Packed Weddings, Busy Funerals: Virus Slams Ultra-Orthodox Jews
“If you’ve grown up to ignore the outside world, why would that change now?”
Tami Frankel, a nurse at Maimonides Medical Center in the heart of New York City Ultra-Orthodox enclave Borough Park, saw her workplace overtaken by the coronavirus in a matter of days.
“At first, I worked my regular shift and was floated to a ‘Corona floor’ to help out,” said Frankel, who works three to four 12-hour shifts a week. “By my next shift on my regular floor, the floor was converted to a Corona floor [too].”
Even for Frankel—a health-care professional and member of the Brooklyn community’s expansive Orthodox Jewish community who had been warning family and friends to socially distance for weeks—the “sudden, exponential shift” in COVID-19 cases came as a shock.
Though data is difficult to come by amid a still-surging pandemic, tight-knit Orthodox communities across New York and New Jersey have been particularly vulnerable to the novel virus, according to local medical professionals and community members. By March 19, over 500 cases of coronavirus had been identified by one urgent-care center serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn. That on the heels of a March 17 call from the White House to 15 leading Orthodox rabbis in New York, including prominent Hasidic leaders, urging the community to shutter key institutions and adhere to social-distancing protocols.
But according to media reports and a slew of photos and video obtained by the Daily Beast, as well as sources within the community, some religious ceremonies and other gatherings have continued unabated—with potentially devastating results.
On Saturday, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a large group of black-coat clad young men gathered in front of the global headquarters of the hasidic sect Chabad Lubavitch to convene a prayer quorum, according to a video published by Vos Iz Neias. On Sunday, in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, New Jersey, nearly 50 people were discovered by police gathering outside a private home. At least three weddings have reportedly been broken up in the area in recent weeks, and a funeral there sent police calling for backup Wednesday.
On Tuesday in Crown Heights, footage of people dancing at a crowded wedding was posted by attendees on a private YouTube channel, according to screenshots reviewed by The Daily Beast. On Wednesday, the funeral of a respected community rabbi—described by published obituaries as having died of coronavirus—drew a gaggle into the streets of the same neighborhood, according to photos taken by an onlooker and provided to the Beast.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis published Wednesday, Borough Park has the highest COVID-19 positive rate in Brooklyn. A surge in cases in the community is mirrored among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, according to a recent report by The New York Times. Though the demographic, known as haredim, make up only 12 percent of Israel’s population, 40 to 60 percent of coronavirus patients at four major hospitals were from the community, according to the paper.
The reasons for the dissonance here, according to community insiders, include loyalty to religious ritual, a dearth of access to mainstream media, a steadfast belief that those engaged in religious activities will not be harmed, and a deep-rooted skepticism towards edicts imposed by authorities outside the community.
“If you’ve grown up to ignore the outside world, why would that change now?” said a woman from the Borough Park community who claimed she was invited to (but did not attend) a large funeral upstate on Monday. (She requested anonymity for fear of communal retribution.) “In the community, we’ve always adhered to our own set of rules.”
The source added that a “culture of rigidness” motivates the continued gatherings. “It’s not that people are ignorant—this is our mode of survival,” she said. “Once you start asking questions, there goes all of your direction.”
Though deeply critical of the community, the source described the prospect of a scantily attended funeral from her community’s perspective. “Himmel geshrei,” she said, using a yiddish phrase that translates to “the heavens are screaming.”
Still, Bernie Gips, a coordinator with the volunteer Jewish community EMS service Hatzolah in Borough Park for nearly 46 years, said he was frustrated by the public perception that the ultra-Orthodox community was not taking the coronavirus threat seriously.
“People think the Orthodox are not complying, it’s not so,” he said, detailing efforts his local Hatzolah chapter has made to spread word about the virus’ severity to those who don’t have internet access, including leaflets distributed doorstep to doorstep.
“The Hasidic community are trying their best,” said Gips, speaking from his home where he was self-quarantining. He estimated that “95 percent” of Orthodox institutions—from synagogues to kosher catering halls—are shut down at this point. And it’s worth noting early reports of anti-Semitism in response to alleged social-distancing shortcomings, including a New Jersey man charged with terroristic threats for a Facebook screed targeted at Jews.
But even if most of New York’s ultra-Orthodox communities are largely in compliance with social distancing guidelines by now, initial reluctance to act left the community’s most vulnerable in harm's way, according to a former employee at a group home for women in Borough Park. The source asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution.
Despite her deep dedication to the center’s consumers, she said she quit her position at the group home last week because of what she saw as a failure to enforce quarantining protocols in a timely manner. (The center could not be reached for comment.)
“Now is too late, the house is already burning down,” said the former employee, referring to disabled women she had worked with as “victims of their own community.”
Others active on the front lines said the situation was a bit more complicated than that.
“In tight-knit Orthodox communities, there is a healthy dose of skepticism when orders come from the ‘authorities’ and not from within,” said Blima Marcus, a nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan Kettering and a member of Borough Park’s ultra-Orthodox community. Marcus was particularly active in stemming the flow of misinformation that contributed to a measles outbreak among ultra-Orthodox communities across New York last winter, she recalled.
Though the two epidemics are markedly different, Marcus said that the ultra-Orthodox community’s limited access to popular media contribute to an underestimation and skepticism towards medical threats.
“For the ultra-Orthodox, there is no TV, no radio, no secular newspapers,” said Marcus. “The enormity of what was happening globally was not a daily reality for most of the community. Without context, orders to stay at home in 2020 seemed far-fetched.”
In Crown Heights, members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox sect were slow to close synagogues and social gatherings, according to Crown Heights residents, news reports, and video footage posted on social media. After the community’s first positive COVID-19 cases began to emerge during the second week in March, schools, followed by prayer gatherings, started to shutter. (It’s worth noting the city’s public school system did not close until March 16.)
Still, men have continued to gather for prayer outside of 770 Eastern Parkway, the sect’s global headquarters, this week, albeit with loose adherence to social distancing guidelines. Prayer-goers stand a few feet apart from one another.
A local Chabad-Lubavitch businessman who has been particularly vocal about enforcing social distancing said he has “made many enemies” because of his attempts to “shame people into staying home.” He asked to remain anonymous for fear of further personal and professional retribution.
“In the beginning, people downplayed the threat,” he explained. “Congregating, around holidays and Shabbos, is my community’s way of life. So we got hit harder.”
Over the past few weeks, in addition to recovering from COVID-19 himself, the business owner reported losing customers over his vocal efforts to shut down community gatherings.
“I made a simple calculation that saving even one life will make my efforts worth it,” he said.