The 'Heretics' Saving Jews from COVID-19

By Joe Kolman
May 05, 2020

In late February, as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US had begun creeping steadily toward 1000, rabbis in the reform, conservative, and orthodox schools of Judaism began to warn their followers about the dangers of the approaching virus.

But some Jews in the ultra-orthodox or Haredi sects – the ones featured in the “Unorthodox” and “Schtisel” series on Netflix – were getting different advice. Many were encouraged to go about business as usual by rabbis who told their followers that prayer alone would protect them. On February 27, Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz, one of the leading Israeli Haredi rabbis, released an emotional video to his followers in Israel and the United States, telling them that he who worships in a quorum of ten men “is like he's in a protected room, a bunker. It's a bomb shelter, nothing will happen to him, not to him and not to anyone in his family."

About a week later, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, another prominent Israeli Haredi rabbi told his followers that the best way to defeat the virus was to stop gossiping, strengthen their humility, and place the needs of others before their own.

To some Jews active on social media, this type of misinformation spelled disaster ahead. They worried what would happen in a week's time when Jews gathered for the holiday of Purim, a Jewish holiday similar to Mardi Gras.

Their worst fears were soon realized. But as the crisis grew, an informal group of orthodox Jewish journalists, doctors, and activists began to speak out, determined to fight their community’s resistance to COVID-19 guidelines. Their tactics involved employing social media, traditional journalism, and physical confrontation. For their efforts, they were called snitches, heretics, and murderers – and even received death threats. Nonetheless, together they formed a modern-day resistance movement, saving countless lives by forcing their fellow Jews to face facts.

On March 6, Dr. Stuart Ditchek, an orthodox Jewish pediatrician who serves the Haredi community in Brooklyn, voiced fears in a Facebook video that children attending religious schools could become asymptomatic carriers and possibly infect their parents and grandparents.

On Wednesday, March 11, the day after thousands of Jews of all denominations went ahead with their Purim celebrations in packed synagogues, Ditchek gathered contagious disease specialists in a Brooklyn religious school to help him convince more than 100 Haredi school principals and administrators to close their schools. “It was well received by about half the room,” Ditchek later told the Forward. “It was not so well received by the other half.”

Although Ditchek said he eventually won over most of the people in the room, some important Haredi groups declined, noting that New York City Mayor De Blasio had not yet closed city schools. Some also believed it was important for the religious schools to remain open because of the Jewish belief in “tinokos shel bais rabban” – that the prayers of young children bring good into the world. “I was devastated,” Ditchek said later.

From Thursday to Sunday, Jewish authorities wrestled with what to do amid calls for rabbis to speak up. Most reform, conservative, and orthodox Jewish authorities closed their schools and synagogues. But despite the increasingly dire media reports, some prominent Haredi rabbis kept schools and synagogues open. Some rabbis even argued that the virus was a divine punishment brought on Haredi women who immodestly bought long and loose wigs.  

On Sunday, March 15, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was closing New York City schools and placing new limits on public gatherings. Torah Umesorah, an important Haredi umbrella organization, reversed its decision to keep schools open the next day. But the guidance didn't seem to have a big effect until Tuesday morning, March 17, when news that more than 100 cases of COVID-19 infection was reported in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park and Williamsburg. Later that day, Ari Berkowitz, an orthodox Jewish advisor to President Trump, held a conference call with dozens of rabbis. He warned them that refusing to observe public health guidelines would make them guilty of a breach of "pikuach nefesh" – a principle in Jewish law in which the need to save lives overrides any other religious law.

That seemed to do the trick. Within minutes, Jewish ambulances with loudspeakers raced through the streets of Williamsburg and Borough Park warning people to stay at home.

Dr. Ditchek said the Haredi rabbis he’s talked to are angry at the relatively few of their followers who are resisting rabbinical pleas to follow guidelines. How could these Haredi Jews have ignored the unceasing calls to isolate that have appeared in the media? One possible reason is that their followers are not allowed to read secular media. Those who own a smartphone or scan secular websites are warned they are committing a grievous sin. Frimet Goldberger, a Yiddish-speaking freelance journalist who left the Haredi community, attributes the delays in responding to a lack of access to mainstream media and a general mistrust of science and secular authorities. “News trickles in with a delay,” she wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed.

It’s hard to make broad generalizations about Haredi Jews because they are organized into dozens of sects that follow a particular head rabbi, with some dating their origins to individual towns in Eastern Europe centuries ago. Naftuli Moster, an orthodox Jew who heads YAFFED, an organization dedicated to improving the secular education Haredi children receive, points out that most speak Yiddish as a first language and send their children to Jewish private schools, where secular subjects like English, math, history, and science are denigrated. A few sects manage to give their children a basic understanding of secular subjects. But in many Haredi schools, Moster said, boys finish eighth grade unable to form an English sentence or understand any math concepts beyond the multiplication tables. And at that point, their secular education ends and they spend the rest of their time studying religious subjects.

When outsiders wonder why some Haredi Jews refuse to follow science-based medical guidelines, Moster said they are missing the point. Many Haredi Jews were never taught the basics of science. His organization’s website is full of accounts of religious school graduates who never learned anything about cells and molecules or looked through a microscope. As a result, he wasn’t surprised by the Haredi resistance to the COVID-19 warnings, even after their own rabbis sounded the alarms.

