They stumble as they speak, hitting verbal walls as they struggle to balance emotion and expertise. They are exhausted after months of fighting COVID-19 as medical professionals — and of facing misinformation and mistrust when they return home to Orthodox communities, where skepticism about the coronavirus runs high.
“It’s hard, it’s very hard,” one Orthodox health-care worker said in a recent interview. Another, exhaling into the phone as we talked close to midnight, apologized. “This is therapeutic for me,” he explained.
With the recent spike in test-positivity rates as high as 7% in some Haredi areas of New York causing a crackdown on social-distancing rules by Gov Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio — and backlash including some violent protests in Borough Park, Brooklyn — I wanted to hear how the pandemic is playing out for the men and women on the front-lines.
When I put out a call through WhatsApp asking Orthodox doctors and nurses to share their stories, I was surprised by the number of people who responded quickly — a rarity in my years of reporting in the Orthodox world. They were eager to be heard.
Here are excerpts of our conversations:
‘It makes me question whether I’m losing my mind?’
Rikki Feldman, Emergency-Room Nurse Practitioner, Long Island
When we started to see the uptick in the fall, it was so frustrating. It was this feeling of ‘we told you so.’
Even despite these rising numbers, still a lot of people in our community resisted following these measures.
After the crackdowns, I kept hearing things from friends like ‘it’s antisemitism, it’s the government trying to control you, fight back, resist.’ I still don’t understand why this mentality is so prevalent.
I guess frustration is my overwhelming emotion these days. And disappointment. I’m very disappointed in people. It’s hard because all these people are doing all these activities and going about their lives, they think they’re right, they’re very convinced. It makes me question whether I’m losing my mind.
I’m from Lakewood, N.J. There’s a shortage of doctors there. There’s a huge influx of people moving into the area but no health-care professionals — few guys are going to start medical school at 28, when they’re done learning in kollel, when you have a family to support. I get it. But it means that there aren’t enough people who know and understand the scientific process. This is how the anti-vaccination movement has grown in our community. When you’re on social media, and you have no background to understand - and you hear some political commentator just mention, ‘Well, maybe there’s herd immunity in Brooklyn’ - he’s not a scientist, but people believe it.
In a WhatsApp group recently, one woman kept posting that her parents are Holocaust survivors, and that Cuomo is like Nazi Germany, targeting our community. And finally I had enough, and said, ‘Look I have the utmost respect for you, but this is not 1939. In 1939, there was no pandemic with clearly frum communities disregarding everything being recommended.’
I had four women texting me saying, ‘Thank you for speaking up.’ Most people don’t have the ammunition to put it into words.
‘People want to hear what comforts them’
Tami Frenkel — nurse, resident of Borough Park
I was talking to someone I knew in my community, I saw him without a mask, and at the end of the conversation, his whole attitude was, ‘I pity you’. He kept saying to me that because I was so exposed to Covid, that seeing all this death and tragedy has twisted my mindset so much that I can’t see things from a different perspective. That I’ve become jaded.
Someone not trusting me as a medical professional, and thinking I’ve become so twisted in my views, that’s really upsetting.
There was a huge opening with a lack of faith in authorities, especially with the anti-vaxxers, in 2018. That was dug in for years before, and that led to people being more and more anti-science and anti-doctor, not really believing in authority.
Someone texted me somebody’s WhatsApp status, a table of Covid rates in non-Orthodox neighborhoods, showing it’s “not just us.” I noticed this graphic going around - I looked it up, and realized that this was misconstrued information, it was a total number of cases since March, not recent cases. I clicked on a “recent” tab - and the “recent” tab showed exactly our ZIP codes.
There’s a very wrong mentality here - which is 100% antithetical to Jewish thought - which is, ‘I’ll protect me and mine, even though everyone is affected.’ It’s very hurtful and very not Jewish.
There is bad information out there, and people are convinced that it’s not so bad and we’ll be fine and ‘most people had it already.’ A lot of it is confirmation bias — people want to hear what they want to hear, what comforts them.
‘If you didn’t watch people die, it’s much easier to persuade yourself that it’s not a big deal.’
Ephraim Sherman - Nurse Practitioner at New York University hospital, resident of Crown Heights, Brooklyn
I’m fairly sure that I caught Covid the week before Purim. I skipped shul the Shabbos before Purim. I watched Purim from my window over Kingston Avenue, thinking, “I am literally watching a pandemic explode before my eyes.”
People started getting sick. Right away, people were super-hesitant to believe that this was ever going to get worse than at any given moment - everyone thought, ‘this is the worst part, everything is going to get better.’
Then Pesach came, and half the neighborhood was in the hospital.
But now, people who should know better still don’t want to accept that this hasn’t gone away yet.
To me, politics is the most clear explanation. The New York Times tried to attribute a lot of this to lack of science education. But that doesn’t make any sense, because there are plenty of people who understand complicated scientific ideas without taking biology in 9th grade, and there are plenty of Americans who took science courses and wouldn’t be able to understand something complicated.
It comes down to: people like Trump, and if Republicans say it’s not a big deal, that’s what they want to hear.
How is it that 800 frum people died of Covid in just a few months, in the New York area, and somehow that doesn’t register? You can believe whatever you want to believe politically. But you saw the Chevra Kadisha [burial society] volunteers and Hatzalah ambulances running around like chickens without heads for months. You went to the funerals. You see the people not in shul anymore. Sometimes you’re related to these people. How? How? I don’t understand. I don’t get it.
