Rabbi Kanievsky calls for ultra-Orthodox schools to close

Netanyahu requests shutdown cooperation from leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis

Rabbi Haim Kanievsky takes part in a Rabbi Conference for the foundation for Ultra Orthodox Jews, partners in the Torah, on January 23, 2016 (photo credit: YAAKOV COHEN/FLASH90)
Rabbi Haim Kanievsky takes part in a Rabbi Conference for the foundation for Ultra Orthodox Jews, partners in the Torah, on January 23, 2016
(photo credit: YAAKOV COHEN/FLASH90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the country, has given instructions to close down ultra-Orthodox schools in the non-hassidic sector of the community that he heads “for several days,” following a conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The step is highly significant since Kanievsky refused to call for schools to close during the last lockdown, leading to tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox families to send their children to school in defiance of government instructions and the law.
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, Kanievsky’s counterpart in the leadership of the non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox community, has also told school principals who have approached him to shut down their schools until the government gives permission to reopen.
Netanyahu called several of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the country or their representatives on Wednesday and Thursday to obtain their cooperation for the upcoming COVID-19 lockdown in light of their previous refusal to do so.
Netanyahu spoke to the grand rabbi of the Vizhnitz community, Rabbi Yisroel Hager, on Tuesday night, and also called United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler of the Belz community with a message for the grand rabbi of the Belz hassidic movement, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach.
Belz has been the most prominent of the mainstream hassidic communities to routinely defy COVID-19 regulations, while Vizhnitz has also held several mass gatherings and prayer services during the pandemic.
Netanyahu also spoke with Kanievsky’s grandson on Thursday afternoon to request the influential rabbi’s cooperation.
On Thursday morning, Kanievsky and Edelstein published a joint letter in the Yated Neeman newspaper that referenced the coming lockdown obliquely, but did not directly state that schools should close down.
“Because of the situation, parents are called to keep a close eye on pupils during the time that they are forced to stay at home and to try and generate a pleasant atmosphere in the home,” read the notice. “It is a merit and an obligation that educators stay in constant touch with their pupils and preserve a study and lesson schedule for them.”
Commentators speculated that the rabbis were being deliberately vague due to their reticence to call for a blanket shut down of the ultra-Orthodox education system.
Kanievsky and his assistants had come to an agreement with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion on Tuesday that ultra-Orthodox schools in the capital would close for two weeks.
But overnight on Tuesday, Kanievsky flip-flopped and told the principal of a large school in Jerusalem that he should keep his institution open.
Following a phone call between Netanyahu and Kanievsky’s grandson, Yanki Kanievsky, a spokesman for the rabbi said that Yanki had told the prime minister during the call that the rabbi “had given instructions this morning to close the schools for several days due to the severe infection rate.”
Later on Thursday, a letter signed by both Kanievsky and Edelstein acknowledged that schools were going to close, but again did not directly give a direct order to shut them down, demonstrating what appears to be a heavy disinclination to actively call for studies to cease.
“After school pupils have been required to study at home for a short time due to the large number of sick, school principals and teachers together with parents have an obligation to make every effort that Torah study time should not be wasted, and should greatly encourage study and prayer,” the rabbis said.
Kanievsky has frequently cited the metaphysical protection believed to emanate from Torah study as a reason not to cancel school, as well as the Talmudic dictum that the world only continues to exist due to the studies of young children, which he and Edelstein mentioned in their letter on Thursday.
Both rabbis appear to be too daunted to violate these principles to call directly for stopping school, hence their opaque language.
The Shas Council of Torah Sages has also instructed its schools to shut down due to the impending lockdown.
On Thursday evening, Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a video conference call with the mayors of the ultra-Orthodox cities of Bnei Brak, Telz-stone, Elad, Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit to impress upon them the importance of enforcing the lockdown.
“I request above everything that you call on the public and explain the importance of the lockdown,” explained Gantz. “As long as people observe the lockdown and don’t meet, the infection rate will go down. We have one goal and one law - you have to tell the public clearly that they must obey the law.”
Although the large majority of the mainstream ultra-Orthodox community now looks set to obey the new lockdown, at least at the outset, it appears likely that the extremist, anti-Zionist groups such as the Eda Haredit communities in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood and in neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh will defy the new regulations.