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There’s a Way to Avert the Looming Coronavirus Crisis in Hasidic Brooklyn. But the City Needs to Choose It Right Now.

Religious Jews are about to celebrate Simchat Torah, one of the calendar’s most joyous holidays, typically filled with singing and dancing. It’s a virus spike waiting to happen, unless the city reconsiders its broken approach and charts a new course with the community. Here’s how.

Yair Rosenberg
October 08, 2020
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Groups of protesters gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, on Oct. 7, 2020 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Groups of protesters gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, on Oct. 7, 2020 Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, an ugly spectacle unfolded in Borough Park. Riled up by extremist activists and craven local politicians, a mob of mostly ultra-Orthodox Jewish men publicly burned masks to protest the city’s coronavirus regulations. Worse, they physically attacked ultra-Orthodox counterdemonstrators, sending one of them to the hospital. The next night, egged on by far-right talk show host Heshy Tischler, the mob menaced multiple Jewish journalists. These were despicable and indefensible displays. But as frightening as they were, they’re only a taste of what might happen this weekend.

That’s because Saturday night and Sunday are Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday which celebrates the annual completion of the reading of the Torah. Per Jewish law and custom, the festivities take the form of circle dancing with the Torah scroll, in an hourslong affair known as hakafot. Normally one of the happiest observances of the traditional Jewish year, this time it could be one of the deadliest. After all, it is painfully easy to see how such close-quarters physical exertion coupled with raucous singing is tailor-made for supercharging the spread of an airborne respiratory virus.

This impending holiday would be less of a concern if ultra-Orthodox communities were universally following the city’s coronavirus guidance. But many of them are not. And while the responsibility for this conduct clearly rests foremost with them, the city has done everything it can to ensure that its entreaties go unheard and its declarations are rejected. This is not responsible governance, and it could cost people their lives.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, if the city acts quickly and responsibly. To do so, however, NYC officials will have to explicitly and decisively reject the ineffective and questionable approach they have recently taken toward these fervently religious Jewish communities. Rather than shutting them down, they need to create a pathway for these Jews to celebrate their holy day in a safe manner that limits the likely spread of coronavirus. By working with the Hasidic communities rather than against them, and treating them as partners rather than as problems, the city can change the trajectory of this looming disaster. Let me explain how.

Before we continue, let’s be clear about a few things: Too many in the ultra-Orthodox population are not following the rules, and that is on them, not the city. But the purpose of public policy is to achieve the best possible outcomes for a polity, regardless of who is at fault. And right now, that policy is broken.

It’s also important to understand that achieving greater compliance in the ultra-Orthodox community will not fix the city’s current predicament. Why? Because despite what you may have heard from public officials or the media, this latest coronavirus spike is not a specifically ultra-Orthodox problem. As Bklyner’s editor Liena Zagare has argued, the NYC ZIP codes with rising infection rates are far from exclusively Jewish neighborhoods—what actually unites them, Jewish and not, is that the areas voted for Trump and are uniquely susceptible to his misinformation about the virus. “Those of us residing ‘south of the park’ know full well—this rise is not just because of what some of our Haredi neighbors did or did not do,” writes Zagare. Hasidim are just an easy scapegoat for this broader political problem because they are both culturally different and more visible.

My area of expertise, however, is the Jewish community, and so my advice to the city pertains to it. How can Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo effectively prevent Simchat Torah from turning into a superspreader event? It starts with recognizing the city’s original sin when it came to the pandemic in the ultra-Orthodox community and charting a different course.

On April 28, de Blasio infamously personally shut down an outdoor funeral attended by hundreds of Hasidim, and then took to Twitter to single them out for harsh public censure:

What you and most others probably do not know is that this funeral was actually coordinated with the city, and deliberately held outdoors to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread. The problems arose when more attendees showed up than expected, and too few were wearing masks, which weren’t sufficiently available. But instead of casting the funeral as a failure of execution and not intentions, the mayor decided to go nuclear on the Hasidic community—and the city has paid the price ever since.

Compare this to de Blasio’s reaction to the mass outdoor racial justice protests that roiled the city just weeks later and involved many more people—some masked, some not, few socially distanced: “I think we just have to keep in perspective history,” he told reporters. “We’re seeing a social movement growing before our very eyes that’s addressing 400 years of oppressive reality in this country … This movement has developed organically. It’s huge, it’s urgent. You have to recognize a historical moment and allow some space.” He later joined one of the demonstrations himself, and addressed the cameras without a mask and without social distancing between himself and fellow protesters.

Obviously, de Blasio’s oversight of the NYPD—or lack thereof—undercut his message in practice, but the stark difference between his public treatment of these non-Jewish outdoor gatherings and Hasidic outdoor gatherings could not have been clearer. And the contrast was not lost on the ultra-Orthodox communities themselves, who quickly determined that the city was simply arrayed against them and not interested in addressing their legitimate concerns. Once those precious lines of communication and trust were broken, the worst inexorably followed. De Blasio never addressed the discrepancy, and the ultra-Orthodox community—which was decimated in the Holocaust and is traditionally distrustful of governmental authorities—observed this perceived double standard, drew their conclusions, and discounted further city admonitions.

At his daily press conference on Oct. 7, Gov. Cuomo asserted that “to the extent that the community is upset, that’s because they haven’t been following the rules. That’s why we are where we are.” But this is not the whole story. They are upset because they have been asked to follow different rules than others. They are upset because they have been inadvertently scapegoated by the governor himself, including with a 14-year-old photo of a Hasidic funeral presented this week as a current coronavirus violation. The city and state need to own up to this failure on their part if they are going to reestablish trust and effective lines of communication with these people. Cuomo and de Blasio—both of them, one of them, or anyone in a New York governmental capacity—need to publicly acknowledge prior mistakes, and present a new collaborative approach.

Either people are permitted to hold mass gatherings outdoors with chanting while masked, or they are not. It does not depend on what they are chanting.

What would this look like? It would mean responding to Simchat Torah the way that the city failed to respond to the outdoor funeral in April. Instead of castigating the entire community and setting up an adversarial dynamic, city officials should apologize for doing that in the past, and say that they do not want to shut down ultra-Orthodox life, but rather work assiduously with the community to make it possible for them to exercise their religious rights within safe parameters. This can absolutely be done for Simchat Torah, even at this late date. Many congregations already have the practice of doing one or more of the hakafot around the Torah outside in the streets. Under coronavirus, this should be how all the hakafot and services are done. NYPD officers should be dispatched to synagogues in affected areas—not to shut them down, but to provide security, distribute masks, and help with the outdoor logistics. This may be a big lift for government, but it is what government is for: to ensure people’s rights while protecting their safety.

It does not matter if one cannot personally see the value in a Simchat Torah celebration or the funeral of a beloved rabbi as one does in a racial justice protest. For the ultra-Orthodox, the holiday is a religious obligation—vital to their Jewish observance and a mandatory component of their service of God. But in any case, in a democracy, rights are not dependent on a person’s viewpoint. Either people are permitted to hold mass gatherings outdoors with chanting while masked, or they are not. It does not depend on what they are chanting. The city needs to make this explicit, both because it is right and because it can avert bad outcomes if they do it in time.

Right now, though, rather than engaging with these communities as equals, the city is attempting to bludgeon them into compliance through blunt force measures. Aside from the fact that this provokes predictable (but again, utterly indefensible) reactions from radicals in the ultra-Orthodox community, this approach fails to surgically target the real root of the problem, often hitting the compliant while overlooking the violators.

I know this from personal experience. My father, Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, is neither Hasidic nor ultra-Orthodox. But he is the rabbi of a modern Orthodox synagogue in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens—one of the affected ZIP codes. He is also a cancer patient. Unsurprisingly, he and his congregation have been scrupulously careful throughout the pandemic. Back in early March, my father shuttered the synagogue, weeks before the city announced its own official lockdown. (When later asked by a local Jewish news outlet why he presciently closed before others in the area did, he told them, “My son urged me to close, and I’m in an at-risk category ... His [journalistic] training and instincts told him that it was going to blow up the way that it did,” which may be the one verifiable time my work has done tangible real-world good.) Once the city determined that it was safe for religious institutions to reopen in a limited fashion, my dad’s shul still held off, and only later implemented a meticulous plan involving outdoor services, attendance limits, mandatory masking, and distancing. As a result, the synagogue has had no outbreaks, including over the High Holidays. Throughout, my father has publicly written in favor of masking and distancing in the local community and advocated for it within rabbinic organizations.

And yet, this weekend his synagogue will nonetheless be largely shuttered for the holiday because city officials have drawn a red line around particular blocks in Queens that encompass his compliant synagogue building, while leaving out other synagogues that everyone in the area knows have actually been flouting restrictions.

My father has already informed his congregants of the new rules, and they fully intend to comply. He told me that he sees this as the city honestly attempting to finesse an impossible predicament. I would argue, though, that this case shows that the city’s basic lack of cultural competency ensures that its restrictions will not actually solve the problem they are intended to address. When it comes to effective interventions, experts agree that there is simply no substitute for engaging with the communities themselves, rather than dictating to them from a distance. This principle holds true beyond the Jewish community. Only by working with communities—treating them as partners, not problems—will the city have a chance at achieving the desired outcomes. This approach won’t work for the most extreme pockets of anti-government and anti-mask sentiment, where more draconian options are unavoidable—people like far-right extremist Heshy Tischler are frankly a public menace at this point. But too often, such harsh measures have been the first resort, not the last, imposed on the innocent and guilty alike.

With Simchat Torah on the horizon, we can no longer afford what has become an increasingly combustible standoff between the ultra-Orthodox and the city. If Cuomo and de Blasio can swallow their pride and legitimate indignation at the noncompliance in the ultra-Orthodox sector, publicly apologize for their own failures, and ask the community to meet them in the middle, they may yet stave off the worst.

But time is running out. Every minute wasted not publicly broadcasting this new message increases the likelihood that it won’t be heard. If the city wants to avert disaster, it needs to change course—and fast.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.