I went into the ICU’s watching how horrible this disease is, up close and personal. Those memories of what it looks like to die from Covid will never leave my mind. If you didn’t watch people die, it’s much easier to persuade yourself that it’s not a big deal.
People believe that people died from negligence. It’s much easier to believe it wasn’t this horrible disease that spread while we were doing mitzvos on Purim. It’s much easier to believe that my Zaide had a cold, just a cold, Trump said it was just a cold, and those antisemites in the hospital killed him. That’s much easier to swallow.
I feel like I’m in insane land. Maybe I am just the nut job?
But if you’re the person who bleaches vacuum cleaner before vacuuming your living room for the third time before Pesach, if you put on two pairs of tefillin because of a debate from a thousand years ago — you know how stringencies work, and you can be careful about a deadly virus.
I’m a baal teshuva, I became Orthodox through Chabad-Lubavitch as an adult. The thing that made me want to live my life as a frum Jew was that I saw people pursuing truth even when it was inconvenient. I wanted that very much. Which makes this all that much harder to swallow: How can you bend over backwards to help Jews on the other side of the world, make Pesach in the back of a Belarussian night club or in Kathmandu, help people in a spiritual way - but you can’t wear a mask in shul?
‘I don’t think that with any other minority that this would happen’
Moshe Cohn, 41, Intensive Care Unit palliative-care doctor, resident of Teaneck, N.J.
During the surge, I was taking care of the moderately sick adults.
I had never felt this level of unity before, as healthcare workers - we felt like we are all in this together, we were all going to do whatever is best for our patients.
At that time, during the surge, I wasn’t hearing people talk about the Jews. I wasn’t hearing people talk about, ‘Oh these Hasidim, they’re flouting the law.’ It was just, ‘We gotta take care of as many patients as we can take care of.’ People understood that there are disadvantaged communities in New York, that many of them are ultra-Orthodox because they’re in overcrowded situations, and so on.
But that’s not the case now. I cannot remember in my lifetime - and I’m 41 - ever maybe with one exception, a time when there was this as big a chilul Hashem [desecration of God’s name] this publicly. The only other time I can remember was Baruch Goldstein, and I think this was worse. With Goldstein, you could easily say that guy was deranged. But you can’t say that about an entire community. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t wear a beard and that my yarmulke is knitted, not velvet. Because when I walk into the hospital, I get questions like: ‘Moshe, what’s going on?’
I don’t think that with any other minority that this would happen. I don’t think if there were a gang war going on in one minority group, that if a member of that minority group would walk into a hospital, someone would say, “Hey what’s going on?” But the Jews, oh yeah, they’ll ask.
I think that we have failed in the enterprise of bein adam l’chaveiro, of the interpersonal mitzvahs. Yes, I know there’s a gemach for everything, that there are very entrepreneurial individuals who blend that skill with the desire to give. And yes, the community takes care of itself. But where we went wrong was creating some imagined shtetl outside of Europe and pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist unless it violates our first amendment rights.
We are not just making a spectacle of ourselves, we are literally putting people’s lives at risks.
If there was a plague in a shtetl, and someone was flouting distancing - they’d be lynched. There was always a notion around preservation of the community, of life, above all. How many leniencies are there under the halakhic principle of “mishum eivah”, from fear of persecution. But not in America!
Going to sue the government when they’re not allowing me to go to shul, in the middle of a pandemic, whose rules are being ignored — that is the definition of arrogance. It is ‘kafuy tova’, rejection of the good, in the worst way. This country has been the best to our people, and New York City in particular. And that’s how we show gratitude? It doesn’t mean the governor and mayor didn’t make mistakes. We were the worst at the start of this pandemic, but now we are in the best shape in this country.
This is the assimilation of Orthodox Jewry. They have become true red-blooded Americans. It’s scary.
‘I don’t want to go back to the dark days of March and April’
Joel Ehrenfeld, doctor, resident of Midwood, Brooklyn
I saw firsthand the devastation this virus did to our communities.
I was constantly being contacted by spouses and children of patients from our community who had been brought to the hospital where I work. They were beyond distraught that they could not be with their loved ones, and asked me to liaise with the medical teams caring for their family members. I did the best I could, but my heart broke for them. Some of them never got to see their loved ones again. Many of those who did manage to recover had their lives, and the lives of their families caring for them, forever altered. Many suffered permanent organ damage, and many will never regain the level of function they had prior to infection.
I don’t want to go back to the dark days of March and April.
Which is why I’ve taken it upon myself to talk to everyone in my sphere of influence. I’ve had dozens of conversations with friends and family over the last few months, the crux of which was very simple: Please wear a mask. Please stop shaking hands, and please take actual precautions to curb the spread of this virus. I reiterate that now. We need to be much better at doing these things. If we had been doing these things like we were supposed to, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in right now.
I walked into a popular Borough Park shul one night, just as protestors were gearing up a few short blocks away to voice their displeasure at new government restrictions on gatherings; there were at least 70 to 80 people at this shul, only one of whom was wearing a mask. Yom Kippur was business as usual in every single shul I went to. There were no masks to be seen inside the multiple Borough Park shuls I visited, even as people increasingly wore them outdoors because of the press presence in the streets.
My friends and I were traumatized by events in the spring, from watching helplessly as so many died alone. This stuff is real to those of us taking care of these patients. All you need to do is look in the eyes of my co-residents when they realize that patients are being intubated for COVID in our hospital again. There is real fear here.
Portraits of the healers: Orthodox doctors and nurses in their own words
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.