Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Yes, there’s an Orthodox COVID uptick. De Blasio and Cuomo are making it worse.

Orthodox communities in New York and New Jersey are in the midst of a COVID uptick. That much is undeniable. But what is also undeniable is that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are botching the response, singling out Jews for the convenience and pleasure of antisemites.

These are politicians with long-standing relationships and a deep familiarity with the communities suffering from the uptick — relationships that if they wanted, could serve them in good stead. Cuomo and de Blasio have in the past communicated effectively with the Orthodox and Haredi communities.

That they are choosing not to do so now is painful. Worse, it means that their measures — viewed as unfair and punitive by a community that used to trust them — are doomed to fail, which will result in even more people getting sick.

Nobody doubts that there needs to be some intervention and a shift in how Orthodox and Haredi communities are “dealing with” COVID-19. What worked throughout the summer, when infection rates were low in these communities, is clearly not working now that rates are climbing again.

But there is a way to go about accomplishing that shift. This moment calls for engagement with community leaders. It calls for seeking to chart a way forward together in a responsible and achievable way. This is a moment to call upon those old relationships, using personal social capital to get everyone on the same page and beat back the coronavirus together.

Instead, Cuomo and de Blasio have chosen to single out Orthodox and Haredi Jews for punitive measures. On Sunday, during the holiday of Sukkot when Orthodox Jews were offline, de Blasio announced a plan to unilaterally shutter all schools and nonessential businesses in the nine ZIP codes which are primarily home to Orthodox Jewish communities. That he chose to do so when Orthodox Jews are disconnected entirely from technology and media, was only the bitter icing on the horrible cake he presented to the community he used to represent.

Meanwhile, Cuomo chose to highlight Orthodox Jews in his daily press conference, going so far as to post photos of Hassidim gathered by the thousands — including one photo from 2006, as Jewish Insider reporter Jacob Kornbluh pointed out.

Pro-tip: When you’re trying to work with a community to make it safer for its residents, it’s best not to imply that the community’s members are all part of a single, interchangeable mass. That the photo wasn’t even taken in Brooklyn but in Kiryas Joel just added more insult to injury. (Hey, I guess we all look the same.)

But from the community’s point of view, this insult is not just devastating; it’s baffling.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” one community leader told me today. “We are talking about someone who knows this community well. He first ran for City Council in this community — and won with our support. He knows that the most important things for this community are our educational institutions — and he knows that can be used to impact social behavior. But he also knows that shutting them down like this accomplishes nothing.”

Nothing, it seems, except to burn every bridge he has ever had with the community.

This community leader would only speak to me on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the issues at hand and the need to continue to try and engage with the Mayor’s office. Other community leaders I spoke with would not even talk about it off the record, for the same reason. They are still hoping to turn the relationship around. But hope is wearing thin.

“It doesn’t help that the community looks at this and sees things which look entirely punitive, using collective punishment to single out the Hasidic and Orthodox community,” the community leader told me. “What does it tell people in the community when there are 20 ZIP codes where positivity is rising, and he only focuses on the ones we live in? What does it tell people when he decides to shutter businesses, but has no plan for helping the people who own and work in them, whose incomes are going to be impacted by his closures?”

It doesn’t make anyone safer; all it does is turn shutdowns into punishments.

After all, shutdowns by ZIP code don’t make any sense. People don’t choose the private schools they send their children to based on ZIP codes. People don’t work in their home ZIP code, or shop in the stores they patronize based on ZIP codes. If someone lives in one of the impacted areas, they can even in some cases cross the street and eat indoors in a restaurant.

What is the point of imposing ineffective, punitive measures on a community that is in desperate need of actual solutions, actual help? And why would leaders who the community trusts squander their political capital in this way, sewing a sense of being singled out and endangered and thrown to the antisemites?

Perhaps they are seeking to look like they are “tough” on COVID, showing that they are willing to “crack down” on any community. And who better to use to make the point than a community which is easily identifiable and with whom you have a long-standing relationship everyone knows about?

I hope this is not the case. But as I said, hope is wearing thin.

Just recently, during the prayers we recited on Rosh Hashanah, there was an incredibly meaningful verse from Jeremiah as a part of the Musaf Amidah. In the section of Zichronos — “remembrances,” we implore God to overlook the iniquities all too common throughout our conduct over the last year:

“Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said God: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride — how you followed Me in the wilderness of the desert, in a land which was not sown.” (Jeremiah 2:2) The commentaries explain that this passage highlights our long-standing relationship with God, as if we are saying to Him, “Yes, we may have acted irresponsibly now, and we are paying for it. But as you weigh what to do with us, consider our history together. When we followed You into the desert to receive the Torah at Sinai, it was at a time when nobody else would.”

I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot as our failures as a community are being held up as an example by leaders who we were once close with. It’s not too late for them to turn this around.

Eli Steinberg lives in New Jersey with his wife and five children. They are not responsible for his opinions, which he has been putting into words over the last decade, and which have been published across Jewish and general media. You can tweet the hottest of your takes at him @HaMeturgeman.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.