The main synagogue of a Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect hosted yet another mammoth wedding celebration in defiance of COVID-19 rules Monday, with thousands of mask-free revelers in attendance. Celebrations continued into Tuesday.
Shlomo Halberstam, 18, the youngest son of the dozen-plus children of Rabbi Bentzion Halberstam, the head of the Bobov Hasidic sect, was married before thousands of men in the synagogue parking lot before the party moved inside. Hundreds of celebrants flew in from Europe and Israel for the event, likely adding to the risk of coronavirus transmission, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“This was one of the biggest audiences I’ve ever seen at the synagogue,” said Abby Stein, who is the author of the memoir Becoming Eve and was a member of the Hasidic community until she came out as trans five years ago. Her relatives in Williamsburg and Borough Park belong to the Bobov sect, and she told The Daily Beast the first of her many visits to the group’s main synagogue happened when she was a toddler. She grew up with Shlomo Halberstam. “A wedding gives very warm and fuzzy feelings, and I’m not trying to take that away, but I think health comes first.”
Though the wedding boasted thousands of attendees, it was a relatively small affair, according to Stein.
“You can see videos of the groom’s siblings’ weddings in even bigger venues than this one. This is a relatively scaled down version. That’s probably why it was at the synagogue rather than a rented venue,” she said.
“There’s no doubt this is not the safest way to celebrate. I don’t want to diminish it. It’s a beautiful celebration. In normal times, a community can live on that. It’s the talk of the town for a week before, and everyone’s excited. But religiously, there’s no argument to have more than 10 people,” said Stein.
The Israeli news site JDN put out two versions of a story on the wedding. One edition, published Monday, detailed the secrecy necessary to plan such an event far from the prying eyes of local authorities intent on enforcing the law. The replacement article, published the next day, described the nuptials as small, intimate, and in line with coronavirus restrictions. Though guests were warned not to record the event, videos apparently taken at the wedding and posted to Twitter and YouTube documented the festivities as massive.
Stein said wedding attendees would have communicated by word of mouth, synagogue announcements, or Yiddish newsletters. She estimates that half of the community never uses the internet. her own 12 siblings, 10 do not, nor do her parents.
Hasidic leaders in New York have defied and disregarded precautions and regulations meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus throughout the pandemic. Multiple synagogues in New York have hosted clandestine but nonetheless gargantuan weddings, and community leaders have lashed out at those who exposed and criticized their actions. COVID-19 has hit ultra-Orthodox enclaves harder than other parts of the state as a result.
“Back in April was really bad. At the peak, they had three or four pages of just names in the main Yiddish newspaper, sometimes hundreds of people dying each week,” said Stein. “This is a community that really doesn’t like to be told what to do, and if you try to they’ll only fight back against you.”
Stein said the Bobov sect had adhered to health guidelines as the pandemic began.
“They were one of the first communities to shut down fully,” she said. “But what happened is pandemic fatigue in an isolated community. It’s not intentionally to be bad and not care about health, but they will find an excuse like herd immunity, or not talk about it and decide not to live in lockdown.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted the first iteration of the JDN article as saying: “It is a difficult task to organize a mass wedding in such tumultuous days. Even if you have managed to find a respectable venue, the heart is not at peace, because at any given moment you are exposed to the danger of whistleblowing and the police forces will be on their way to the place and the celebration subsides. If in Israel there are concerns, in the United States of America all the more so.”
Tuesday’s story heaped praise on the head of the sect: “JDN News has learned that due to the situation, the wedding will be held in a very limited manner and notes that the Rebbe is very strict in the instructions and was among the first to order the closure of the Torah institutions of the Hasidim to protect against the virus. Thousands of Bobov followers from all over the world will celebrate from their homes the joy of the great wedding, the joy of the youngest son of the Rebbe who will be married at a good and successful time. The hearts of thousands of followers are full of excitement.”
Thus far, authorities do not appear to have intervened in the celebration.
“Our assessment at this time is that the event was compliant with relevant guidelines,” New York City Sheriff Joe Fucito told the New York Post.