Saturday, April 25, 2020

Predictably, The Pandemic Is Ravaging Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Communities


Gut Shabbos. I'm sure I'm not the only person in America who's never known an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jew and who has been learning about them and their culture via Netflix during the shutdown. I had already seen Shtisel but in the last couple of weeks I watched the German-America mini-series Unorthodox and the 2017 film, One of Us.

On Friday, the Jewish Daily Forward noted that there isn't a single synagogue open anywhere in the U.S.-- certainly not any of the 4 in Fargo, North Dakota, where the governor refuses to shut down and allows religious services. (North Dakota only has 748 confirmed cases, 39 new ones yesterday and just 994 cases per million. Because of Gov. Burgum's extreme ideological perspective and refusal to protect the people of North Dakota, it's likely that the curve there will steepen, just as it has next door in South Dakota, where there are over 2,000 confirmed cases and 2,260 cases per million.) Rabbi Yonah Grossman, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota, told The Forward the same thing that most sane religious leaders are saying, regardless of faith: "In the Jewish tradition, sanctity of life takes precedence over anything else. If there’s room to be cautious… it’s important for us to take that step in our own community."

But most of America's 7 million Jews live in states like New York, California, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland where it is against the social distancing rules to leave the house to go worship. Of the 5 states still refusing to shut down-- both Dakotas plus Iowa, Nebraska and Arkansas (combined Jewish population is 17,500)-- there are 30 synagogues and all 30 have voluntarily shut down. But what about the ultra-orthodox communities, which are not in the Dakotas but are primarily in New York (especially Brooklyn and Rockland County), New Jersey and California.

There are two narrative about the Hasidim and coronavirus. One is that because they are so cut off from the surrounding society-- and do not allow the use of the internet-- they have largely ignored social distancing and the pandemic has ravaged their communities. And the second is that the survivors are giving antibody-rich plasma to treat other people (and not just Hasidim, all other people). Both are true.

At the beginning on the month, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that "The record of positive COVID-19 tests in the five boroughs shows that Borough Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Midwood [each an insular Hasidic areas of Brooklyn] all have above-average positive test rates. In Borough Park, more than 67% of coronavirus tests have come back positive-- the highest rate in Brooklyn and sixth-highest of any Zip code in New York City. In Crown Heights, 63.4% of tests are positive, while in Williamsburg the figure is 62.5% and in Midwood it is 60.3%. The average positive test rate across the city is 53%."
Social distancing has been a particularly stark shift for Hasidic Jews, who make up a significant share of the population in Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights.

Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, men are accustomed to attending communal prayers three times a day, and social lives revolve around synagogue and lifecycle celebrations like weddings. Haredi families are also larger than average and tend to live in dense neighborhoods in the city.

In some haredi neighborhoods, social distancing measures like school closings came later than in the rest of the city.

Israel is experiencing an even more extreme phenomenon, as more than a third of the total population of the haredi city of Bnei Brak is estimated to have coronavirus, according to the Times of Israel.

By this week, the mainstream media was noticing how badly impacted the Hasidic community is. The NY Times Liam Stack took a look at the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn and reported a Plague on a biblical scale. The pandemic is sweeping through families and friendship circles. "The coronavirus has hit the Hasidic Jewish community in the New York area with devastating force," wrote Stack, "killing influential religious leaders and tearing through large, tight-knit families at a rate that community leaders and some public health data suggest may exceed that of other ethnic or religious groups. The city does not track deaths by religion, but Hasidic news media report that roughly 700 members of the community in the New York area have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus."
Hasidic groups say they prepared for the pandemic-- for example, making decisions on the closure of schools and events-- by taking their cues from the state and federal authorities, whose response to the crisis has been at times halting and inconsistent. [Better than the Dakotas' but Governor Andrew Cuomo has been more interested in protecting his political viability than the citizens of his state.]

But community leaders say Hasidic enclaves in New York were also left vulnerable to the coronavirus by a range of social factors, including high levels of poverty, a reliance on religious leaders who were in some cases slow to act and the insular nature of Hasidic society, which harbors a distrust of secular authorities that is born of a troubled history.

That distrust has manifested itself in ways that have risked spreading the virus and have drawn the attention of law enforcement, which in recent weeks has been called to disperse crowds at events like weddings and funerals in Hasidic areas of Brooklyn, upstate New York and New Jersey.

That, in turn, has led to concerns over anti-Semitism in places like Rockland County, which has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the nation and was also the site of an anti-Semitic attack in December that killed one Hasidic Jew and injured four others.

Celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which fell on March 10 this year, were canceled by many Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox synagogues. But many Hasidic groups observed the festival, drawing people to gatherings where they may have been exposed to the virus.

“Not only the Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews but a lot of Jews responded to the idea of not going to the synagogue or gathering in a public place with a feeling of outrage, because it brought to mind times when religious persecution closed down synagogues
,” said Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College.

