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A family watches as groups of protesters gather in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, on Oct. 7, 2020Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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Reflections on the Orthodox Community and the Corona Crisis

Unfair treatment from city and state officials is no excuse for rabbis and activists to spread division and misinformation about a deadly virus

Hershel Billet
October 13, 2020
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A family watches as groups of protesters gather in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, on Oct. 7, 2020Spencer Platt/Getty Images

From far away Israel, I am deeply concerned about events in New York City. Some (not most) of the Orthodox Jews in Borough Park and Flatbush are out of control and are a threat to our Orthodox community.

It is true that Mayor Bill de Blasio is very inconsistent. He allowed huge Black Lives Matter protests with no enforced social distancing and no masks, and at the same time, he came down hard on Orthodox Jews for the very sins he both allowed and committed. It is also true that Gov. Andrew Cuomo irresponsibly caused so many people to die by putting COVID patients in nursing homes and exposing a very vulnerable population to the terrible illness.

That does not justify the horrible behavior of late of Heshy Tischler, who was caught using a racial epithet about African Americans and screaming irresponsibly about Orthodox Jews being persecuted. He was standing in a crowd that was deliberately defying the rules about staying socially distanced and wearing masks. Tischler compared asking Orthodox Jews to follow the law to an act of war. The Jewish communities of Borough Park and Flatbush should have higher standards in their choice of leaders and spokesmen.

Then we have Rabbi Hillel Handler (whose YouTube video has had thousands of views) who uses vile Nazi names like Goering and Mengele and attributes them to a Jewish doctor and to local politicians he does not like. He then chooses to play doctor by dismissing mainstream medical protocols like masks and social distancing. Worse yet, he prescribes medicines and vitamin supplements and misleads gullible people. He says that we are suffering from a “soft pogrom.” He is a demagogue and a dangerous man.

It is time that we look at ourselves. The ZIP codes of many of the areas in NYC with the worst spike of coronavirus cases are populated by Orthodox Jews. The same is true in Nassau County. Lawrence, Cedarhurst, and Woodmere have the highest number of COVID cases in the county. Instead of pointing fingers at others, we must look in the mirror. Along with our synagogues and yeshivas that are being shut down in New York City, there are churches and public schools in those neighborhoods that are subject to closure as well. We bear some responsibility. And our non-Jewish neighbors know it.

Regretfully, we have allowed anti-Semites to use our behavior as an excuse for their hatred. It is time to fix ourselves before we complain. Let us smell the coffee before it is too late.

Upon further reflection, I want to make some additional points. This pandemic is something that no one was prepared for. Every leader has had to learn as they tried to lead. When operating on an untraveled map, it is reasonable that at times, leadership makes well-meaning errors. At this point, however, it seems that the governor and the mayor have been too draconian with the Orthodox Jewish community. And they have exercised inexcusably poor judgment.

Mayor de Blasio’s choice of words singling out Orthodox Jews as a group has been inappropriate. This started many months ago. He has been flagrantly inconsistent in his own personal behavior and in the way he has treated other groups in our city. His actions have been divisive and unbefitting the office of mayor of the city of New York. Gov. Cuomo seemed to be leading responsibly at the beginning of the crisis. Then he made a horrific error by housing COVID patients in nursing homes. He can justify his poor judgment all he wants, but his actions caused the death of many helpless people. After the fact, instead of taking responsibility, he dismissed the concerns about this expressed by the owner of a nursing home. His recent use of a 14-year-old picture from a crowded funeral to falsely demean the Orthodox community is outrageous. He has been a big disappointment.

On the other hand, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has been exemplary. She led a very successful rally against anti-Semitism. She understands the unfair consequences that are caused by irresponsible “representatives” of the Jewish community. As a political leader, her words are measured and her actions always speak loudly. That is why Nassau County is one of the best governed counties in the United States during the pandemic.

None of the city- and state-level poor governance excuses the behavior of people like Tischler, who has fanned the flames of mob violence in the Orthodox community. Irresponsible behavior does not earn a person the title “activist.” By the same measure, Rabbi Handler’s demagoguery is dangerous and misleading.

There are responsible elected officials, Jewish and non-Jewish, who represent the Orthodox community well. An activist like Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel understands the art of statesmanship, does diligent research, speaks and writes deliberately and intelligently, and is a dignified and principled advocate for our community. Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, a distinguished infectious diseases physician, has served honorably as an important bridge between the medical community and the Orthodox community.

It is also important to acknowledge the difficulties that individuals, families, and children have experienced during lockdown. Businesses, especially those who have been shut down or forced to reduce their workforce, have been dramatically impacted. Many families are suffering financial distress. This creates tremendous pressure on families who just want to earn an honest living and be self-sufficient.

Lockdown also has serious emotional ramifications. Marriages have been tested. Elderly people, and also younger people who live alone, have been isolated for too long. People with preexisting psychological struggles have experienced flare-ups causing extra stress, and even at times, danger to themselves and their families.

Children need to be engaged socially and educationally; the structure of school and regular after-school activities is part of what keeps children feeling safe and secure, and part of what helps families function well. Zoom is a great tool, but it falls way short of compensating for in-person learning and engagement.

We are often too quick to rush to judgment of our fellow citizens and community members. It is something that many of us (myself included) are guilty of. It is true that sometimes irresponsible behavior must be judged. But at times we are too quick to judge, as we never know what is at play beneath the surface. For example, if a parent decides to allow a child to have a play date in violation of the technical lockdown rules, it may be because that child is suffering terrible emotional trauma that, as outsiders, we are not privy to. In such a case, the parent made a therapeutic and personal decision in their specific extenuating circumstances. Jumping to judgment can lead to unnecessary divisiveness and conflict. That is never good, and in the current climate, it is especially bad.

Lockdown is very trying. It may be the best way we presently know to lower the curve. It is also difficult to enforce. Currently, for our own safety and the safety of others, we must comply. But, we should be understanding of the frustration that it creates for many people and the need at times for special exemptions.

One further note in the days just after Hoshana Rabbah, our final day of judgment. We must remember: masks, social distancing, and regular sanitizing of our hands. We must be honest about ourselves, our own shortcomings, and the errors in our communal behavior that have directly or indirectly generated unfair criticism and consequences at times and deserved negative feedback at other times. We also must try to find a way to try to hear each other and work together so the precious fabric of our communal life stays intact. That is our greatest weapon against the virus.

Hershel Billet was Rabbi of Young Israel of Woodmere for 40 years and recently retired. He is a past President of the Rabbinical Council of America and a member of The President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.