I’ve dreaded checking the news over the last week due to the Coronavirus protests happening in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community. We live in a world full of sound bites and memes, snarky tweets and quick judgments, but none of these responses are satisfactory in understanding what’s happening in this neighborhood. As I read more and more about the situation, I posted several nuanced articles on our Facebook page, like this and this and this.
Unfortunately, it seems that taking a nuanced position leads to one side telling me I’m being too harsh on the Jewish community while the other side says I’m not being harsh enough. Whenever I have people on both sides unhappy with my take I consider that a sign that I probably landed close to the truth.
So here’s my version of what is happening with these protests and more importantly why. Let’s establish a few points from the start: Coronavirus caught the whole world by surprise, except for maybe Bill Gates. Lots of mistakes were made by leaders of many countries including leaders in the U.S. from across the political spectrum. Lots of mixed messages have been espoused by the experts. With a brand new virus, there is a lot we didn’t know and still don’t know.
I’m proud to say that while the Orthodox rabbis that I follow would have done even better had they shut down our communities before Purim, they still acted extremely quickly and closed our schools and synagogues before the government asked them to. The wisdom and leadership they exhibited saved countless lives.
Unfortunately, there were Orthodox rabbis who did not shut down their communities before the government asked them to. In fact, some erroneously stated that Torah study would prevent the community from getting sick. This is not how Judaism believes the world works. We’re not allowed rely on miracles. In fact, Jewish law requires that we follow the best science and medicine of our times and then we should add merit through Torah study, prayer, and performance of mitzvos.
In some places, like Brooklyn, even once there was a mandated lockdown, the dynamics of the charedi (ultra-orthodox) world, made the situation especially challenging for many of its members to adhere to. Large families trapped in small apartments with no internet is what your average charedi family was dealing with for weeks upon weeks at the height of the pandemic.
Additionally, for boys and men who are raised to believe that learning Torah in yeshiva and going to minyan three times a day is the reason they’re alive, it was difficult for many members of this community to internalize the idea that suddenly the more religious act would be staying home to preserve human life.
But the story gets even more complicated. Communities that have integrated less into secular America have a stronger memory of generations of antisemitic treatment in the shtetl. There were many edicts passed in Eastern Europe and in earlier time periods that prevented Jews from practicing Judaism. This mindset has led some members of this community to believe that the lockdowns were antisemitic in nature, trying to stop Jews from being Jewish.
One woman from an insular community told me that a wonderful rabbi she knew insisted on continuing to go to pray and learn in person everyday until he eventually died “al kiddush Hashem” of Coronavirus. Dying “al kiddush Hashem” literally means “dying to sanctify God’s name,” or the term that is traditionally used when a Jew insists on performing commandments even when non-Jewish authorities have outlawed them. I was stunned to hear this explanation. I told the woman that this rabbi didn’t die al kiddush Hashem, he died al suicide.
Due to all of these aforementioned reasons, there were tragically many casualties during April and May in the Brooklyn Orthodox community. Friends who live there told me there were sirens going off round the clock. My friends and their friends and family were being careful about the lockdown. They couldn’t understand why their neighbors and co-religionist were not taking Coronavirus seriously. But my friends did note that non-Jewish immigrant communities that lived nearby were also not taking the lockdown seriously.
The media and the NYC government took a specific interest in calling out Orthodox Jews for defying lockdown orders. Of course those individuals were wrong to ignore these orders, but the media and politicians were wrong to continuously single out the Jewish community for falling short when it was not the entire community that did so and when there were other groups that were also ignoring the lockdown.
Fast forward to the end of May, the George Floyd protests began. Thousands of people gathered in the streets of New York City. Many protesters were in masks, but not all of them. Instead of speaking out against mass gatherings, the media and NYC government praised these protests, which in some cases included looting and violence. As the NYPD was instructed to mostly not interfere even with looting, DeBlasio had the NYPD breaking up small Orthodox Jewish prayer groups in different parts of the city that were happening at the same time.
Then came the summer and something surprising happened: the Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County stopped having new Coronavirus cases despite continuing to not follow social distancing or wearing masks. I didn’t believe it at first, but I kept hearing from people in the community that Hatzala was reporting no new cases. There were people wondering if these neighborhoods had achieved herd immunity since they had gone back to life as normal, but no one was getting sick.
Then fall came and cases started to increase in several areas in New York mainly (but not all) in charedi neighborhoods. I asked my father (who’s a doctor) what could possibly be going on if there seemed to be herd immunity during the summer, but cases were starting up again. He explained that there’s a new Covid-19 strain out now. So perhaps people who had it before, either with symptoms or without, were getting this new strain.
Understandably, New York leadership was nervous about another spike in cases. Once again, though, the Orthodox Jewish community was not only singled out for lockdowns when several other zip codes had comparable spikes with no consequences, Cuomo also used an old (pre-pandemic) picture of Hasidic Jews gathering to complain about the community during a news conference. During this news conference, which took place during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, he announced the imminent lockdown, which no Sabbath observant Jews were able to hear live as they were offline.
This combination of factors got many members of the Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish community fed up. They feel that the government and media is hypocritical about who is allowed to gather and who is not, who is allowed to have a spike in numbers with consequences and who is not.
Additionally, they believe that masks are not effective and will share links of when Fauci and the CDC said not to wear masks. They will cite Sweden as the model to follow and explain that although Jewish law states that we must follow the best medicine of our time, they’re following the Swedish approach. They’ll say that although Jewish law states that the law of the land is Jewish law, they will argue that when laws are unjust, as they believe these laws are, we are allowed to break them.
This whole thing is a mess. Religious Jews gathering in the streets, burning masks and roughing up (a couple of) people who disagreed with them is not a good look for the Chosen People. In fact, it’s downright embarrassing. This is not who we are. The government and media made their share of mistakes. The experts keep changing their minds (just yesterday The WHO tweaked their messaging on lockdowns), but this is no excuse for the chillul Hashem that has been caused.
In many Orthodox communities, like mine, we are making this work. We have open schools and public prayers. Life is normal-ish. We’re just wearing masks, social distancing, praying outside and quarantining classes when one kid tests positive. We are continuing to keep the virus at bay, continuing to abide by the law and living as religious Jews. But no one is writing articles about the Orthodox communities doing things right and most people won’t bother to understand all the layers of what started this mess in Brooklyn. There is a lot of mistrust, misinformation, and miseducation that got us here. And just like it was many layers of complication that made the mess, it will be many layers to dig out of it. But in the meantime, now that you have learned about the nuance, please pass this information along.