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The Haredi world has problems; that doesn’t make them evil

Elad Nehorai
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Published: 3 May 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

ELAD NEHORAI: The issue is not whether Haredi leaders should be blamed over social distancing, but that we separate the community from its leadership

BY NOW, YOU’VE HEARD the stories.  You’ve likely seen the videos or the images.  And with New York Mayor de Blasio’s recent tweet heard around the world, you have definitely heard of the backlash.

The American Haredi Jews who have, it seems, gone out of their way to break all social distancing guidelines, have been making headlines.  Here in America, the headlines are so large that they’ve ended up in most mainstream publications.  Neighbourhoods in Brooklyn like Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights (where I live) have started to be associated with these issues and are labelled as the reason these same neighbourhoods have become hotspots of the virus.

This has led to a lot of bellyaching from the Jewish world, but an even more intense backlash from the non-Jews around these Haredi Jews.

Things had gotten quite bad even before de Blasio’s tweet: Many stories painted all Haredi Jews as having violated social distancing.  This has led to an increased suspicion of these communities, which has directly contributed to false reporting around their behaviour, which has thus created a sort of cycle of suspicion.  Haredi Jews have also reported feeling harassed when they go out to go shopping, and others have observed anti-Semitic statements in their presence.

There are a lot of issues with all this.

First: for the most part, the Haredi Jews who have been violating social distancing guidelines are the minority in their communities (more on this below).  But the media, especially mainstream outlets, often have a problem distinguishing between “some Haredi Jews” and “all Haredi Jews.”  This lack of nuance stems from a deep-seated anti-Semitism that associates individuals with the collective, an issue that is pronounced in the ways that Haredi Jews are bothered by those around them.

Second: Purim.  Purim occurred a few days before New York, and then the rest of the country, was put on lockdown.

Purim is celebrated rather epically in the Haredi world, and especially among Chasidim.  In Crown Heights, people go from synagogue to synagogue, celebrating, drinking, hugging, dancing, and generally doing a bunch of things you wouldn’t want to do if you were trying to stop spreading a virus.

This all occurred at the same time that most Americans were feeling as the Haredi Jews were feeling: the pandemic was scary, but it was not yet time to lock our lives down completely yet.

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Third: The social and familial dynamics of the Haredi world.  Haredim have large families, and in places like Brooklyn, the great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and children all may live blocks away from each other.  Even without Purim, the spread among this community, in the city first ravaged by COVID, seems almost inevitable.

All of this is to say that the reporting around Haredi Jews has been deeply unfair, and deeply flawed.  It has contributed to anti-Semitism, and it is dangerous.

But now we have another problem.

For those of us who deal just as much with intra-communal issues as inter-communal drama like antisemitism, this has been a deeply frustrating time.

Here’s why:  even with all the issues above, the Haredi community did, indeed, face numerous leadership failures, structural breakdowns, and cultural acceptance of breaking social distancing.

None of this was minor, and none of it was excusable.  Quite the opposite: the fact that Purim occurred shortly before this, and that family dynamics are different among Haredim simply means that the problems in addressing social distancing magnified the problems they experienced to an epic degree.  In such a situation, even one day of delay compounds the problem beyond what we can even imagine.

A few examples: When this was first starting, community activists (including myself) worked very hard to encourage others to observe social distancing.  For varying reasons, many of us were ignored, and it took until rabbis finally released strict guidelines for communities to fully begin to observe these guidelines.

Worse, many still held huge gatherings.  Advocates like Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt (an orthodox Jew and a prominent editor for the Forward), Meyer Labin (a writer who often translates his community’s experiences for wider audiences), and Mordy Getz (the owner of a store called Eichler’s and an activist), all shared stories about huge weddings, people out shopping as if things were normal, and videos of massive funerals in the streets of Williamsburg (such as the one later condemned by de Blasio).

I had multiple Chasidic and formerly Chasidic friends sending me messages of concern and hopelessness, deeply concerned because their families were attending these funerals and weddings, or were simply ignoring social distancing guidelines.

Even two weeks into the orders of social isolation, I was receiving these messages.  A few weeks after that, they sent me messages informing me of the hospitalisations and deaths of some of these loved ones.

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Even now, we are seeing some horrific violations. A rebbe in Kiryas Joel (the upstate Samtar community which, it should be noted, has been experiencing significant anti-Semitism since the epidemic) was seen baking matzah for his community with a large group of people.

Crown Heights, which experienced a huge backlash from its own members to close its most central religious institution, 770, still has groups of extremists praying outside of it every day (there were multiple reports of “hundreds” of Chasidim praying there during Passover), and at least one incident where an open fight broke out between them and police who tried to break up one of these sessions.

Then there is Jacob Kornbluh, a journalist and Chasidic Jew, who has videoed himself breaking up prayer sessions with up to 40 people.

All of that said, we still have the very valid and important argument that even these situations involve the minority of community members.  This is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

I spoke with a well-connected member of the Satmar community about this question.  He was frustrated because he was aware of multiple synagogues and mikvahs of a specific faction in Williamsburg that were “quietly open”.

