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In Borough Park, an anti-shutdown protest turns into a pro-Trump rally — and a journalist is assaulted

The religious Jews of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood often pour into the streets during the harvest holiday of Sukkot to dance with Torahs in a celebration called “Simchat Beit HaShoeva,” a ritual having to do with rainfall.

On Wednesday night, they danced along Borough Parks’s 13th Avenue holding Trump flags.

Heshy Tischler, a community agitator and candidate for New York City Council, drew a crowd for the second night in a row to protest new social-distancing restrictions that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have imposed on the neighborhood and eight other ZIP codes with at least double the city’s positivity rate for coronavirus. And though he promised no violence after a counter-protester on Tuesday was beaten to the point of critical injuries, a Hasidic journalist was hit in the head, kicked and berated as a “Nazi” during Wednesday’s gathering of more than 300.

“Here is my army!” Tischler said Wednesday night pointing to the crowd that included Haredi — or ultra-Orthodox — Jews of all ages, some from outside the neighborhood. “We’re gonna fight back. This is our city, our town, our country.”

Tischler is not a rabbi, scholar or elected official, but he has emerged as a popular figure in this deeply religious neighborhood because its usual leaders have not been able to manage their communities’ resentment against the news media and government officials they see as biased against them, or even antisemitic.

“Community leaders all have their issues with standing up to the government,” said one protester, Avraham Mintz, who lives in Borough Park. “They don’t want to fight with Cuomo and de Blasio. So Tischler stood up and said, ‘I’m just going to stand up and scream.’”

Tishler had put out the call via social media and WhatsApp for people to find him at 13th Avenue and 50th Street at 9 p.m. The crowd included many young families with strollers, some grandfathers wearing masks, and teenaged boys from yeshivas in nearby neighborhoods, eager to see what would unfold. Women and girls stood on the sidewalk, as men gathered in the middle of the street to listen to Tishler and also dance to religious music played on loudspeakers.

At the Borough Park protest.

At the Wednesday Borough Park protest, October 7. Image by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

After some protesters burned masks on Tuesday in a sign of defiance against the coronavirus restrictions, there was something of a concerted effort to show compliance with social distancing on Wednesday. Volunteers walked around handing out masks, and early into the festivities, some Hasidic teenage boys approached a news photographer and asked him to take pictures of them wearing masks.

The gathering was the place to be in a neighborhood unusually quieted for the holiday by the pandemic. “The boys are bored,” said one Hasidic mother who declined to give her name, pointing to the teenagers gathered in the street, rushing about in groups, clutching onto their kosher phones. “They didn’t have camp, they’re off from school now. This is all they have now.”

A teenage girl who said she was visiting from Israel, standing with a gaggle of girlfriends, also refused to identify herself to a reporter. “We’re here for both the protest and the party,” she said. “There’s not enough holiday action this year, so we came to see what’s happening here.”

Tuesday’s rally came a day after Cuomo’s announcement of new coronavirus restrictions that would essentially shut down the final weekend of the Jewish High Holidays in many of the state’s Orthodox communities. Synagogues are limited to 25% capacity with no more than 10 people inside, public and private schools have been ordered closed as of Friday, along with restaurants.

At that rally, protesters burned masks, and two people were attacked. One went to the hospital.

Tischler’s WhatsApp messages promised that Wednesday’s event would be peaceful, with no “violence, fires, etc.” The event was billed as a religious one, a “Simchat Beit HaShoeva,” or “rejoicing at the water-drawing house,” connected to the prayer for rain that starts at this time of year. But with President Trump hours earlier having released a video saying his having been ill with Covid-19 was a “blessing from God” and that he was cured, there was also a strong political overtone, as some of the dancers carried huge blue Trump 2020 banners.

Tishler, a gadfly who got 4% of the votes when he ran for City Council in 2017, has not issued demands or described specific goals for this new protest movement. He does say that he is running again in 2021 in the 48th District, which includes the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood and Sheepshead Bay — also subject to Cuomo’s new crackdown — but not Borough Park.

The coronavirus might have provided him with a new lease on political life, although it is not clear what he is going to do with it.

“He tapped into the vacuum of no leadership,” Jacob Kornbluh, a Hasidic Jew who, like Tischler, lives in Borough Park, and is a journalist for Jewish Insider, said in an interview earlier on Wednesday.

Kornbluh has previously sparked the community’s ire by calling out violations of social-distancing rules. Tischler threatened him in a video he tweeted on Wednesday during the day. And on Wednesday night, when he recognized Kornbluh among the journalists covering his rally, Tishcler sent the crowd to chase him down the street.

Kornbluh was hit in the head and kicked by protesters, who screamed “Nazi” and “Hitler” at him.

‘Charisma’ that is ‘unacceptable’

Most of Tischler’s neighbors are Hasidic, but he is not. He does not wear the community’s uniform for men of black and white clothing, or curled sidelocks.

He works as an “expediter,” who facilitates official permits and other paperwork for construction professionals, but he also runs a weekly call-in show on YouTube and Facebook. After studying in yeshiva, he served time in prison for immigration fraud. He ran for City Council, but got only 4% of the votes.

Yet since the summer, when he gained wide attention among Orthodox Jews for taking bolt cutters to the chains around playgrounds in Hasidic neighborhoods, his profile has been rising.

