How New York hassidic communities have been beaten by coronavirus

‘We didn’t want to get up in the morning because we didn't want to hear any more bad news.’

On the streets of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood (photo credit: SERGE ATTAL/FLASH90)
On the streets of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood
(photo credit: SERGE ATTAL/FLASH90)
The news from the Jewish communities of New York has been fearful and unrelenting. Every day of the last few weeks has brought bitter tidings of more victims of the coronavirus epidemic, more funerals and more sorrow.
The ultra-Orthodox community in the New York City neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park has been hit especially hard, as have other upstate ultra-Orthodox enclaves, and the large hassidic communities have suffered grievous losses from the contagion.
Although there are no definitive figures, estimates put the number of dead in the ultra-Orthodox community in New York as high as 300 people.
As in Israel, parts of the ultra-Orthodox community in New York were slow to adopt the social-distancing regulations issued by state authorities, as were other population groups, because of the huge limitations they posed to religious life.
Three daily prayers services, frequent mikva immersion for women and hassidic men, large families living in close quarters, heavily attended lifecycle events, and other characteristics of ultra-Orthodox life all contributed to the massive outbreak in the community.
And indeed there has been heavy criticism of rabbinic leaders and grand rabbis of hassidic communities who ignored warnings about the danger of the epidemic and refused to shut down their institutions when instructed.
Large weddings and funeral processions in the hassidic community were held even after regulations banning the gathering of large numbers of people came into effect, with some incidents taking place as late as April.
The grand rabbi of the Munkatch hassidic dynasty openly disparaged social-distancing recommendations in front of his hassidim during his celebrations on the Purim holiday when he demonstrably shook hands with those at his table.
Dozens of hassidim, if not more, turned out for the funeral of the grand rabbi of the Kozlover hassidic community on April 5 which New York police came to break up, as did dozens of Amshinov hassidim who turned out for the funeral procession of their grand rabbi on April 6.
Both grand rabbis died after contracting COVID-19.
There have also been reports that a mikva, ritual bath, used by men of the Satmar hassidic community has remained open in Williamsburg. A poster in yiddish hung by community officials stated that the cost of entrance ahead of the seventh day of Passover on Tuesday was $7.
Purim, a holiday of large festive meals and massive celebrations in the hassidic community, appears to have been a major cause of the swift spread of the coronavirus epidemic in the community, as it was in other parts of the Jewish world.
The holiday fell on the night of Monday March 9 and Tuesday March 10, but it was only on March 12 that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings of more than 500 people, too late to influence the lavish “tisches” put on by hassidic communities to celebrate Purim.
According to an adviser in the Satmar Kiryas Yoel community who requested his name not be used, most hassidic communities were not taking coronavirus at all seriously at Purim time, and said that there were vague rumours of a disease in China and Italy which were not seen as important in New York.
Indeed, the Grand Rabbi of Satmar Kiryas Yoel held full services and “tisches” for his communities over Purim.
But along with Cuomo’s declaration, President Donald Trump’s suspension of flights from Europe to the US on March 12, indicated to the hassidic community that the epidemic might have greater ramifications for the country and the community then previously thought, the adviser said.
The Shabbat after Purim many synagogues in the upstate community of Kiryas Yoel continued to operate, but a week later the Satmar adviser says 85 percent of synagogues were closed, although two mikvas remained open.
One critical event which spurred several hassidic grand rabbis into taking greater action was a conference call conducted between Trump adviser Avi Berkowitz and the hassidic leaders a week after Purim on March 18, where he strongly urged them to shut their synagogues, yeshivas and other institutions.
And on March 19, Kiryas Yoel declared a state of emergency.
But by the end of March, large numbers of the ultra-Orthodox community were reporting experiencing coronavirus symptoms including fever, shortness of breath, and a loss of taste and the sense of smell.
The epidemic hit the hassidic community at a particularly inopportune time. Many businesses depend on the Passover season for a large percentage of their annual revenue, much like businesses in the non-Jewish sector receive much of their income around the Christmas season.
Shoes and clothes shops, kitchenwares stores, and Judaica shops all depend on the Passover season for much of their revenue, but many were forced to close because of the regulations in place to try and stop the spread of the disease.
But the bad news kept coming.
“My uncle was full of life, but he went into hospital in March and died a few days later,” the Satmar adviser told The Jerusalem Post.
“Twenty-five people in the hassidic communities died over the course of one Shabbat. there was a constant stream of news about new deaths.
“We didn’t want to get up in the morning because we didn't want to hear any more bad news.”
Even the grand rabbi of Satmar Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum was not spared from the coronavirus scourge, and tested positive for the disease, although did not suffer severe symptoms.
His wife however remains hospitalized with COVID-19 and was at one stage intubated and in critical condition, although she appears to have stabilized and is now no longer intubated.
Back in Brooklyn, most hassidic residents are now largely complying with the social distancing orders, says a hassid from the Gerrer hassidic community.
“Ninety-five percent of people in Borough Park are staying home, the streets are empty, almost all the synagogues are empty and have been closed for three weeks,” the Gerrer hassid, who also wished to remain anonymous, told the Post.
“There is panic, yes, people are scared. When you open the window it is totally quiet. The only thing you hear are the ambulance sirens,” he said.
And life has changed dramatically. With schools shuttered, ultra-Orthodox schools have recorded lessons for pupils which are available in audio format via dedicated call-in phone lines.
The option of video-conference lessons is not a reality for the devout hassidic communities which shun electronic devices with easily accessible internet platforms, so dedicated phone lines make do.
The lessons are generally recorded and not live since many households have only one phone line, which has to be shared amongst multiple children.
Prayer is conducted either individually inside the home or in so-called “porch minyanim,” where ten men living in close-enough proximity to each other to be able to hear the service leader constitute a quorum.
In Crown Heights, hassidic weddings have been reduced in size from the hundreds of guests that usually participate to a bare minimum.
To make up for the barebones parties, wedding cars drive through the neighborhood with residents dressing up in their “simcha” clothes to cheer the spirits of the new couple.
In one extraordinary incident on March 24, the grand rabbi of the Bobov hassidic dynasty performed the “Mitzvah tantz” custom through the window of his Borough Park residence, where a new bride standing on the street outside his home held one end of a sash while the rabbi held the other end and danced and swayed in celebration.
Despite the difficulties, suffering and grief which has been felt so strongly in the hassidic communities of New York, the Covid-19 epidemic has not challenged the deep-seated faith and devotion of the community.
“This is not something which conflicts with faith,” said the Gerrer hassid.
“God makes everything and directs everything, and this plague is part of that. In fact, people in the hassidic community see this epidemic as testament to the fact that man is not in charge and does not direct events.”
These sentiments were shared in Kiryas Yoel.
“This plague does not challenge our faith,” said the Satmar adviser.
“Our faith doesn’t promise that if we do one thing we’ll get something specific in return. Our faith is that there is someone who guides the world, God, and that even in 2020 a tiny virus can stop the entire world.
“We are certain that our Father above is always our Father. If a father hits his child for running into the road the child doesn’t understand why until he is older, and we too have to realize that we always don’t understand everything.”