KIRYAS JOEL, N.Y.—Plans for a huge, rule-busting Hasidic wedding here were thrown into question Monday after the state sent a cease-and-desist order to the synagogue that was hosting it.
But the scene outside Congregation Yetev Lev synagogue on Garfield Road was a wild one come evening. In fact, the only palpable nod to the pandemic came when a mobile COVID-19 testing bus arrived around 5 p.m.
A steady flow of bearded, black-hatted people going in and out of the enormous synagogue were all unmasked. Large white tarps stretched from the overhang at the top of the stairs down to the floor, blocking passersby from seeing inside the venue.
Around the back, several workers were bringing pallets of bottled water into the space, along with stacks of banquet chairs and assorted staging materials. A number of rolling metal racks for holding food trays sat nearby. By shortly after 5 p.m., the parking lot was full.
A carpentry contractor leaving for the day told The Daily Beast a “big wedding” was planned for the evening. The worker said no one inside was wearing a mask, and that he was tired of asking them to put one on.
An hour after The Daily Beast published a story about the Monday wedding plans, the state health commissioner took the first step toward nixing them by issuing an order to Congregation Yetev Lev in Kiryas Joel, a spokesperson for the Orange County Health Department said.
A spokesperson for the State Department of Health subsequently said that the order, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Beast, called for the congregation “to cancel the wedding ceremonies unless they can be held in strict adherence with safe social distancing protocols.”
“In the event that the ceremonies are not canceled, the order requires that social-distancing and face-covering protocols be enforced,” the spokesperson continued. “With respect to the two receptions, it requires that they be limited to 50 people or canceled.”
An invitation being widely circulated had beckoned members of the Satmar community to the village an hour north of Manhattan for the Monday evening union of two members of prominent ultra-Orthodox families.
Word of the nuptials surfaced just a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo blasted the organizers of another rogue celebration that drew thousands of maskless guests to a synagogue in Brooklyn.
Typically, weddings of this sort are massive affairs that would be banned under New York State rules that limit gatherings at private residences to 10 people and religious gatherings below normal capacity.
Yetev Lev has already run afoul of the rules once before. In September, the county health department sent a warning letter that said: “It has come to our attention that your Congregation is operating without maintaining appropriate social distancing or the wearing of face coverings... and it operating in a way which endangers those inside the Congregation and those that they come in contact with.”
It was not immediately clear what steps beyond the order the state planned to take to make sure the rules were followed on Monday. “The State Police is the designated law enforcement agency for Kiryas Joel and we have been in contact with the SP,” an Orange County Health Department spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “They have the authority to enforce the law and we expect the State will allow them to do so.”
A State Police spokesperson, in turn, referred The Daily Beast to the State Department of Health when reached for comment on potential enforcement action. The State Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.
The synagogue did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The ultra-Orthodox community has been on a collision course with government authorities over pandemic restrictions for weeks.
Earlier this month, the state put the kibosh on plans for a huge wedding in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Then, last week, video emerged of a wedding with all the hallmarks of a superspreader event: thousands of people tightly packed into a synagogue, hardly any of them wearing masks, many of them singing.
That brought swift condemnation from city and state officials.
“If it turns out that, because we stopped that wedding, the reaction was, ‘Well we’ll have a secret wedding,’ that would be really shocking and totally deceitful from the conversations that I had, because I had personal conversations with members of the community,” Cuomo said Sunday.
The city is investigating, and Cuomo said that “if 7,000 people were at a wedding, I’m sure they’ll be able to figure it out, and then we’ll bring the full consequences of legal action to bear.”
A Yiddish-language newspaper had reported that the Brooklyn wedding was organized in secret, through word of mouth only, to avoid alerting authorities.
But it appears that the Kiryas Joel celebrants took no such precautions, sending out written invitations, according to Lawrence Dressler, who wrote about it on his blog.
The invitation, written in Hebrew, detailed plans for the events on Garfield Road, where one of the biggest synagogues in the world, Congregation Yetev Lev, is located. A bridal reception was being held in one building, while the groom’s reception was to be held in another.
Last month, COVID-19 cases were so high in Kiryas Joel—a 34 percent positivity rate—that the state put the community under lockdown. Within two weeks, it had fallen to 2 percent, and the restrictions were eased. But as The New York Times reported, there were complaints that some residents started refusing to be tested to keep the positivity rate artificially low.
Weddings have not been the only sore point. After the city responded to a surge in cases in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn in October, ultra-Orthodox gadfly Heshy Tischler whipped up public protests that resulted in a Hasidic journalist being beaten and Tischler being arrested.
Outsiders are immediately physically identifiable in this community, and a trio of Hasidic teens began circling a reporter’s car in a parking lot across the street from the Kiryas Joel synagogue on Monday afternoon.
Moments later, a man identifying himself as the manager of the temple came out—sans face mask—and demanded to know why The Daily Beast was present.
He dialed his phone and walked away before getting an answer.
Two cars then pulled up and double-parked close by.
“No pictures! No videos!” one of the drivers yelled out.
“Are you a cop?” demanded the other.
“Please go somewhere else, we need the parking,” added the manager.