bp by the Forward

Why are the Orthodox protesting in the streets? And more of your questions, answered.

Orthodox Jews in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park marched in the streets Tuesday night into Wednesday morning in demonstrations that turned violent and ended with fires in the street and a man in the hospital.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why are Haredi Jews protesting?

Borough Park is one of the neighborhoods where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered public and private schools to temporarily close starting Friday because of a spike in cases of Covid-19. Like most of the neighborhoods, it is home to many Jews who are Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox.

Cuomo’s plan involves, in the areas most affected by the spikes, restricting synagogues to 25% capacity with a cap of 10 people; increasing fines for sponsors of mass gatherings to $15,000; and closing schools and restaurants.

Haredi lawmakers and residents have criticized Cuomo’s plan, as well as a plan by Mayor Bill de Blasio that overlapped with Cuomo’s and did not get state approval, saying they are unfairly targeting religious Jewish communities in Brooklyn without reason.

But Borough Park’s test-positivity rate for coronavirus was 8.6% on Monday, the highest in the city, according to the New York City health department. There are nine ZIP codes, including Borough Park, that have had Covid-19 test-positivity rates above 3% for at least seven consecutive days. Five of the nine have large Haredi or Russian-Jewish populations. Overall, New York City has a positivity rate of 1.5% and New York State has a positivity rate of 1.25% right now, said Cuomo at a Wednesday press conference.

The other areas experiencing spikes in New York state include Kiryas Joel, Forest Hills and Far Rockaway, Queens and New Square, all of which have substantial Orthodox Jewish populations, according to state data.

The U.S. as a whole has a positivity rate of 4.7%.

Orthodox leaders have also said the governor did not consult them ahead of his announcement.

A PowerPoint image Cuomo’s Monday presentation also generated backlash because the governor used a 2006 photo of a Hasidic rabbi’s funeral to illustrate “super-spreader events.”

Why are the protests happening now?

Weeks of anticipation and anxiety preceded the Jewish high holiday season that began with Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 18 and continues through the festival of Sukkot this week and Simchat Torah on Sunday. Some have attributed the spikes in Covid cases to the synagogue services held on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as large weddings, some indoors, in the weeks before.

Tuesday’s protest also followed the posting of a letter by four Haredi lawmakers: State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, State Sen. Simcha Felder, City Councilor Kalman Yeger and City Councilor Chaim Deutsch, who accused Cuomo of “a duplicitous bait-and-switch” and “irresponsible and pejorative rhetoric.” All four are Democrats who caucus with Republicans.

Tension between the community and the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations was also ratcheted up this spring, when large groups of Black Lives Matter protesters were not admonished, and in some cases were encouraged, by local and state government officials, while Orthodox funerals and weddings were broken up and criticized.

Heshy Tischler, a local activist who is running for City Council, organized Tuesday night’s protest.

Why did a Hasidic man get beat up?

Berish Getz, a Hasidic man who was attacked by the protesters and treated for critical injuries, was apparently beaten for filming and photographing the protest.

According to videos of the event circulated on social media, his attackers accused him of being a “muser,” or snitch in Yiddish, which is a powerful insult and call to action in the Haredi community.

Haredim, like members of other insular or religious communities, typically disapprove of insiders showing problems to the outside world. The pandemic has elevated the stakes — as the community continues to be criticized for gathering in large groups and not wearing masks, people who expose noncompliance are vilified and even threatened.

Mordy Getz, Berish’s brother, received death threats in April for calling out the community for a failure to abide by social-distancing guidelines.

Does President Trump have anything to do with this?

While he hasn’t weighed in on the Borough Park protest, President Trump did tweet on Wednesday about the New York Police Department breaking up a Sukkot celebration in Crown Heights.

The president has enjoyed widespread support among the Haredi Jews of New York, though they previously backed Democrats like Mayor de Blasio.

Why were demonstrators criticizing de Blasio, too?

While it’s Cuomo’s plan that is going into effect, de Blasio has emerged as a new foe to the Haredi Jews of Brooklyn during the coronavirus pandemic. Before March, the community enjoyed leniency on the requirement that religious yeshivas teach more secular subjects like English and science, and also won the mayor’s support on the issue of metzitzah b’peh, a circumcision ritual involving oral suction that can transmit herpes, in exchange for a reliable block vote.

But in March, after an infamous tweet by the mayor that called out “the Jewish community” for failures to social distance at a wedding, Haredi critics of the mayor have gotten louder and more numerous. In general, the issue of what some Haredi Jews see as uneven enforcement of health restrictions has galvanized members of the community who feel like they have been subject to extra scrutiny.

And while de Blasio’s plan this week to clamp down on the spikes in Brooklyn did not get state approval, it was another signal to some in the community that the relationship between the mayor and Haredi Jews in New York has changed.

Do Orthodox Jews protest often?

While this is the first time in recent years that a Haredi protest has turned violent in New York, the community turned out for a demonstration over the summer in Williamsburg, another Brooklyn neighborhood, to protest the closure of sleep away camps and parks due to the coronavirus.

And in Israel, clashes with law enforcement are more common. This week, 17 people were arrested in demonstrations by Haredim in Jerusalem. In July, Haredi residents of Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood protested the lockdown meant to prevent the spread of coronavirus. They set fires and threw stones and other objects at police officers in opposition to what they said was biased enforcement of coronavirus restrictions.

Borough Park is also no stranger to more violent demonstrations — in 2006, for example, a traffic stop erupted into chaos as protesters set a police car on fire.

Why are Orthodox Jews burning face masks?

When Haredi protesters burned masks at the demonstration in Borough Park, they were echoing others who have done so in protest across the United States. In North Carolina, a group advocating for the state’s reopening challenged Facebook users to “Burn Your Mask,” with the organization’s leader posting a video of her mask burning in a frying pan.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Americans wear masks in public settings when social distancing isn’t possible, mandates in states around the country have been met with resistance from people who say mask requirements are an infringement upon their personal liberties. (According to constitutional scholars, they’re not.)

This story has been updated to reflect new positivity rates announced at Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press conference Wednesday.


Molly Boigon

Molly Boigon

Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at boigon@forward.com or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon.

Why are the Orthodox protesting in the streets?

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