Asked if this was a fringe issue, he responded: “Satmar’s leaders have a lot of power over their own people.  If Zalmen and his [rabbinic leaders] wouldn’t want this to happen, it would be closed. It’s that easy.”

He went on to add: “It’s not fringe. It’s Satmar Zalman establishment”, referring to one side of the sect of Satmar, which is split between this rebbe and his brother.

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Another example: 770 stayed open largely because of one rabbi who insisted on it staying open, saying to the Hasidic news outlet COLLive that “770 will be open until Moshiach (the coming of the Messiah).”

This was partly aided by the fact that up until that point, the members of the Bais Din (rabbinical court) of Crown Heights, had only told those 65 and older to stay home.

What these incidents reveal is something very important, and which helps us break down the false binary between “Haredi Jews are all horrible” and “Haredi Jews are all innocent, and no different than the rest of the world”.

Rather, what’s clear from this is that this is not about the fact that Haredi communities are inherently evil or bad, but that the structure and dynamics of their communities create huge problems, both during a pandemic and outside of it.

The above examples are not of entire communities: they are of failures of leadership, and of extremists run amok.

In the case of Satmar, the rebbe has failed to reign in those who are still not practicing social distancing, and it seems may even have signed off, if only through inaction, on those who are breaking these rules.

In the case of Chabad, a combination of one rabbi in control of one institution that happens to be trafficked heavily by Jews from all over the world and a weak statement by the religious authorities of the community combined to create a perfect storm that made the already-spreading pandemic even worse.

To add on to that, what’s clear is that those who have spoken up have received exponentially higher backlash for their behaviour than those who have broken social distancing guidelines.  This is another communal dysfunction: one that arises from a larger concern over airing dirty laundry than about the laundry itself.  Even when that laundry involves life or death issues.

Which brings me back to anti-Semitism. Why are these communities so concerned about the airing of dirty laundry?

The very short answer is the first section above, where I detailed the various ways in which the Haredi communities have been disparaged.

To be more specific: anti-Semitism.
Haredim stick out like sore thumbs in the cities and towns they inhabit.  For this reason, they are examined more closely than even Modern Orthodox Jews. The fact that they are so close-knit also creates situations in which their way of life often comes into conflict with those around them.

Unlike most Jewish communities, Haredim stick out like sore thumbs in the cities and towns they inhabit.  For this reason, they are examined more closely than even Modern Orthodox Jews. The fact that they are so close-knit also creates situations in which their way of life often comes into conflict with those around them, such as clashes with neighbouring communities when their communities inevitably expand.

All of this makes them targets of anti-Semitism, far more than any other Jewish community.  And far more violently as well.

But it is not just that: the very structure of Haredi communities was shaped by anti-Semitism: the cloistered communities they live in today were formed in countries and times when they didn’t have a choice but to live separated from the outside world.  The inward-facing culture is one that has been shaped by centuries of oppression, and which were largely created to preserve their way of life despite this outside pressure.

What this has created is an extreme and powerful fear of anti-Semitism.  One that is so strong that it has come to be used by exploitive leaders, as well as reinforced by the outside world when it lives out their side of the script.

This translates into a self-perpetuating problem: one in which serious issues are ignored because they are constantly deflected through exploitation of the potential for anti-Semitism.  Countless sexual abuse cases and gett (divorce) refusal situations have been quieted through this very strategy.

The self-perpetuation occurs when actual anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.  When de Blasio tweeted about “the Jewish community,” it instantly gave credibility to those who had tried to silence people like Mordy Getz.

This is part of why activists like him and others have to deal with constant harassment whereas those who endanger the lives of those around them through ignoring social distancing are largely met without such harsh reactions.

This is then further exacerbated by another trend.  It can best be described as “Haredi PR.”  More often than not, it is clothed as Haredi “representatives” or “activists” engaging with the public.  These organisations and individuals seem to have come to the conclusion that anti-Semitism against Haredi Jews is best fought through an active whitewashing of their problems.

Examples of this are people like Yossi Gestetner, an “activist,” whose work seems mainly to downplay any issues Haredi communities are facing in addressing the coronavirus, and to equivocate communal issues with, for example, groups of people going out during the pandemic.

This approach is self-defeating, however, because it plays into one of the core issues that surrounds anti-Semitism and especially anti-Haredism: dehumanisation.

You cannot humanise people who are perfect.  You also can’t encourage news outlets to run positive stories about your community, such as the beautiful examples of Haredi Jews donating plasma to help combat COVID, without also having critical stories come out.

Unfortunately, the Haredi PR approach does just that, and in turn dehumanises their own communities, turning this all into a fight about whether Haredi Jews are to blame or blameless, instead of looking at them as complicated and dynamic.

And ultimately, it is in this tension that we can finally find the true answer to both the anti-Semitism question and the way to approach social distancing within the Haredi world: they are only addressable when they are addressed openly and honestly.  In so doing, we humanise the communities while also facing their flaws.

There is no other answer.

Photo: Police confront Haredim ahead of the funeral in Brooklyn last week (Eli Wohl)


About the author

Elad Nehorai

Elad Nehorai is founder of the American Jewish creative community Hevria, Executive Director of the Orthodox Jewish activist organisation and community Torah Trumps Hate

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