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Coronavirus is no excuse to demonize Haredim

In the endless stream of stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, an unsettling sub-plot has been the actions, or lack thereof, of various Haredi groups in the New York metropolitan area. Reports of a swarm of positive test results in Borough Park and Williamsburg have raised fears of a cluster outbreak, triggered by a small number of “super spreaders.” Meanwhile, a local doctor in Orange County, upstate, posted a video in which he suggested, on the basis of nine positive test results, that 90% of the population of the Satmar Hasidic municipality Kiryas Joel, also known as KJ, would get coronavirus. And various news outlets have reported that one of the two Satmar rebbes, Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum in Kiryas Joel, has tested positive for the virus.

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The ostensible reason for such high rates of infection in the Haredi community is a fatal mix of factors: very large families living in close quarters, frequent movement between communities in Brooklyn and KJ, a slow response by community officials to close down religious and educational institutions, large daily gatherings to pray and celebrate ritual events (weddings and bar mitzvahs), and a communal taboo on use of social media.

I even heard from friends in Kiryas Joel as late as Tuesday that a wedding was taking place that night, albeit on a reduced scale: “only” 50 men and 50 women as guests. This came in the wake of the phone call by White House Jewish community liaison, Avi Berkovitz, that prompted leading Haredi rabbis to take steps to impose new strictures.

Following that call, the all-important volunteer ambulance service Hatzolah in Kiryas Joel issued a stern edict, with the support of Aharon Teitelbaum, calling for the closure of all schools and shuls in the Village. This was the first time that such a call was made since Kiryas Joel was formally incorporated as a village in 1977.

As these reports have spread on social media, I’ve seen a good deal of comments of the “I told you so” variety: These people, it is said, blithely ignore modern science and common sense. They place their irrational religious beliefs and practices above the most up-to-date medical advice.

And I’ve seen worse, too. I’ve seen people writing that Haredim are unhygienic and don’t know how to take care of their children, that they are more than willing to endanger public health to satisfy their own customs, such as assembling for large gatherings in the days of pandemic. Indeed, people say, isn’t this what happened with last year’s measles outbreak, when Haredi officials lined up against vaccinations?

It is true that some of the Haredi world’s leading representatives have been dilatory on the COVID crisis. To wit, Aharon Teitelbaum said earlier last week before the shut-down in KJ that the outside world doesn’t “understand what a Jewish family is. It’s crowded at home, there’s barely any room, beds are placed wherever there’s room, there’s no gentile entertainment (i.e., TV or video games) and if the kids are sent home there’s no room at home so they’ll wander around in the streets and people will gather together anyway, so nothing would be accomplished anyway.”

But there is also a great deal of misinformation and exaggeration about Haredi society, as well as unfair comparisons to the world beyond. Here are some of the questionable assumptions worth revisiting:

Haredim are not less hygienic or healthy than others. They tend to wash more, not less, than the average American, as mandated by religious law and habit.

Haredim are also not indifferent to or ignorant of medical science. KJ residents are extremely discerning consumers about medical care, who can direct Hatzolah drivers to take them to the best hospital for their condition in the metropolitan area or even beyond. Thus, while some Haredi leaders did oppose vaccinating children for measles, the Satmar community is wholly supportive of vaccines. One of the two main Satmar newspapers, Der Yid, even published an editorial in English in April 2019 calling on all “to stop the foolishness that penetrated to a small percentage of observant Jews not to vaccinate their children which led to the spread of the measles outbreak.”

It’s true that Haredim do in fact live in close proximity to each other. But the claim by a local doctor that 90% of Kiryas Joel would be infected was deemed “highly irresponsible” by Dr. Irina Gelman, the Orange County health commissioner. Not only was it based on an inaccurate number of residents in KJ, but it was a farfetched extrapolation of the nine positive cases reported at the time.

While Kiryas Joel was somewhat late to close down its institutions — the Hatzolah ad was reported on Wednesday and was followed the next day by an emergency declaration from town administrator Gedalye Szegedin — they still came before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is exhibiting exemplary leadership, announced his own lockdown for residents of the state on Friday.

According to recent reports, the streets of KJ are largely empty. While a small number of residents of Kiryas Joel gather in parking lots at the appropriate distance to pray together, most residents have chosen to remain in their homes and pray there, including on the most recent Sabbath.

Still, we should not overstate the case: Haredim, because of their family size, living arrangements, social relations, and religious needs, are at a higher risk of infection. The time has to come for all responsible parties in the Haredi world to declare that the Jewish principle of pikuah nefesh — the imperative to save a life — overrides almost all regular ritual practices.

At the same time, we should also avoid the opportunity to cast Haredim in sensationalist terms as foreign and dangerous threats to our well-being.

Haredim are people too. Just as we should maintain social distancing, we should also limit social stigmatizing in this trying time.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA and is the author, with Nomi Stolzenberg, of a forthcoming book on Kiryas Joel, New York.


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