As we’ve said many times on this site: Orthodox Jews should not be held to a different standard than the rest of the world, but we know we always will be. At the same time, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard, because what is the point of being observant if you don’t actually follow the commandments of Judaism, which include: prioritizing life above almost anything else, following the law of the land, being a kind and courteous person (among many others).
As we’ve said many times on this site, antisemitism will always exist and it will always be irrational. And at the same time, we do NOT and should NOT give antisemites fuel for their fire. While there are individuals from all sorts of groups out right now, defying the mandatory Coronavirus lockdown orders, including college kids on Spring Break, church groups, and more, none of these populations are identifiable by how they look. Orthodox Jews are. That means that when members of our community ignore these orders, not only do we put other people (and ourselves at risk) like anyone else defying such orders, we also endanger our community by increasing anti-Orthodox and anti-semitic feelings.
I have messages for three separate groups:
For the Orthodox Jews still going to minyans, weddings, doing non-essential shopping, or not practicing social distancing: You have blood on your hands. Your seemingly innocent or even what you perceive as a “holy act” is completely against our Torah. While Orthodox leaders did not all recommend quarantining at the same time (regrettably, some made this call later than they should have), by now, our entire leadership is united. Stay home. You are not invincible. This disease randomly kills young and healthy people. Not only may you be silently spreading it if you are asymptomatic, you are increasing hatred for Jews and Orthodox Jews when you flout these rules. And non-Jews are noticing. We are getting links to comments everyday online from concerned members of our community who see you causing a second tragedy beyond the on-going pandemic the world is facing. There is already a historical precedent for antisemites associating Jews with spreaders of disease. Why are you making this so easy for them?
For the Orthodox Jews following the government guidelines: If you know anyone ignoring these orders, you should do whatever you can in your (legal) power to get this person to stop. Orthodox Rabbis in Florida have posted on social media that people should call the police if they learn of someone traveling to Florida for Pesach (Passover). Additionally, if you see anyone online blaming “Orthodox Jews” or “Hasidic Jews” for the mistakes of some, take the time to correct them like I will do below.
For the non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews seeing members of the Orthodox community out and about: The majority of Orthodox Jews are in lockdown. Many of us, as prompted by our leaders, actually began this process before the government asked us to because of the high value we put on life – ours and yours. We share your shock and disgust at anyone ignoring these orders, but have extra shame when someone from our group is doing this.
Not to excuse it in anyway, but it’s important to understand why parts of the Orthodox community moved more slowly than you did: many get their news from Conservative sources, which were slower to take this virus seriously, many are not on social media, and therefore the “flatten the curve” messaging that you got got to them much later, many in the community have a distrust of government, as their parents or grandparents were hauled into cattle cars and sent to the gas chambers.
Additionally, even if the Orthodox community followed all the laws as soon as the government told them to, we still would have had an extremely high contagion rate because of the close knit nature of the observant Jewish lifestyle. In times when people are healthy, having so many opportunities to interact with a community is incredibly beautiful. In times when disease is spreading, it is highly dangerous. NYC acted slowly in shutting things down and they should have asked the Orthodox communities to shut down sooner. We knew already with the measles that the close knit nature of Orthodox life makes diseases more contagious. The city health department should have jumped in sooner.
Finally, when you see Orthodox Jews behaving badly, whether it’s in the Covid19 crisis, or any other time, please remember that the only people who that bad behavior is connected to is the people you see doing it and not anyone else.