Belgian Jews concerned about large haredi population and coronavirus

Antwerp community leaders expected an 85% COVID-19 infection rate among Jews in the Belgian city, with at least 550 deaths * Foreign Ministry makes sure Jews in Egypt have kosher for Passover food.

Jewish district in Antwerp. (photo credit: JTA)
Jewish district in Antwerp.
(photo credit: JTA)
Jewish community leaders in Belgium have expressed concern about the coronavirus spreading in its large haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community ahead of Passover, which begins Wednesday night. In other European countries, Jewish organizations are responding to the pandemic in ways unique to their communities.
Jacquie Ben-Zino, president of KKL-JNF in Belgium, described a relatively relaxed situation in the country until the government implemented a lockdown last week.
The Jewish community is “dealing with a problem identical to what Israel is dealing with,” he said.
A quarter of the 40,000-member Jewish community in Antwerp is haredi. Ben-Zino said some of them were continuing to gather in yeshivas and synagogues.
This leads to “a high rate of contagion in the haredi community and puts the rest of the population in danger,” he said.
Hassidic rabbinical authorities in Antwerp told community members to follow rules of the lockdown. But Shmulie Markowitz, head of the Hatzole Antwerp Jewish community emergency and rescue unit, said some local Jews were flouting the emergency regulations, JTA reported.
With Passover approaching, Belgian Jews are facing the same concerns as other communities about how they will conduct their Seders. Ben-Zino said he did not invite relatives to his home.
Brussels Chief Rabbi Albert Guigui hosts a Seder with about 120 guests every year. It was canceled this year.
KKL in Belgium has taken part in the community’s pre-Passover efforts, distributing special Haggadot on members’ doorsteps.
The community’s institutions established a hotline for elderly members of the Jewish community, and many of the younger people have volunteered to do shopping for them.
LAST MONTH, JTA reported that Antwerp community leaders expected an 85% COVID-19 infection rate among local Jews, with at least 550 deaths. There were 700 deaths from coronavirus in Belgium as of last week. There were no official numbers from the Jewish community.
The higher infection rate “makes sense, because Antwerp Jews all know each other; each synagogue is an extended family,” Michael Freilich, a Modern Orthodox lawmaker from Antwerp, told JTA.
“If the average Belgian person has a circle of 15 close friends and family, then with Antwerp Jews it’s 150 people,” he said.
The Jewish communities in Egypt – Cairo and Alexandria – received kosher-for-Passover food products from Israel thanks to the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
The Foreign Ministry operation took considerable effort because Egypt is closed to all foreign travel.
“Even in the difficult reality of the global coronavirus crisis, we do not forget our Jewish brothers in the small Jewish community in Egypt, and I am happy that we helped them celebrate Passover this year,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said.
“The connection with Jewish communities around the world is a central part of Israeli diplomats’ work,” he said.
IN THE Netherlands, KKL Holland CEO Vivian Rinat said there have been no deaths from coronavirus in the Jewish community, but local Jews have found infringement of their usual liberties due to the lockdown to be difficult.
“This situation is very difficult for Dutch people, who are used to almost total freedom in a social and liberal country that defends individual rights,” she said.
The different Jewish denominations are working together to help older members of the community, about 40% of whom are over age 60, Rinat said.
KKL organized a drive for community members to donate a Seder meal to families who cannot afford their own or elderly people who cannot leave home to buy food. It is sponsoring a virtual Seder on Wednesday night that will be broadcast on social media and hosted by a non-Orthodox rabbi.
Sweden is not under lockdown, and KKL-Sweden CEO Max Federmann said many bars are still open.
Strict lockdown rules infringe on rights in a modern democracy, Sweden says, and the negative effects of being in isolation will be worse than the disease itself. Social distancing is a recommendation in Sweden.
The Jewish community in Sweden is trying to implement the recommendations ahead of Passover. Federmann said its members have been trying to stay away from one another, though younger people have taken them less seriously and visit one another.
The three synagogues in Stockholm are all closed. Rabbis and community leaders have been communicating through social media, and the situation is similar in smaller communities. There have been ongoing efforts in the Jewish communities of Stockholm and Gothenberg to help older members with shopping and other Passover logistics.
Six residents of the Jewish old-age home in Stockholm have contracted the coronavirus, Swedish media reported.
Sweden's 20,000-member Jewish community lost at least nine members to coronavirus, meaning that the death rate among Jews is 14 times higher than their share of the population.
Federmann's mother, Judith Federmann, survived Auschwitz and is currently living in Malmo while he lives 660 km. away in Stockholm. She normally receives help from the municipality to stock up on food and clean her apartment, but had to cancel the services because of the risk of coronavirus. Federmann orders groceries for her online.
"She is really isolated," he said. "We call her several times a day to make her feel better. We can't visit."

JTA contributed to this report.