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Does Cuomo’s ban on gatherings exempt houses of worship?

On Friday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would ban all “non-essential” gatherings in an executive order, the latest step in the state’s increasingly stringent and sweeping rules to enforce social distancing and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“This is not life as usual and accept it and realize it and deal with it,” he said.

But when his office released guidance on the ban, along with the list of essential businesses that would be allowed to keep their doors open after Sunday, it didn’t clear up a key question for observant Jews: Does the ban on gatherings extend to religious prayer services?

In a crisis where rules to help prevent the spread of the virus are being written and tested on the fly, there remains some ambiguity about whether New York State could or would force prayer groups to stop if they violated Cuomo’s latest rules. And Orthodox Jews, who pray in groups of at least 10, say that ambiguity from government officials on social distancing rules makes it difficult to ensure total cooperation from their community.

Indeed, Orthodox Jews on Monday spread the language exempting houses of worship from closing on social media — despite wide adherence to social distancing rules. One message, a screenshot of [the page on the governor’s website with guidance on the new rules on gatherings, with the section about houses of worship circled in red, was being forwarded on the messaging app WhatsApp.

The guidance released Friday noted that houses of worship “are not ordered closed,” even though worship services of 50 or more have been banned since March 15.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the governor wrote: “Nonessential large gatherings of any kind are not permitted at this time. Regarding houses of worship, we strongly urge them to follow the CDC’s social distancing guidance. We are proud that many houses of worship have proactively adopted these procedures to protect the health of their congregants and slow the spread of this virus.”

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The spokesperson did not respond to a specific question about how the ban would be enforced for religious gatherings.

By Monday, nearly every Orthodox group had released a statement urging observant Jews to stop attending prayer services and to comply with social distancing guidelines. Yeshiva World News has reported that every single decisor of Jewish law in America has ruled that no Jew should pray in a synagogue or in a minyan — a prayer gathering of 10 or more people — due to the chance of spreading the novel coronavirus.

In a joint statement Monday, several major Orthodox umbrella groups urged all observant Jews to cancel their Passover travel plans, and to drastically change their Passover routines in order to limit social interactions that could spread the virus.

Yet the Orthodox world has struggled to convince all its adherents to shut down daily prayer services or to stem traffic to ritual baths. Leaders in the community have consistently cited differences in policies touted by different levels of government as a barrier to convincing all Hasidic Jews to stop sending their children to school, stop going to synagogue to pray and to overall limit trips outside.

Rivkie Finer, an Orthodox business leader in Monsey, N.Y., said that people she knows in the Orthodox world are confused as to whether religious gatherings are allowed. But, she said, it would be hypocritical of the governor for, to example, hold press conferences with over a dozen people who are spaced far apart from one another, but not allow religious Jews to have small prayer gatherings.

“Consistency is key,” she said.

Scattered prayer gatherings in the Orthodox world continued over the weekend, as New Yorkers across the city took to parks and public spaces to see friends and play sports. The Forward reported a large prayer service outside the headquarters of the Chabad Hasidic movement in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on Friday night. Police posted outside called their superior, wondering what to do, but did not get guidance to break up the event.

The situation in New Jersey was different. Police there arrested two men for hosting weddings that had more than 50 guests, a violation of the state’s social distancing rules.

On Saturday, Moshe Kahan, a Hasidic investment advisor in Williamsburg, said he attended a 10-person minyan at a synagogue, where the men stood several steps from one another.

“If the government tells me, or indicates, even, that a religious service is non-essential, I will follow what the government says,” Kahan said in an interview Monday morning. Indeed, he has changed his handle on Twitter to “Follow Guidelines.”

But, he said, “If auto repairs is considered essential, then a minyan is definitely essential.”

The screenshot with the relevant guidance about houses of worship was being shared widely even as a top aide to Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, said at a Monday morning press conference that the ban on social gatherings was “across the board” in response to a question about the extent of the ban.

“There’s no gatherings of any kind, including weddings, parties, birthday parties,” DeRosa said. “That was a directive. It’s not a recommendation.”

To be sure, Orthodox Jews are not the governor’s focus. On Sunday, Cuomo said that New York City would have 24 hours to address crowding in public places, after he visited the city and saw people playing recreational sports and gathering in groups, particularly in parks. In a press conference Monday morning, Cuomo singled out younger people who he said were gathering too often and not taking social distancing seriously.

“It’s reckless and it’s violative of the spirit and your duty as a citizen, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Yossi Gestetner, a public relations executive and the director of OJPAC, a group that uses public data to counter negative narratives about Orthodox Jews, said that if the rules allow for the kind of behavior specified by Cuomo, they allow for minyans as well.

“If for a guy from Manhattan it means doing exercise, and for this guy it means having a socially-distanced minyan in a park, then so be it,” he said.

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


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