That sense of defiance has been evident in neighborhoods like Borough Park and South Williamsburg, where some businesses and religious bathhouses have displayed signs written in Yiddish-- a language not widely spoken outside the Hasidic community-- informing patrons of hours and prices or instructing them to use an entrance not visible from the street.

“The problem there was confusion of persecution that comes from a human being and a plague, a virus,” Dr. Heschel said. “But there was a sense that we are not going to be subjected to this kind of treatment, we are going to fulfill our lives as Jews in a rich way and we are going to go to the synagogue. It is a sort of defiance and affirmation of Jewish identity, combined.”

Dr. Heschel’s cousin, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who led the Novominsker Hasidic dynasty as well as Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella ultra-Orthodox organization, died earlier this month of Covid-19.

He had urged Hasidic Jews to abide by public health guidelines and was perhaps the most high-profile Jewish leader in the world to die of the coronavirus. But others have died as well, most of whom have been deprived of the sort of large funeral that would typically honor a religious figure.

“Normally there would be tens of thousands of people here,” said Malka Phillips as she stood on Eastern Parkway earlier this month to watch the socially distanced funeral procession for Rabbi Leibel Groner. “We’re losing an entire generation.”

But not every event has been sparsely attended. Funerals and wedding in parts of Brooklyn and suburban towns have drawn widespread news media coverage.

A Hasidic funeral in Lakewood, N.J., turned “unruly and argumentative” once police officers arrived to disperse a crowd of more than 60 people earlier this month, Bradley D. Billhimer, the Ocean County prosecutor, said in a statement. His office charged 15 attendees with violating Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s executive order barring large gatherings.

Hasidic community leaders bristle at any discussion of such violations. They say they feel singled out by the news media, and several Hasidic people interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retaliation from others in the community.

“There have been several very disappointing incidents that are very unfortunate, but the vast majority of people in these communities are staying home under very tough circumstances,” said Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, one of the largest Jewish religious organizations in the world. “When people violate the isolation guidelines within these communities, they become the focus of frustration and anger from others within the community.”

He said the community was vulnerable to the virus not because of isolated incidents of rule-breaking but instead because of the very things that make it vibrant: tight-knit families, a commitment to ritual and multigenerational households where the very young and very old live side by side.

“Everything that makes these communities so beautiful is likely a factor that puts them at risk in this situation,” Mr. Seligson said. “To really understand how the virus is spreading within these communities, one really needs to understand how these communities operate on a regular basis.”

Efforts to inform the community of public health guidelines may have been complicated by the strictures of Hasidic life, which emphasize the guidance of religious leaders and cast a wary eye at outside authorities, including health officials and the mainstream news media.

...The rules of Hasidic life have also made the prospect of giving up religious gatherings and staying at home daunting, said Meyer Labin, a Yiddish writer who said he knew many who had died of the virus, including several rabbis, the fathers of two friends and his eighth grade teacher.

Mr. Labin said going to synagogue-- which some might do three times a day-- or attending a wedding was more than a religious event. These activities play a social role for people who have fewer ways to blow off steam than most New Yorkers, he said.

“That’s where we get our news and our information or our entertainment, everything is the community,” Mr. Labin said. “Our lives are completely, completely different than life for most other communities and people in that we don’t have a lot of other entertainment at home. For example, no Netflix or TV.”

From a Hasidic perspective, he said, the stay-at-home orders issued last month across the country did not seem like “that much of a sacrifice” for non-Hasidic people, he said.

“I don’t mean to minimize it, but like you lay back, watch Netflix, drink tea-- now imagine a family that is not set up that way,” he said. “The way we live-- small apartments, big families-- our outlet is to go out and mingle and socialize, and now it’s very hard to put an abrupt stop to all of that.”
In the 2016 presidential election 71% of Jews voted for Hillary. But the Hasidic rabbis went for Trump and visually the entire ultra-orthodox community followed along. The ultra-orthodox neighborhoods were Trump's biggest precincts in New York. Last year Haaretz published a piece for Israeli readers about how so many of the ultra-orthodox have become right-wing, even if it means making common cause with Nazis who would like to try the ovens again.

Author and sociologist Chaim Waxman is a long-time observer of Jewish-American society and he says he wasn't surprised when the orthodox flocked to vote for Trump. "After all," he said, "many Orthodox Jews today feel they have a lot more in common with conservative Christians and right-wing Republicans than they do with liberal Jews who vote Democrat."
In his recently published book Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy (Liverpool University Press), Waxman examfines the processes responsible for the rightward lurch of Orthodox Jews in America-- with his focus on the tendency toward greater stringency in religious observance. But it is no coincidence, he says, that their politics are also moving in this direction.

According to a survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee, 54 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. This compares with 24 percent of Conservative Jews; 10 percent of Reform Jews; 8 percent of Reconstructionist Jews; and 14 percent of those who identify as “just Jews.”

This tendency among Orthodox Jews to go against the streams was already evident in a first-of-its-kind comprehensive survey of the American Jewish community conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013. Roughly half of Orthodox Jews surveyed described themselves as political conservatives, with 57 percent saying they identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party. In their attitudes toward homosexuality, for example, the survey found that Orthodox Jews more closely resembled evangelical Christians than other Jews, with nearly six in 10 saying same-sex relations should be discouraged by society.

