(RNS) — On Oct. 8, mere hours before the happiest day on the Jewish calendar, during which adherents gather en masse to dance with the Torah, new COVID-19 regulations that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had announced two days prior went into effect, more than dampening the holiday mood.
The regulations were for “cluster” areas — hot spots with spikes in new COVID-19 cases — in Brooklyn, Queens, Broome, Orange and Rockland Counties. Many of the neighborhoods singled out included Hasidic communities, and Cuomo told CNN: “The cluster is predominantly an ultra-Orthodox cluster.”
After months of new in-state cases plateauing around 1%, spikes in certain parts of the city led the governor to delineate “red,” “orange” and “yellow” zones, with a range of limitations on gatherings, including religious ones. The restrictions were to be in place a minimum of 14 days.
Since the announcement, Hasidim have protested in Borough Park streets, and The New York Times, which characterized racial justice protests as “mostly peaceful,” drew criticism from a Jewish paper for its reference to Hasidim as “angry” and a “mob.”
“We’re an easy target. The last remaining group that it’s acceptable to target and vilify are Orthodox Jews,” said Barry Spitzer, who represents the Brooklyn neighborhood Borough Park and is the first Hasidic district manager in the state. “There is no group in the entire country that it’s acceptable to make fun of, belittle, malign, and smear as Orthodox Jewish people.”
Cuomo’s new regulations included $15,000 fines for mass gatherings and $1,000 individual fines and came the day before the two-day holiday Shemini Atzeres, which culminates in Simchas Torah (which was nightfall to nightfall Oct. 10 and 11 this year).
Those laws, which Orthodox and Catholic groups sued in vain to stay, are “arbitrary, capricious, and unsustainable” to Spitzer, who said he accepts prayer groups limited to 10 — the minimal quorum (minyan) for communal Orthodox prayer — during the week, but not on holidays. Officials knowingly restricted Jewish prayer ahead of Simchas Torah, he said.
- Two young women walk with children during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot on Oct. 4, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Neither the office of the mayor nor the governor — reportedly among Joe Biden’s attorney general picks — responded to a request for comment.
The timing also struck Susannah Heschel, chair and distinguished professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, as imprudent.
“These regulations come at a moment as if they are taking away everything — Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Simchas Torah,” she said.
She has a nuanced perspective about Hasidic communities, in which (some of her) family members live. She thinks the New York government could have handled things much better by enlisting a consultant with deep expertise on Hasidim. “If it comes from within a community, of course people will listen to it differently,” she said.
Hasidim are Orthodox Jews whose religious practice draws inspiration from 18th-century Ukrainian rabbi and mystic Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of a Good Name”). To a greater extent than other Orthodox communities, Hasidic life centers around a spiritual leader, called a “rebbe,” and its worship often emphasizes the spiritual and emotional. Hasidic attire — fur hats and long black frock coats for men, and hair coverings and long dresses and skirts for women — are also distinctive from other Orthodox Jews.
Indeed, last March, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow — a renowned Hasidic leader known as the Novominsker Rebbe — issued a video imploring fellow Jews to follow medical guidelines about the pandemic. The next month, Perlow, who was Heschel’s cousin, died at 89 from coronavirus complications.
Another cousin, who is also a Hasidic Rebbe, has received calls from many very sick Hasidic Jews with COVID-19, who are asking that he pray for them.
- Susannah Heschel. Photo via Dartmouth College
“Not everybody is out in the streets making a demonstration,” Heschel said.
Heschel blames at least some of the mischaracterizations of Hasidic Jews on popular culture, including the Netflix mini-series “Unorthodox,” that she believes denigrate Hasidic communities for popular consumption. Such shows, she said, often center on captive women who need to liberate themselves from narrow-minded communities.
“Part of it is that people just don’t understand piety,” she said. “There’s something very profound about leading a religious life. It’s a different kind of life.”
Even so, Heschel acknowledged particular challenges for Hasidim among lockdown, including large families in often cramped homes — perhaps eight kids in a three-bedroom apartment — and lack of internet. She also worried about what she dubbed “the Trump virus” and its politicizing effects.
“We’re dealing right now with, actually, two viruses. We have the coronavirus and we have the ‘Trump virus,'” she said. “It’s clear that in Borough Park, many people have been infected with the Trump virus, and that has given rise to all kinds of dangerous mentalities. … The sense with the Trump virus is now you don’t trust the doctors. It is a kind of virus. It affects the mind.”
