Oversized Chicago wedding divided Orthodox Jews and foiled contact tracers

The wedding made local news as the latest in a series of events in Orthodox communities that have defied public health guidance and local ordinances.

 health care worker hands out testing information to people waiting at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Chicago, May 6, 2020 (photo credit: JOEL LERNER/XINHUA VIA GETTY/JTA)
health care worker hands out testing information to people waiting at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Chicago, May 6, 2020
(photo credit: JOEL LERNER/XINHUA VIA GETTY/JTA)
Officials in the Chicago area are struggling to uncover whether an Orthodox Jewish wedding that violated public health restrictions led to new COVID-19 cases in the hard-hit city.
About 150 guests attended the wedding in a Chicago suburb on Dec. 2 at a time when 14.8% of COVID tests in the surrounding county were coming back positive.
The wedding made local news as the latest in a series of events in Orthodox communities that have defied public health guidance and local ordinances. But public health officials charged with tracking the spread of the coronavirus said last week that they had been unable to obtain a list of guests who would need to quarantine — or even the name of the bride and groom.
“This is the time that we really need that information and we’re still trying to gather that,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, senior public health medical officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Dec. 9.
By the following day, the Health Department had issued citations to the event planner and caterer who made the wedding happen, and obtained a partial list of attendees whom the department would advise to be tested for COVID and quarantine until they received their results.
With more than a week since the event, however, any cases contracted there already could have begun to spread, making the possible impact of the wedding even greater and harder to contain.
Many members of the local Orthodox community have grown increasingly frustrated. Most people have been following the rules, they say, but the community’s ability to keep schools and synagogues open is jeopardized by the relative few who appear not to be taking the pandemic seriously.
“It’s become an event that’s associated with stigma and taboo and has created a sense of real division within the community,” said Manya Treece, the founder of a contract tracing initiative for Chicago’s Orthodox Jews.
The wedding and its aftermath also underscore the degree to which internal tensions in the Orthodox community may be impeding efforts to dissuade large gatherings at this stage of the pandemic.
In April, when another large wedding drew a crowd — also in violation of public health restrictions — local Orthodox rabbinical organizations released a statement condemning the gathering. But Rabbi Yaakov Robinson, head of the Agudath Israel Midwest Division and a spiritual leader at Beis Medrash Mikor Hachaim, a local Orthodox synagogue, said there would likely be no statement this time.
Robinson declined to be interviewed but said in an email to JTA that media coverage of last week’s wedding served as a deterrent on its own.
“We are trying to avoid too many solemn, strict and harsh letters to the community,” the rabbi wrote. “It has been emotionally tolling and by-and-large the community is doing great, it is time to let them heal. We are focusing more on messages of strength and hope.”
Several fixtures of the Orthodox wedding circuit were involved in the event, which took place at the Hilton Chicago Northbrook. The event planner, A&E Events, and the caterer, Circle Catering, both received official citations last week from the Cook County Department of Public Health, although there are no penalties associated with the citations. Both declined to comment.
A wedding featured on Instagram a few days after the wedding date credited the caterer and party planner, and also said that Yaakov Shwekey, the Orthodox singer who this summer reworked one of his most popular songs to be a paean to President Donald Trump, had performed.
The caterer is supervised by the kashrut arm of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, meaning a kosher supervisor from the council would have to oversee the preparation of the food at the catering kitchen as well as at the event itself.
Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, head of the council’s kashrut division, said the organization left legal issues like the public health rules concerning events to the venue, saying it was not the organization’s area of expertise.
“The CRC’s always relied on the hotel to guarantee that all the laws that go into a venue are met and we just come in and make sure the food is kosher,” Fishbane said, adding that “We don’t get into things we’re not experts in.”
The Hilton Chicago Northbrook apologized for hosting the event in a statement and said the public health rules governing events were less restrictive when the event was originally being planned. Indeed, during most of the summer and early fall, Illinois restricted gatherings in most places to 50% of a room’s capacity, or 50 people, whichever was smaller.
But in late November, with cases rising, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker imposed new restrictions barring hotels and other event spaces from hosting events indoors.
With the approximately 150 guests, the wedding was larger than would have been allowed over the summer, too, though it was smaller than the typical pre-pandemic Orthodox wedding. Although masks are required for indoor events, videos taken by the CBS television station in Chicago showed that many guests at the wedding did not wear them.
A member of the local Orthodox community said he had spoken to a number of people who attended the wedding under the impression that more safety precautions would be taken.
“There are a lot of people that made assumptions that were bad,” the community member said.
The wedding took place at a time of intense disease spread within Chicago and the entire state of Illinois — and within the Chicago Jewish community, where it threatened to close schools and synagogues.
“If you have a large wedding, it has a big potential to be a superspreader event,” said Dr. Ben Katz, a professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an expert in infectious diseases who has been involved in local efforts to open schools and synagogues safely in Chicago.
While Katz said he had no data on new cases related to the wedding, he suspected it could have been contributing to new cases last week.
“I know that there’s been a lot more cases in some of the schools recently,” he said Friday.
Where those cases are coming from is up to contact tracers to uncover. Across the country, tracers hired by cities and states report running into roadblocks when those they reach decline to detail their contacts. In New Jersey, for example, Gov. Phil Murphy said last week that 74% of people contacted by the tracers did not cooperate, declining to answer questions about their activities or provide names of contacts.
That was the case, too, in Chicago, where contact tracers initially ran into a brick wall when following up on the news reports of the wedding. Though they eventually obtained a partial guest list, local public health officials initially struggled to get the list from the event planner, delaying any attempts to contact guests and advise them to be tested for COVID and quarantine until receiving the results.
Knowing that community members may be wary of cooperating with government investigators, Treece launched an anonymous contact tracing initiative for Chicago’s Orthodox Jews earlier this year. But Treece also said she had received little information about the wedding, saying “I’m equally in the dark.”
Treece added that no one who was sick and reported their contacts to Community Counter had reported attending the wedding.
For now, community members are holding their breath, hoping that the wedding does not fuel the spread of the disease among their neighbors and that no further illegal gatherings take place at a time when the ability to operate is precarious for schools and synagogues.
“So far they’ve been staying open,” said Katz, the pediatrician. But a repeat of the large wedding last week could jeopardize that — some schools already were nearing a possible shutdown.
“I think something like this does raise the chance of having to close the schools,” he said.