Moster believes this state of affairs has been aided and abetted by a long series of New York politicians – from Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton to Bill de Blasio – who traded their principles for the tens of thousands of block votes the Haredi community offers. And they look the other way when Jewish education activists like him complain about the terrible secular education many Haredi children receive.

On March 17, the day after the White House conference call, the streets of Haredi Brooklyn were quiet, but resistance to the public health orders continued. Frimet Goldberger, the freelance writer, was trying to keep up with the alarming tweets flooding her phone. As her COVID-19-affected husband was isolating nearby, Goldberger's sources were sending her desperate messages about gatherings of hundreds of people that were still being held. One tweet described a wedding that hired a Haredi security force to stand guard at the door. “Suddenly police came so they ran in yelling the Yavunim [cops] are coming!” the tweet reported. “And everyone escaped from the back door & by the time police arrived there were just a few [people] so they left.”

"I have it on good authority that many chassidim are still ignoring the calls for social distancing," she tweeted. "I'm done mincing words, and I'm going to start naming names. It's the only effective way to put pressure and save lives." Goldberger tweeted reports of two large weddings that had occurred the previous evening in upstate New York. "To the owners of these venues. We will expose your negligence and complete disregard for human life. This contagion… doesn't know whether you're Jewish or not, American or Japanese. PLEASE STOP THIS NONSENSE!"

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, a journalist at the Jewish Forward, was getting similar messages from her sources about a large wedding that had been held in Brooklyn. She shared a tweet about other parties in Borough Park and copied Michael Snow, an aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

At about the same time, Dr. Ditchek was firing up his webcam for his latest desperate Facebook plea. Deadly misinformation was racing through the Haredi community as quickly as the virus was. He reported that wedding caterers were telling their clients that celebrations were permissible with 50 or fewer guests and that local doctors were misdiagnosing obvious COVID-19 cases as bronchitis. Ditchek was particularly infuriated by reports of synagogues that were still open.

“I can't say it in any clearer terms,” he said. “Anybody who walks into a synagogue right now is committing a dire sin. This is getting out of control. I'm ashamed of the behavior that I'm hearing about. We're a smart community. We're an educated community. We're behaving in ways that I've never imagined. What is wrong with us that we can't accept the fact that [The Holy One Blessed be He] has put this challenge in front of us? He's watching how we respond to these challenges and I trust you, [The Holy One, Blessed be He] is not happy with putting people at risk.”

Over the next few days, Ditchek and others continued to post notices and alert local police departments. But this time, they were joined by rabbis and other members in the Haredi community who had come around and were now working passionately to stop the prayer gatherings that continued in many areas. At one point, Ditchek told his Facebook audience that he walked into a rogue prayer service, announced he was a doctor, and told the congregants that they were endangering the lives of their neighbors. A lawyer in attendance threatened him with a lawsuit and shoved him out of the room and into the street.

Reports of underground prayer groups and resistance to social distancing guidelines continue to surface in the press almost daily. In April, Jacob Kornbluh, a Hasidic journalist who also revealed public health violators in Brooklyn, found his photo on the Yiddish equivalent of a “wanted” poster. Entitled “Jewish Informants,” the poster accused Kornbluh and two others of besmirching pious Jews attempting to observe holy rituals. When it was posted on Twitter, the wanted poster was accompanied by a note citing a passage from the medieval Jewish sage Maimonides, in which the poster claimed Maimonides said it was permitted to kill those who betrayed the Jewish people. (The passage is open to other interpretations.) Dr. Ditchek also received a death threat.

As the weeks wore on and one report of resistance followed another, a number of voices in the Jewish press and social media began calling for a reckoning. They believed Haredi rabbis should be held responsible for the lives lost from their initial reluctance to follow public health guidelines. “Many of us simply want those leaders to acknowledge to themselves and to their followers that they made mistakes and that they are fallible,” Moster, the education activist, tweeted

That acknowledgment is unlikely to occur. On April 5, Mischpacha, a Haredi weekly magazine, published a glowing feature article about Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the chief rabbi of the Satmar sect in upstate New York. A few days before, Satmar authorities had announced that Teitelbaum had tested positive for the virus and that his wife was in critical condition. The feature article claimed that Teitelbaum had taken elaborate steps to follow medical advice and protect his flock as soon as he learned of the pandemic. (Rabbi Teitelbaum's office could not be reached for comment.)

When Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt saw it, she tweeted: “I think they filed this story under the wrong section. It belongs in ‘fiction.’” She pointed out that on the day after Haredi authorities had ordered their schools closed, Teitelbaum vowed to pursue every legal avenue to ensure that schools remain open. “Torah and prayer protect us from death,” he promised.

Chizik-Goldschmidt also noted Teitelbaum went on to tell his followers in a recorded speech on March 16 that government authorities who wanted to close the schools “don't understand what a Jewish family is. Its crowded at home. There's barely any room, beds are placed wherever there's room, there's no gentile entertainment and if the kids are sent home, there's no room at home, so they'll wander around in the streets and people will gather anyway, so nothing would be accomplished anyway.”

Soon after her tweet, a video appeared on Twitter that showed Teitelbaum attending a traditional matzoh blessing ceremony just before Passover. In the video, Teitelbaum rolls dough and blesses the matzoh with his bare hands. Although many others around him are wearing masks, he is not.

Those expecting Haredi rabbis who misled their followers to admit their mistakes may be in for a disappointment. 


Joe Kolman is a freelance journalist and filmmaker who is completing a short documentary about secular education in Haredi religious schools.

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