Indeed, it is a common and popular practice to criticize Hasidim as “anti-science,” as Halley Bondy, a freelancer who writes for NBC News and others, tweeted recently. “Hasidic jews are NOT the same as Orthodox,” she tweeted on Oct. 11. “It is not anti-semitic to call the Hasidim an isolationist, anti-science cult. It IS anti-semitic to lump all jews together.”
Moshe Krakowski, associate professor and director of the Jewish education master’s program at Yeshiva University, thinks this charge misses the mark entirely.
“Unequivocally, they are not anti-science,” said Krakowski, an expert on Hasidic education.
Hasidim see science and medicine as powerful tools, he said, but they don’t use science as a framework with which to understand the world “in any truth with a capital T kind of way,” he said. “My power drill is not a source of meaning for me or explanation of the world.”
On several occasions when there have been family emergencies, Krakowski, who is Orthodox but not Hasidic, has called Hasidic hotlines that help community members identify top treatments, doctors and hospitals. “You can hardly call this ‘anti-science,'” he said.
- A man holds a sign as he joins protesters outside the offices of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in New York. Three Rockland County Jewish congregations are suing New York state and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying Cuomo engaged in a “streak of anti-Semitic discrimination” with a recent crackdown on religious gatherings to reduce the state’s coronavirus infection rate. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
However, Hasidim may be unique in their skeptical, active questioning of what they’re told, he allowed.
“They might not just take someone’s word for it as quickly as someone else would take someone’s word for it,” Krakowski said. “I think that’s probably a healthier attitude in a lot of ways toward pronouncements. Just look back at how the WHO and the CDC told us all not to wear masks for the first who-knows-how-long and then switched their views.”
Hasidim will be less impressed by official pronouncements than by their own perceptions of what the science says, according to Krakowski. They may err sometimes, he said, but that’s not anti-science.
A broader challenge in American Haredi life — often pejoratively dubbed “ultra-Orthodox,” and which includes Hasidic and non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews — is the lack of heir apparent since the death in 1986 of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, widely held to be a gadol hador, the greatest Jewish legal authority of his generation.
“There hasn’t really been someone with the stature to fill his shoes,” Krakowski said.
“I think the lack of hearing anything from leaders is much more a function of the very weak American Haredi leadership than anything else.”
Of the perception that Hasidim are unfairly targeted, Krakowski thinks it’s true simultaneously that some Hasidim don’t take COVID-19 as seriously as they ought to and that the government singles them out unjustly.
“There are segments of all sorts of other populations that are not taking things seriously — protest marchers, partiers and people in neighborhoods where they are just completely unconcerned about it,” he said. “The level of attention that the Haredi community is getting strikes me as something that is incredibly unfair.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, disagreed. Schneier, who founded and served for more than 25 years as rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue (Orthodox), is a member of Cuomo’s New York Forward Interfaith Advisory Council. He joined leaders of many faith traditions on a call with Cuomo on Oct. 8 about houses of worship during the pandemic.
- A traffic sign asks people to wear masks, wash hands, get tested and stay 6 feet apart on New Utrecht Ave. in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
“I wholeheartedly support the governor’s directive. I believe that our enemies in Jewish history remind us how casual Jews become Jewish casualties,” Schneier said. “Now, we’re fighting a different kind of enemy — an invisible enemy, in terms of COVID-19. … Now is not the time for any segments or elements of the Jewish community to be casual. We have to be vigilant.
“This is a temporary pause,” he said. “If compliance is in place, probably things will begin to get back to normal in two weeks. No matter what the observance, practice, precept in Judaism is, it’s all secondary to the preservation of life. Not just of your life, but of others’ lives, which there seem to be elements of the Jewish community who were absent in class that day.”
Spitzer, the Hasidic Brooklyn district manager, believes the media and New York government perpetuate misconceptions that Hasidim willfully buck laws and put neighbors, friends and relatives in jeopardy. He thinks politics plays a role.
“Let’s put it in a few words: We don’t hold the right views,” he said. “We are extremely tolerant of everybody and anything. It’s just we don’t practice some of the things that the left holds dear.”