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Right before Shabbat, Cuomo bans gatherings, and a Hasidic town cancels services

Shabbat, the time when observant Jews typically gather together to pray and socialize, is coming fast.

And across the Hasidic world, there are signs that more communities — but not all — will be obeying the strict social distancing rules announced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Friday afternoon.

The rules include a ban on nonessential gatherings of any size, and a directive that healthy people under 70 should remain at least six feet from one another when outdoors. People over 70, or those with compromised immune systems, must stay home, the governor said.

Yet that night, a group of about 200 young men gathered to pray outside 770 Eastern Parkway, the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters.

A uniformed police officer acknowledged that the event, during which one man led prayers at a lectern for a loose crowd that spread over two blocks and into the service road, shouldn’t be happening, and said she was calling her superior. Another officer said he knew better than to try to disperse the crowd, because he didn’t want to expose himself to the virus, and because he had been roughly treated in the past inside the building.

Rabbi Yosef Yitchok Kratz, a Chabad administrator, said the men were defying the rules and knew it, but added that it was difficult to make them comply, because they were at a rebellious stage of life.

Cuomo’s announcement — combined with widespread rebukes from within the Hasidic world of those not obeying social distancing rules — appeared to have at least one immediate effect. Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village in Orange County, rescinded a Friday morning announcement that it would hold outdoor services to read from the Torah. The plan for such services, which would have greatly increased the likelihood of social interaction among residents of the dense village of 26,000, was met with intense criticism from Hasidic figures on social media.


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“Due to the terrible spread of the Coronavirus, which is a lethal threat, God forbid, and on account of new regulations that were put in force Friday morning by government officials and Hatzolah, which is sounding the alarm about the terrible situation we’re facing, God be merciful, the previously announced Torah reading minyans will not take place,” the announcement read, according to a translation from Yiddish by the Forward.

The changes from Kiryas Joel also came as the community’s leader, Grand Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, one of the two leaders of the Satmar dynasty of Hasidic Judaism, was reported as having tested positive for coronavirus, after having been absent from public view for a week.

Resistance to new public health norms from Hasidic Jews, many of whom follow directives from their rabbinic leaders and do not follow mainstream English-language media, has been met with outrage by the section of the community that is more connected to the secular world. They have been sharing pictures of people who have already died from coronavirus, as well as social media videos from rebbes, urging them to follow the letter of Jewish law, which is to suspend all ritual requirements in order to preserve life.

Indeed, spiritual leaders and medical professionals have been urging the Chabad community to take the virus seriously, and to practice social distancing. The men praying outside 770 did seem to have absorbed some of the new guidelines and rules.

They said they felt that they were complying because the only people allowed at the service were young men without families — a more robust population that didn’t need to worry about infecting anyone else, they said.

They also said they were being careful to maintain the appropriate distance between them of about six feet, and that was true for some, but not all.

On Friday afternoon, Dr. Jason Zimmerman, the medical director of New York City’s volunteer Orthodox paramedic group, Hatzalah, recorded what he called “an urgent plea” to his fellow Jews to stay indoors except for necessary errands.

“Please do not go to shul. Please do not gather for small minyanim in backyards and driveways,” he said, using the Yiddish word for prayer groups. “Please do not go out for any nonessential errands or needs.”

Yet all week, as the national, state and city government has increasingly emphasized the importance of social distancing, some parts of the Hasidic community have continued gathering. On Friday morning, a group of Hasidic Jews in South Williamsburg convened in a park for morning prayers, and did not begin to disperse completely until cops were called to the area at least twice.

The gathering grew from about 30 people to over 150 at its peak, said Avrohom Gifter, who was working on a construction site across the street from the park. When the police first arrived, in the morning, they didn’t get out of their squad cars to break the crowd up.

“They were announcing on their loudspeaker: You must disperse, you must leave,” Gifter said. “Some of the people left, but most of them didn’t care.”

In New Square, a Hasidic village in Rockland County, messages on the app Telegram circulated Friday afternoon advertising minyans for Shabbat where people could stand outdoors and listen to the reading of the Torah, the centerpiece of Saturday morning prayer services. The main synagogue in New Square, which is home to people who follow the Skverer dynasty of Hasidic Judaism, closed earlier this week.

But two people who answered phone calls to numbers listed for the prayer services said that the minyans were likely cancelled, due to the latest executive order from Cuomo.

Yet Hasidic social media accounts continued to share videos of Hasidic Jews in mikvahs, the ritual baths, where many observant Jews purify themselves before Shabbat. In one video, a man walked through a mikvah in Williamsburg, berating the people getting ready to leave.

“Who’s here in the mivkah? What are you doing in the mikvah now?,” the man says. “Not one person here belongs in this mivkah, not one person here belongs to this community, what are you doing in this mikvah?”

Such holdouts in the Hasidic world are a minority, if a vulnerable and visible one. Yeshiva World News, an Orthodox media outlet reported Friday that a man drove up to a tent outside a synagogue where some men were praying and threatened to kill people defying the ban on gatherings of ten or more people. The man reportedly struck someone in front of the tent as he was driving away. The synagogue later said it had closed the tent minyans.

Every single decisor of Jewish law in America has ruled that no Jew should pray in a synagogue or in a minyan, due to the chance of spreading the novel coronavirus, according to Yeshiva World News.

Jordan Kutzik, the Forward’s deputy Yiddish editor, contributed translations.

Helen Chernikoff and Daniel Kirschbaum contributed reporting.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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