“I don’t understand, why only the Jews?” Tischler said in an interview Wednesday, expressing the widespread Orthodox conviction that Cuomo’s rules unfairly single out their communities. “We contribute to this country more than anybody else, so you will respect us.”

In recent weeks, as coronavirus cases have spiked in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn and other parts of the state, he has risen in prominence because religious and government leaders failed to explain that the community could open in the summer, but would likely need to shut down religious life again in the fall to accommodate a second wave, Kornbluh said.

“What they did is basically argue for a reopening process without communicating a message of adhering to certain measures: Wear a mask, social distance,” Kornbluh said.

The community also felt alienated by city workers and contact tracers, who Orthodox groups have suggested were culturally insensitive. The city admitted last month that it had only five Yiddish-speaking contact tracers on staff. “We have been targeted terribly,” said one Hasidic female protester at the Wednesday rally. “That’s what we are feeling right now.”

Tischler provides an appealing alternative.

“Heshy Tischler is popular because he has a certain charisma, a certain charm,” said Ezra Friedlander, a Borough Park resident and political consultant, adding that Tischler’s rhetoric is “totally unacceptable.”

And he expresses people’s anger for them.

“Coronavirus is a new flu, until God brings us a new virus,” said one Hasidic woman at the Wednesday night protest. “This is part of galus [exile]. People are gonna die and gonna live. If Hashem wants you to live, you live. If He wants you to die, you die.”

’Haters of Israel’

On Wednesday afternoon in Borough Park — between the two evening protests — life resumed as normal, with men carrying bags with prayer shawls, as well as the palm branches and etrog fruits that are used in prayer services during the harvest festival of Sukkot, which is this week.

Few in the neighborhood knew Tischler’s name, but the things they said demonstrate that he knows the grievances they harbor against both media and government.

At Amnon’s Kosher Pizza at 4814 13th Avenue, a man turned to a woman and warned her in Hebrew that there are “journalists, she should be careful,” pointing to a corner where TV stations were setting up. She turned to them and screamed, “Haters of Israel!”

“De Blasio and Cuomo hate us Jews,” said one Hasidic woman who declined to give her name.

Cuomo and de Blasio have repeatedly said that they are enacting the restrictions based solely on rates of positive coronavirus infection, which are highest in Orthodox areas.

In Borough Park, the rate was about 6% at the beginning of this week, according to state data. In Rockland and Orange Counties, rates are considerably higher: In Kiryas Joel, the Hasidic hub, positive test rates reached nearly 30%, the highest in the country. The New York state average is just above 1%.

Tischler maintains — without evidence — that those numbers are fake.

“These are not real tests,” he said of results from state-administered coronavirus tests.

Tischler’s comments reflect a widespread skepticism in the Orthodox world of the statistics on which the government is basing its shutdown of Orthodox areas. He suggested that the city’s testing machines are not giving accurate results, and that there are few people actually getting sick from contracting the coronavirus at the moment. Cuomo has said that hospitalizations are rising.

Orthodox organizations should do their own testing, privately, and report their results to the state, Tischler said.

“Let me do the testing,” he added. “My tests are negative.”

‘Just like the president’

Tischler can also seem louder than he actually is.

Some who also identify as Orthodox have excoriated him for speaking in their name.

His Twitter account has under 1,000 followers, and only 790 people watched a recent show on YouTube from September.

But his videos are shared widely on WhatsApp, where he occupies a role once played by one of his inspirations, Donald Trump, as the community’s outspoken id who tells it like it is.

Tischler said Trump’s return to the White House after being hospitalized for COVID-19, and the president’s claims of recovering from the disease, had inspired him to protest the new restrictions. Tischler also downplayed the deadliness of the coronavirus, claiming without evidence that Orthodox Jews who died from COVID-19 more often died from poor hospital care than the disease itself.

“When I’m on the street, I don’t have to wear a mask, just like the president,” he said.

Protests in the Hasidic community are not new, especially in response to what the community sees as government or police excess. But the tenor of the Tuesday night protest was new, according to Dov Hikind, a longtime political representative of Borough Park.

“Nothing like this has ever, ever transpired. Jew attacking Jew, and the crowd joins in, and the rest of the crowd doesn’t do anything?” Hikind said, referring to the man who had been attacked. “It’s shameful, it’s embarrassing.”

Since Tischler seized the moment created by Cuomo’s new rules, other Orthodox leaders have tried to do what Hikind recommends.

On Wednesday, Aron Wieder, a Rockland County legislator representing the Hasidic hub of Monsey, released a video urging his community to continue to distance and wear masks, not for Cuomo’s sake, but because it adheres to Jewish values that promote saving a life over religious obligations.

“When people lose trust in government, chaos happens,” Wieder said in an interview. “I was trying to mitigate that by acknowledging” the community’s anger at Cuomo.

So far, Tischler’s political strategy seems to be more about amplifying anger than mitigating it. ‘

Some of the protesters were grateful to him for his community organizing. “I don’t know what he’s doing but he opened our parks for our kids, and now he organized this,” said one Hasidic mother, pointing to the young men dancing in the street. “He is saying that it’s time for us to get out and show we have a voice, too.”

Life is dangerous for Jews who behave, Tischler said.

“We tried to follow the laws and the governor and mayor still came after us. My father is a concentration camp survivor,” Tischler said. “We were quiet then, and we behaved. Not anymore.”

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