Are Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox social distancing?

A sign on the door of a synagogue in Midwood, Brooklyn.
A sign on the door of a synagogue in Midwood, Brooklyn.
Ben Adler
A sign on the door of a synagogue in Midwood, Brooklyn.

Are Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox social distancing?

Hasidic communities are changing practices to slow the coronavirus pandemic, but have been late adopters.
March 19, 2020

New York is home to many insular communities that can be hard for authorities to convince to practice social distancing to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, but perhaps none more so than the Hasidic Jewish sects clustered in a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and towns upstate. Most of these ultra-Orthodox communities are isolated from the outside world: they speak Yiddish, buy food from Kosher markets, read their own community newspapers and often don’t watch TV or browse the internet. Their children go to religious schools called yeshivas and they regularly attend services at synagogue, known in Yiddish as shul, and other religious celebrations.

This isn’t the first time a public health emergency has been concentrated in these communities, most notably there was a measles outbreak that started in the fall of 2018 because misinformation about vaccinations was spread by a group focussed on ultra-Orthodox Jewish mothers. The group, named PEACH, was reportedly circulating information since 2014 that said vaccinations were in opposition to Jewish law and falsely linked them to causing autism. Many ultra-Orthodox families are large and live in close quarters, and they have famously tight-knit communities, potentially making the spread of contagious diseases especially easy. 

So, has the message about social distancing taken hold among the ultra-Orthodox? And, with the centrality of family, community and religious observance, are they willingly following it? 

Yes and no, according to elected officials and community leaders. Initially, they've been at least as slow to adapt to social distancing as the hipsters and yuppies lined up at bars on the Lower East Side on Saturday night.

The fact that they are mostly political conservatives who voted for President Donald Trump hasn't helped matters: until Monday, Trump was downplaying the risk from coronavirus. 

Over the past couple of days there’s been a shift and reality seems to have set in, observers say. Unfortunately, that’s partly because there have been a number of cases of Hasidic Jews getting sick already, and the actions being taken now are already too late for some. 

As of Tuesday, most yeshivas have closed and some synagogues have either closed altogether or have limited seating capacity. However, local officials said a few Yeshivas remained open as of Tuesday morning and that large crowds are congregating in Kosher supermarkets to buy goods for the upcoming Passover holiday. There were also reports of several large Hasidic weddings being held over the past few days and of some synagogues continuing to draw crowds of over 50 people.

“Right now, people are starting to take it seriously,” said Moshe Friedman, a resident of Borough Park, Brooklyn, who works in real estate and runs a newsletter called JPNews – where he aggregates mainstream news stories for an ultra-Orthodox audience. “If you had asked me yesterday, I would’ve told you differently. But I think people are starting to take it really seriously.”

Yeshivas, synagogues and other establishments in heavily-Orthodox neighborhoods like Borough Park had remained open through this past weekend and into the beginning of this week. Borough Park and other ultra-Orthodox enclaves such as South Williamsburg and the Lubavitch section of Crown Heights are right-leaning and voted for Trump in 2016. Friedman said he thinks people in the community were initially following the president’s lead in not taking the threat of the virus seriously. “This is basically a place that voted for Trump and they believe in Trump. When it started and Trump said it’s all a hoax and everybody is just trying to get him, I’m sure some people (in the community) believed him,” Friedman said.

Another Borough Park resident named Yosef Rapaport – who’s a Yiddish language podcaster – said that while his community took the virus somewhat seriously, they were probably less cautious because of Trump’s influence. “Those who raised the early alarms were accused: ‘Oh, you’re a Democrat, you’re secular press, you’re exaggerating,” Rapaport said. 

Friedman said the shift in thinking started when some people who were tested for the virus got positive results back. “There’s a big rabbi, his name is Benzion Halberstam, so he has thousands of followers and at his shul somebody tested positive at Purim last week. That guy was in the synagogue by all the gatherings, so people started to go and test, and more people came back positive,” Friedman said. Gothamist reported Tuesday night that over 100 people in Borough Park and Williamsburg tested positive for COVID-19. 

According to Friedman, community leaders were waiting for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the city’s public schools, a decision that came Sunday afternoon, before making any moves to close yeshivas. Most yeshivas did end up shutting down after de Blasio made his announcement, but according to State Sen. Simcha Felder – who represents Borough Park and neighboring, largely Orthodox Jewish Midwood – a couple of the schools have remained open. Felder said his understanding was that the schools that hadn’t shut down yet have many large families from poorer homes whose children depend on the schools for most of their meals. “When I spoke to one of the administrators, he said to me that they don’t want to shut down until they have something in place to provide meals to the kids,” Felder said.

City Councilman Brad Lander, who represents part of Borough Park, took to Twitter Tuesday morning to urge the remaining yeshivas to close down. “Very distressed to hear that a few yeshivas appear to remain open in Boro Park,” Lander tweeted. In his tweet Lander cited an advisory from Agudath Israel of America – a prominent Orthodox Jewish organization – to close all schools and shuls. “The schools must close. And parents should not send their kids. Please.”

There were still signs that ultra-Orthodox communities were not taking the virus seriously as late as Tuesday afternoon when the FDNY had to break up a large Hasidic wedding in South Williamsburg. Additionally, the largest synagogue in Crown Heights at 770 Eastern Parkway remained open through Tuesday afternoon and continued to draw sizable crowds until it was finally chained shut early Wednesday morning. Wednesday THE CITY reported that Lubavitch individuals who are now sick and in the hospital had gone to services at 770 last week, as recently as Saturday. 

Last week, amNewYork reported that a large party for the Purim holiday took place at the Eastern Parkway synagogue. Photos showed congregants of all ages packed together in tight spaces and individuals who were quoted said God would protect them from the threat of the pandemic. “I know a lot of people will suffer from this but we are cautious and we are trying to teach people to do the right things. But if you read Psalms 91, it teaches you that you are protected by the armor of God,” said one attendee amNewYork spoke to. 

Local officials stressed that synagogues in Borough Park and Midwood have either closed or significantly reduced their seating capacities. Felder said storefront synagogues called shtieblach, which can hold 50 to 60 people, are telling their congregants to split up into smaller groups of 10 to 20. City Councilman Chaim Deutsch who represents Midwood, said his synagogue has moved its services outdoors. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines issued Monday, stated that all gatherings of 10 plus people should be cancelled or held virtually, but according to Jewish law 10 people are required for prayer to take place, which is known as a minyan.

Deutsch also pointed out the difficulty of social distancing for the Orthodox Jewish community with the upcoming Passover holiday, which will begin on April 8 this year and which requires observant Jews to adhere to a specific temporary diet. He said families trying to stock up on Kosher for Passover items has led to very large crowds at Kosher supermarkets. However, Felder said that the supermarkets in Borough Park were mostly crowded last week and that this week most of the crowds had subsided. 

No matter how seriously ultra-Orthodox families have started to take the virus, many of them are vulnerable because they have large families that live in close quarters. “With social distancing, if a family has six or seven children, it's just not going to be. I mean, they can’t tell their kids not to talk to each other or not to stay near each other. And there are many large families,” Felder said.

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Ethan Stark-Miller
is an editorial intern at City & State.