Skip To Content
Fast Forward

Grand rabbi of Satmar Hasidic dynasty tests positive for coronavirus

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.


As a public service during this pandemic, the Forward is providing free, unlimited access to all coronavirus articles. If you’d like to support our independent Jewish journalism, click here.


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 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.

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.