The rabbinic leader of the Kiryas Joel branch of Satmar Hasidism, one of the largest sects of Haredi Orthodox Judaism in the world, has tested positive for coronavirus.
Grand Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday after being in isolation for a week. Ezra Friedlander, a Hasidic lobbyist with close ties to the Satmar community, told the Forward on Thursday that Teitelbaum had not been seen in public since the previous Friday, when one of his personal assistants became sick. (Friedlander actually said the rebbe had tested positive then, but later retracted his statement.)
Teitelbaum, 72, is the spiritual leader of one of the two branches of the Satmar sect (his brother, Zalman, leads the Satmars in Brooklyn). Both Teitelbaums ordered their synagogues, yeshivas and other institutions to shutter on Wednesday as the coronavirus spread through their communities.
Aharon Teitelbaum is based in Kiryas Joel, a village about an hour outside of New York City with a population of more than 26,000, virtually all of them Jewish. Kiryas Joel is one of the poorest and highest-density municipalities in the country, leading to concerns that the disease would spread easily — especially since Teitelbaum and other ultra-Orthodox rabbis were slower to respond to the virus than their non-Haredi counterparts.
“They didn’t shut down those schools or synagogues until a day or so ago,” Steven Neuhaus, the executive of Orange County, which includes Kiryas Joel, told ABC7 on Friday. “So that lead time has created chaos and is going to contribute to the number (of cases) we have here.”
Indeed, Teitelbaum had been reluctant to comply with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s social-distancing recommendations, including school closures. “They don’t understand what a Jewish family is,” Teitelbaum said in a recorded speech decrying the fact that large numbers of children would be stuck at home if schools were closed. “It’s crowded at home, there’s barely any room, beds are placed wherever there’s room, there’s no gentile entertainment and if the kids are sent home there’s no room at home so they’ll wander around in the streets and people will gather together anyway, so nothing would be accomplished anyway.”
That changed, however, after he participated in a White House conference call for Hasidic leaders on Tuesday. The order to begin social distancing was issued the following day.
According to the New York State government, 163 cases have been positively identified in Orange County as of Saturday.
A local doctor, Vladimir Zelenko, published a video on Thursday that was widely shared in the Orthodox world, claiming that nine of the 14 COVID-19 tests he had administered in Kiryas Joel had come back positive. He predicted, without explanation, that this would mean that 90% of the town would eventually contract the disease.
But Orange County Health Commissioner Dr. Irina Gelman told local news site LoHud.com that that claim was “unsubstantiated” and Zelenko’s decision to promote it was “highly irresponsible.”
A person who answered the phone at Zelenko’s office on Sunday said that he would not speak to the media.