By treating Orthodox Jews as the enemy, Governor Cuomo made himself one.
On Tuesday morning, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo met with a group of Orthodox Jewish rabbis and community leaders. The meeting was intended to be, as Cuomo put it, a “good conversation” about the reasons he was placing restrictions on several New York City neighborhoods experiencing an uptick in positive cases of COVID-19. The governor had earlier announced he would be closing all schools in designated ZIP codes — heavily Haredi ZIP codes, as Cuomo took pains to note, pointedly and repeatedly. And community leaders welcomed the announcement of the conversation as a chance to explain to him why this was the wrong approach to lowering the spike in their neighborhoods.
There was no conversation. There was instead a “soliloquy,” as one participant put it. For the duration of their time with him, the governor spoke at a number of Orthodox and Haredi community leaders, and answered several softball questions. The very real concerns that were the reason these leaders showed up in the first place were not given time or space to be aired, much less discussed.
What these leaders could have explained to Governor Cuomo had he given them a chance is that in Orthodox communities, schools are not a luxury; they are “essential services.” They could have explained that subjecting areas with higher infection rates to draconian measures will only cause people in those areas to seek what they need in other areas. They could have explained that the uptick is roughly on par with statewide rates in Maryland and other places not generally viewed as viral hot zones.
Instead of listening to these concerns, Cuomo forced them to listen to him. And then, mere hours after this decidedly one-sided “meeting,” the governor announced without warning or explanation an astonishing edit: Prayer services in the designated areas would be limited to ten people per synagogue, church or mosque. He would also be increasing fines for sponsors of mass gatherings to $15,000, and closing schools and restaurants.
There is no denying that some in the community have grown lax regarding health precautions in Borough Park and nearby neighborhoods. The Haredi community had been hit hard by the virus in the spring, but as the curve flattened and infection rates plummeted, many were under the mistaken belief that the community had achieved herd immunity. Inconsistent masking and social distancing likely contributed to the heightened infection rate in the area.
Still, the vast majority of infections are causing only mild symptoms, if any at all. And the hospitalization rate is extremely low. Perhaps more importantly, the community immediately began ramping up its adherence to guidelines and regulations when the uptick was revealed.
In partnership with the Borough Park JCC, Agudath Israel of America (for which I work) held a mass face-mask distribution in southern Brooklyn, and distributed 400,000 masks. You read that right: 400,000 masks. And increased masking and distancing has clearly been more evident on the streets of the affected neighborhoods.
And that wasn’t all. The Conference of Synagogue Rabbis of Agudath Israel issued guidance to congregational rabbis from the organization’s highest rabbinical body, the Council of Torah Sages, about the importance of maintaining safe practices during the upcoming holiday of Simchat Torah, even though the health measures will greatly change the character of the fervent, festive celebration.
You might have expected the Governor to recognize, respect, and applaud these efforts. If you did, you would have been wrong.
Instead of a good will effort to build on these developments and engage community leaders in a meaningful discussion about which safety measures were in fact needed and doable and which would be overreaching and counterproductive, what descended from Albany was an act of gubernatorial fiat and hubris.
So it’s not surprising that the Haredi community has largely concluded that Gov. Cuomo is engaged not in a good-faith effort to protect them but in an attempt to punish an entire community because some parts of it have acted less than responsibly.
Punishment, needless to say, is not part of a governor’s role.
Reaction to the Albany Edict was swift and strong. Four Orthodox lawmakers representing the affected areas immediately issued a joint statement expressing the fact that they “are appalled by Gov. Cuomo’s words and actions today.” They went on to accuse the governor of having “chosen to pursue a scientifically and constitutionally questionable shutdown of our communities.”
Agudath Israel, in a highly uncharacteristic expression of outrage over a governmental action, called the governor’s sudden limits on worship “appalling to all people of religion and good faith.”
Nor was the sense of betrayal limited to Jewish representatives. Roman Catholic Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn called the new rules “outrageous.”
Perhaps the most unfortunate upshot of the governor’s recent act is the negative effect it could have on some members of the affected neighborhoods. They might well conclude that the government is an enemy, not an ally, and throw the baby of important safety measures out with the bathwater of political machinations; indeed, last night’s protest, which included burning masks, suggests this is in the air.
Agudath Israel, in its statement of outrage over the governor’s action, took pains to warn against reacting to events by not masking or properly socially distancing. “A final message to our community,” read the statement. “We have considerable concerns that Gov. Cuomo’s capricious actions will weaken compliance with good health practices. We cannot allow our — perhaps justifiable — anger at government to imperil our neighbors’ health.”
It is highly unlikely that shuls in Brooklyn, particularly those with occupancy rates of hundreds, will heed the state’s commandment to limit their prayer services to ten people. If the Governor orders police to try to enforce his decree, he will only add insult to injury. It is a time to be reasonable, not to escalate tensions.
We are all in this crisis together. The way out of it must be through working together, too.
Avi Shafran is a columnist for Ami Magazine, blogs at rabbiavishafran.com and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs.