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Cuomo, de Blasio Scapegoat Exasperated Jewish Communities in Brooklyn for Coronavirus Spike

Grandstanding politicians and densely packed devout communities do a dance of mutual incomprehension, Sukkot festivities and schools are shut down

Armin Rosen
October 05, 2020
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
People shop in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg in New York City, Oct. 1, 2020 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
People shop in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg in New York City, Oct. 1, 2020 Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York City has announced plans to close all schools and possibly all nonessential businesses in nine ZIP codes, most of them in areas with large Jewish populations. In Hasidic neighborhoods, such a shutdown would cripple the local economy, send schoolchildren back to crowded apartments, and effectively ban the large tisches—or festive sukkah gatherings with major rabbinic figures—that are one of the highlights of the holiday of Sukkot. Outdoor holiday festivities that would normally take over 13th Avenue in Borough Park for Sukkot and Simchat Torah have already been canceled, as have similar events in Crown Heights.

Other disruptions to normal life lie ahead. In an Oct. 5 press conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo blamed many of the state’s new hot spots on illicit mass gatherings of Orthodox Jews. “Orthodox Jewish gatherings often are very, very large and we’ve seen what one person can do in a group,” Cuomo said. As proof of recent Jewish rule-breaking, the governor displayed a picture of a Satmar funeral from 2006. The consequences of the spike would begin immediately. “We’re gonna close the schools in those areas tomorrow. And that’s that,” said Cuomo.

The governor also claimed he would immediately begin the process of closing synagogues, something that his downstate foil, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, apparently lacked the courage to do himself. “The city’s proposal does not close religious institutions. We know religious institutions have been a problem. We know mass gatherings are the superspreader events. We know there have been mass gatherings going on in concert with religious institutions in these communities for weeks—for weeks.” Cuomo declared that in order to remain open, Orthodox leaders, who he said he would meet with the next day, would have to agree that their shuls would adhere to social distancing rules and then cooperate with a new state-level enforcement task force which would deputize local-level health and law enforcement personnel. His timeline for the creation of the task force, and for the state issuing permission for synagogues in hot spot ZIP codes to operate, was notably vague.

The closure threat has been a gift to local demagogues. “The spike at 11219 and 11204 ZIP codes are a fake spike” claimed Heshy Tischler, an increasingly popular former City Council candidate, last seen bolt-cutting open locked parks during the tail end of New York’s initial “pause.” “The Jews have been very complacent” added Tischler, shortly after he issued a condemnation of “Fuhrer de Blasio” during an interview last week. “We’re easy targets,” he said of Borough Park’s Jews. “Our leaders are mice. They’re people that are scared of actually leading.”

There are other, less abrasive attempts underway at addressing the shutdown threat. Last Wednesday, a Yiddish-language notice from the Aaron faction of the Satmar Hasidic movement in Williamsburg urged: “We very much ask that anyone who feels ‘100% healthy and strong’ should, for God’s sake, come to take a test and thereby save the situation. The test takes only a second, it is only a short swab in the nose, and you can thereby save the institutions and study houses, as well as Jewish livelihoods.” Similar messages circulated on multiple Bobover Hasidic WhatsApp groups in Borough Park.

One shouldn’t be too quick to judge this apparent attempt to juke the stats: A coronavirus test is a small inconvenience to endure for preserving one’s way of life, especially since New Yorkers have been told for months now that any and all testing is a net benefit to public health. “All New Yorkers should get tested now, whether or not you have symptoms or are at increased risk,” according to the city’s online COVID information portal.

Phone calls warning of a possible Sukkot shutdown went out from heads of educational institutions in Borough Park just before Shabbat began on Sept. 25, two days before Yom Kippur. According to sources in the Brooklyn neighborhood’s Jewish community, the message that Tablet was able to hear, from Rabbi and Beis Yaakov Principal Menachem Frank, was typical. “I just got off of a conference call with administrators, askonim [communal leaders], assemblymen, about the real, dire threat of a Department of Health closing of mosdos [religious institutions] in our ZIP codes,” said Frank. “The threat is real, and there’s one thing that City Hall is saying will change their course of action, and that is a communal show of compliance. They’re asking us to wear masks in public.”

Interestingly, Frankel hinted that religious authorities wouldn’t be an automatic ally in this fight for mask-wearing. “Please take this announcement seriously, please pass it on to your rabbonim, to your rosh yeshiva, to your rebbes—perhaps they should make it a focus point of the Shabbos Shuva drasha [sermon].” He closed with a statement that few Jews on the planet could disagree with by now, one which was also a warning: “I don’t believe klal Yisrael is ready for another severe lockdown.”

The message sums up the weirdness surrounding the increases in coronavirus cases in Jewish areas of New York City. The spike is too slight to be glimpsable in everyday life—at least for now. What city authorities seemed to want last week, as the positive test rate climbed, was a mass act of disease theater such as the wearing of masks outdoors—where the risk of viral spread is comparatively low. Then again, as Frankel hints, the New York City government treated such public theater as ipso facto proof that the virus was being taken seriously—and so is the media. As The New York Times reported on Oct. 4, “In Borough Park, part of New York’s Hasidic Jewish heartland, visits last month revealed that masks were almost absent from the crowded streets.”

At the same time, contra Tischler, the climb isn’t anyone’s invention, even if it’s modest for the time being. Borough Park, Midwood, Far Rockaway, and Kew Gardens have positive test rates hovering between 3.5% and 6%, which is dramatically higher than most of the rest of New York City—but roughly on par with statewide rates in Maryland and a host of other places typically not viewed as viral hot zones (“Our hot spot ZIP codes are where many states are,” Cuomo noted in his Oct. 5 remarks). Midwood, Borough Park, and Bensonhurst have combined for 1,012 cases over the past four weeks, about the same number that tested positive statewide on a typical day during the last week of September.

Residents of Borough Park generally do not see or feel the uptick. The sirens that terrorized the Brooklyn soundscape for much of March and April are nowhere to be heard. Last week, lulavim and etrogim were for sale on 13th Avenue and sukkahs were under construction. As Borough Park-based Rabbi Steven Frankel notes, WhatsApp groups are not being lit up with davening requests for the sick, as they were in March and April. “I think maybe I saw three names to daven for,” Frankel said of the messages he received last Thursday. “Back then, at any given time, there were lists of hundreds of people.”

The bump in positive test results does not seem to be a function of the number of tests administered, or of mass testing uncovering asymptomatic cases, or of self-selecting symptomatic patients returning a higher percentage of positives. At 4,700 per 100,000, Borough Park has among the lowest per capita testing rates in New York City over the past two weeks, with 4.92% positivity. Then again, the central Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill has an even lower rate of 4,300 per 100,000 but with only 1.3% positivity. Nearby Midwood, another Jewish stronghold, has a respectable test rate of slightly over 8,000 per 100,000—while returning a positivity rate slightly higher than Borough Park’s.

The statistics hint that the public health consequences of the COVID spike aren’t being felt yet in hospitals: Citywide, respiratory-related emergency room visits are actually down compared to the first week of September, as are hospital admissions per 100,000 residents resulting from these visits. Total COVID hospitalizations hovered in the mid-to-high 20s for the entire month and were at 31 as of Oct. 2.

But with the coronavirus, present calm is no guarantee that disaster isn’t looming. The disease spreads asymptomatically, and it can take weeks to hospitalize or kill its victims. And regardless of their religious or ethnic background, human beings are often loathe to project imminent catastrophe onto a tranquil present, something as true for yuppies frolicking in the often-packed Long Meadow of Prospect Park or protesting in front of the Brooklyn Museum as it is for Hasids a few miles south.

The uptick is real enough. But why now? Jewish Brooklyn has been open for months, as the commitment to religious life, social and psychological well-being, and education of the young has held precedence over fear of the virus in the city’s more traditionalist neighborhoods. In Williamsburg and Borough Park, in-person school for many students resumed early in the summer; many of Brooklyn’s orthodox Jews left for bungalow colonies or summer camps, just as they would in a typical year. Shuls have been open since late spring or earlier. Weddings have continued, albeit with more discretion than usual. “Nothing has changed in the community’s behavior from when COVID was at its peak to now,” said Barry Spitzer, district manager of the Borough Park community board.

One possible explanation is the onset of one of the year’s multiple Orthodox wedding seasons, which began a few weeks before the high holidays. Members of a WhatsApp group of 160 Orthodox Jewish medical doctors, largely based in New York and other Northeastern cities, reported in late September that they were frequently tracing transmissions to weddings that patients had attended toward the end of the summer.

But that explanation isn’t entirely convincing, either. Borough Park hasn’t been any more closed than Williamsburg, which the state considers a ZIP code of concern but still has only a 1.74% positive test rate. In Crown Heights, there have been scores or even hundreds of people inside the Lubavitch synagogue complex at 770 Eastern Parkway for most of the day for much of the past two months: Crown Heights’ positive rate is 1.82%.

Could it be that the Crown Heights and Williamsburg communities were harder hit by the virus in the spring, cutting off possible new transmission pathways? Without aggressive contact tracing, requiring an invasiveness for which there is little political appetite or social or cultural tolerance in much of the United States—including in New York City—the communities are unlikely to ever get a clear answer.

Other explanations have been suggested, ones that go beyond the realm of disease investigation. Perhaps, as the editor of Bklyner recently wrote, support for Donald Trump and the alleged belief in Trumpian conspiracies about the coronavirus are to blame, since the Brooklyn spikes appear to map onto pockets of support for the president during the 2016 election. Yet any politics-based analysis badly misunderstands the requirements of Jewish religious observance and the highly social nature of life in any communal enclave, religious or not.

In short, Trump has nothing to do with it: Under a different administration, Haredi Jews would be equally committed to finding ways to preserve the only life that is practically and spiritually permitted, and often physically possible. As one communal leader in Borough Park explained, “In the average Williamsburg family the man wakes up in the morning, he has nine children at home, there’s no place for him to shower. So he showers at the mikvah ... There’s no life outside of the social structure of the community.”

The coronavirus spike comes amid a slow but steady political breakdown in governance in New York City. With its hints at an ongoing clash between levels of government, its ill-defined threats, and its assumption of almost limitless and open-ended personal ad hoc legal authority, Cuomo’s performance on Oct. 5 was typical of New York under the virus. But despite the harsh tone of Cuomo’s presser, the governor is reportedly moving to prevent de Blasio from closing nonessential businesses in hot spot ZIP codes. Many also doubt whether a micro-crackdown in Borough Park or any other neighborhood is even practically enforceable at this point—including the governor, who spoke repeatedly of the need for the state to deputize municipal personnel in enforcing new restrictions, something which would potentially put NYPD officers under the command of state police.

Enforcement, and even the threat of enforcement, are too vague to change anything on their own. “I don’t believe anybody has the capability except for the local rabbis to tell people don’t come to shul 1,000 people at a time,” said one Borough Park communal figure. “Even with enforcement mechanisms I don’t think the government can tell them, no weddings.”

Enforcement has often seemed arbitrary within the Jewish community itself. Darchei Torah, a large yeshiva in Far Rockaway, was reportedly one of the most COVID-proofed Jewish educational institutions in the city, with temperature checks, hand sanitizer in every classroom, and strict mask-wearing. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the yeshiva shuttered in September when the Department of Health told the school’s administration it had traced several coronavirus infections to the school. “The city did the dumbest thing possible,” said one community source. “They shut down the yeshiva that was keeping the rules the most.”

At the same time, incidents like de Blasio’s infamous warning “message” to the city’s Jews in late April after a large public funeral in Williamsburg, followed by the city government’s encouragement of far larger protests after the killing of George Floyd, has eroded much of the goodwill that existed between Jewish communities and city political leadership. For many in Borough Park, the frenzy around the coronavirus spike is another instance of the city making demands of Orthodox Jews that have been made of no other group.

“People in the community have lost a lot of trust in the government, be it because people were told they can’t pray but thousands of people can gather in the streets to protest, or because rules kept changing from minute to minute without rhyme or reason,” Borough Park Community Board leader Barry Spitzer told me. It made no sense to community members that in the city’s view, “going to a funeral is bad but protesting is good.”

Spitzer also alleged that the city is insensitive to how much Orthodox Jews have sacrificed since March. “Do they understand what it means that 98% of our synagogues were closed all through Passover? Do they understand what it means that people didn’t go to synagogue on Passover? Do they understand what it means that people sat for the seder alone? ... They didn’t pray, they didn’t go to the mikvah, they didn’t make weddings, they closed their shops.”

The initial lockdown is a lingering source of bitterness, and there is little buy-in from the community for a second one—including in Williamsburg, where the positive test rate has seen a slight uptick. “Closing down the yeshivas is not going to do anything, it’s not the answer; we all know it didn’t work last time, and it’s not going to work this time,” claimed Rabbi Moshe Indig, a leader of the Williamsburg Satmar community, when reached not long after Cuomo’s press conference.

“The side effects are much worse than the COVID,” Indig said of school closures. Trust between the community and the city health department had already frayed over bans on hospital visitations and hospital volunteering, a Satmar communal specialty, during the spring outbreak. “Every patient became a prisoner,” Indig said. “We begged them, let volunteers in ... No patient should be left alone, no patient should be neglected.” The Floyd protests took place with this indignity fresh in the community’s minds. “They had no issue with the demonstrations, with the protests with thousands of people in the streets,” Indig said of city authorities.

In Orthodox sectors of Brooklyn, there is a communal impulse to uphold normal life and a distrust of any new restrictions. Meanwhile, whether as part of a short-lived hysteria or as a prelude to a second round of disaster, the numbers continue their ominous climb.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.