the mayor rejected any comparisons.

“When you see a nation, an entire nation, simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism – I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner, or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services,” he said.

Angry reactions soon poured in on social media.

“If it was unsafe for Jews to attend a funeral, it should be unsafe for anyone to attend a protest,” Hasidic Rabbi Dovid B. Kaplan tweeted. “The Jews at the funeral should have held up some protest signs ... because apparently covid ignores protests and only spreads at Jewish funerals.”

Another tweeter, Irina Tsukerman, wrote: “To preempt distinctions without differences being drawn, many of the Jewish funerals dispersed by the police were masked, outdoors, and socially distanced whereas even many of the peaceful protests, much less the riots, are NOT.”

Journalist Stephen L. Miller tweeted: “Bill [de Blasio], will you be personally breaking up the large protest gatherings in NYC or is your outrage for such gatherings reserved for Jewish funerals? Just flipping through the rule book here.”

Bennett told Haaretz that while he “unequivocally condemn[ed] the killing of George Floyd” and supports peaceful protest against racism, he had every right to demand his “constitutional rights to pray and worship – and those rights have been arbitrarily restricted in the guise of public health,” he said.

“If thousands can protest shoulder to shoulder with the encouragement of the mayor, why can’t children sit and learn in yeshiva or pray in shul?” he asked. “Is there a pandemic or isn’t there one?”

Constitutional rights and wrongs

In mid-May, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that religious ceremonies involving up to 10 people were now possible statewide, with “strict social distancing guidelines.”

He said: “I understand their desire to get back to religious ceremonies as soon as possible. At this time of stress and when people are so anxious and so confused, I think those religious ceremonies can be very comforting – but we need to find out how to do it, and do it safely and do it smartly.”

Following the relaxation, some synagogues reopened for prayer groups or held them outdoors. Limited Shavuot holiday services were also held last week.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community watching from their windows as protesters walk through the Brooklyn borough on June 3, 2020, during a "Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter" protest.Credit: AFP

New York State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, who is an Orthodox Jew himself, told Haaretz on Wednesday that the protesters “have a right by the First Amendment of the Constitution to march, and what they are marching about is a very real issue. Racism is a real issue in the United States of America that has to be addressed head on,” he said.

But he added that de Blasio needed to recognize that the First Amendment also “guarantees religious people the right to practice their religion and their faith.”

Eichenstein stressed: “I’m not going to knock the former to get to the latter, but you can’t say that the same First Amendment doesn’t give me the right to practice my religion.”

“We live by the same Constitution,” he said, echoing Bennett.

Throughout the lockdown and as the reopening process began in New York, Eichenstein said he felt the “government never prioritized religion, faith – and I think that was wrong to begin with.

“The word ‘essential’ – what does it mean?” he asked. “What’s essential to me may not be essential to you, and what’s essential to you may not be essential to me. To me, to religious people, our house of worship, our prayers, our faith, our services are essential, that’s our entire way of life.”

For Eichenstein, as the state began reopening beaches and some entertainment facilities, “it almost feels like there were a few people who decided what they deem essential, and then they just placed you in these categories and you were stuck.

“Originally they had placed houses of worship in phase IV,” he said, referring to the last stage of the reopening process. “That’s unacceptable. Our forefathers didn’t wait until the Fourth Amendment to protect freedom of religion,” he added.

African American Pastor Gil Monrose, who has worked over the years to promote a better understanding between the Jewish and African American communities, and has spoken out publicly against antisemitism, agreed that houses of worship should have been deemed “essential services” from the start of the lockdown.

“The streets are definitely filled and the churches are empty,” he told Haaretz.

Now that thousands are demonstrating in the streets, he said, “This experiment with the coronavirus in groups of no more than 10 with 6 feet apart is out the window.” He called on the authorities to let houses of worship conduct larger services, “in a safe way.”

For Monrose, people could benefit from having a place to pray during this time. “They need spiritual leadership and direction,” he said. “Together, they need to be able to vent, they need to be able to be frustrated, they need to spiritually connect.

“That’s one of the reasons I think you have this level of chaos,” Monrose added. “All these things are so critically important – and that is needed now.”

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community watching as protesters walk through the Brooklyn borough on June 3, 2020, during a "Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter" protest in New York City.Credit: AFP

‘Saddened and sickened’

In the wake of the current unrest, Orthodox organizations in the United States have joined the list of groups expressing solidarity with the fight against racism.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (aka the OU) said in a statement Monday that it was “saddened, sickened and outraged to have seen another broadcast video of an African American man dying at the hands of police officers.

“Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a political issue,” the statement said. “It is a real and present danger that must be met head on.”

The OU added: “People of good conscience must never turn a blind eye when people are being deprived of their human dignity and even their lives. Indifference is not an option.”

The Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America also released a statement on Wednesday. “Like all decent Americans, we are horrified by the senseless and ruthless killing of George Floyd, and we join in solidarity with the outpouring of hurt, anger and frustration expressed by responsible citizens protesting peacefully,” it said. “At this very moment that we remember our Torah’s admonition that it is precisely by extending compassion, empathy and understanding to the strangers, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens in our midst – regardless of our racial or ethnic backgrounds – that we will be shepherded safely through these troubled times, and at all times.”

Both organizations also condemned the violence that threatened at times to overshadow the protests.

“We are deeply distressed, as well, by the looting and vandalism that included assaults and provocations against citizens and law enforcement officers sworn to keep the peace and ensure the safety of our citizens,” Agudath Israel of America said.

The OU, meanwhile, noted that “the right of citizens outraged by these events to engage in peaceful public protest is to be protected as a fundamental right. But that should not lead to violence and vandalism, including assaulting law enforcement officers.”

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