According to Waxman, support for the Republican Party among Orthodox Jews is a relatively new phenomenon. “It’s something that seems to have begun in the last two presidencies,” he tells Haaretz. “Under [President Bill] Clinton, the percentage of Orthodox Jews who voted Republican was still higher than non-Orthodox Jews, but the gap was certainly not as wide as it is today.”

The Democrats tend to be seen as more critical of Israeli policy than Republicans, particular insofar as the occupation and settlement building are concerned. But Waxman does not believe this is the only reason Orthodox Jews are embracing the GOP.

“Israel plays a role, no question about that-- but it’s beyond that,” he says. “The values that right-wing Republicans represent are interpreted by many Orthodox Jews to be similar to their own religious values.”

And Trump has certainly repaid the favor, appointing Orthodox Jews to some of the top positions in his administration. These include his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who holds numerous portfolios; his former bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, now serving as ambassador to Israel; and another former lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, who recently stepped down as key architect of the White House Middle East peace plan (aka the “deal of the century”).

Waxman was raised in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn and attended strict Orthodox yeshivas growing up. He describes himself as Modern Orthodox, but adds that he doesn’t like labels. After retiring from Rutgers, where he was on faculty for more than three decades, he moved to Israel 13 years ago. Today he serves as chair of the department of behavioral sciences at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem.

Modern Orthodox Jews in America, as his book notes, weren’t always as religiously observant as they are today. Up until the latter part of the 20th century, for instance, it was common for Modern Orthodox synagogues to hold dinners and balls that included mixed-gender dancing. It was also common for Modern Orthodox Jews to eat dairy or fish dishes at restaurants that had no kashrut supervision. Such practices would be frowned upon today.

In his book, Waxman attributes growing levels of observance among Orthodox Jews in America to greater knowledge about halakha (religious law), with this in turn being due to the proliferation of yeshiva day schools around the United States. Indeed, up until the latter part of the 20th century, it was common for children from Orthodox homes to attend public schools, with yeshiva day schools few and far between.

“There were two main reasons for the expansion of Jewish day schools in America,” he says. “One was a desire for more Jewish knowledge; and the other was the desire of Jewish parents to pull their kids out of public schools because of the racial situation-- and that was especially true in the New York area.” Waxman was referring to the growing numbers of black children attending previously all-white public schools from the 1960s onward.

Another factor behind the growing stringency in the Modern Orthodox world, he says, was a fear of the “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” culture outside. “We see a similar rise in fundamentalism in Christianity at this time, also in response to this culture-- and so it wasn’t unique to Orthodox Jews,” notes Waxman.
Like I said up top, I have never spent any time with a Hasidic Jew so I don't know much about them as individuals. I do gather from what I've read, though, that many are far less educated than non-Hasidic Jews and that their rabbis-- who are often very rich while their flock is very poor-- very much prefer keeping them ignorant, out of touch with the secular world around them and obedient.

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At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Religions all promise a path to the Promised Land. They just don't tell you the manner of your conveyance.

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

did orthodox jews also flock to vote for the Nazis and hitler in Germany?

all religions are insane, but... trump?

I suppose it's no more insane (or simply stupid) than blacks voting for biden.

what a shithole!

At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I suppose it's no more insane (or simply stupid) than blacks voting for biden."

Within the past month, Cenk Uyger interviewed a Black political analyst about this very topic (Sorry, couldn't locate the link). The analyst raised an interesting point that I would not ever have considered which I believe to be accurate:

Black voters -especially more elder Black voters still believing that obamanation was Moses leading them into the Promised Land- greatly respect Biden because

Biden was a White Man willing to take orders from a Black Man.

Considering slavery and Jim Crow, and the fact that what gains were realized with the Civil and Voting Rights Acts are in the process of being reversed, this made a lot of sense to me.

Your mileage may vary.

At 5:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

so... @10:13, you're saying 'stupid'? makes sense.

They all just ignore his loooooong racist past and Anita Hill because his political ambition was greater than his racism?

yep. stupid. no way around it.

and obamanation did jack shit for blacks. In fact, his reaction to the loss of the voting rights consent decree was to ram both black thumbs up his black ass. But I suppose nobody noticed that either.

At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


How about you stick to managing the words of your own origin?

Read what I actually wrote, not your "interpretation". You and I may well consider the views I posted as ignorant, but this is a huge thing to a component of the population who still deals with the Original American Sin of slavery.

We don't have to agree with this thought by Black voters regarding Biden. But I believe it to be real, and not likely to be overcome with logic and reason any more than the typical MAGAt would regarding Trump. It IS going to affect the race, and will give the "Democrats" an excuse to NOT replace Biden as a result.

So if you want to believe this belief to be "stoopid makin' senss", then own it yourself. It's as good an opinion as any and worthy of being claimed by you.


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