NEW YORK – Shulim Leifer has grown accustomed to nasty comments when he walks around his Brooklyn neighborhood with a mask on his face.
“It looks like you’re wearing a diaper on your face,” he heard last week.
As a hassidic Jew who dons a fur shtreimel on his head every Shabbat, unwanted attention from outsiders and antisemites is to be expected. But Leifer, 34, a self-described “modern hassid,” told The Jerusalem Post this week that lately the slurs have been coming from neighbors and friends in his own community.
New York’s ultra-Orthodox communities have been among the hardest-hit by the novel coronavirus. Despite the many deaths in the hassidic community since the beginning of the pandemic (the city does not track deaths by religion so an exact number is unknown), Leifer said most members of the community continue to cast doubt on the severity of the virus and ignore restrictions. The few dissenters who have chosen to speak up in favor of protections such as mask wearing and social distancing face verbal abuse and even physical attacks.
Borough Park, where Leifer grew up, is home to one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel. It’s a neighborhood of low-rise buildings and small businesses, such as Judaica shops and kosher restaurants. Nearly 15% of residents in the community have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data from the New York City Health Department.
Members of the community are deeply upset over restrictions announced on October 6 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that shut down schools and nonessential businesses, and limited religious gatherings to 10 people in New York’s worst-affected areas: parts of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, sections of Orange and Rockland counties in the Hudson Valley, and an area within Binghamton.
Cuomo’s restrictions infuriated several local officials who called the measures discriminatory, and prompted two nights of unrest in Borough Park, where mostly mask-less attendees waved Trump flags and lit face masks on fire. Mobs at the protests attacked two hassidic objectors, injuring one of them critically.
In a video posted to Twitter, protest organizer Heshy Tischler, a self-described “community activist” who is running for City Council, was seen egging on a crowd to chant at Jacob Kornbluh, a journalist with the Jewish Insider online news magazine. The situation escalated, and Kornbluh said he was attacked by the crowd. Kornbluh reportedly said he was “brutally assaulted, hit in the head, and kicked at by an angry crowd of hundreds of community members of the Boro Park protest, while yelling at me ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler.’”
“You are my soldiers! We are at war!” reportedly shouted Tischler, who was later taken into NYPD custody for inciting riots.
However, out of jail the next day, Tischler did not appear to be toning down his rhetoric, according to a video of him addressing the small crowd in front of his house Monday night. Tischler went after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo, two of his favorite targets.
“We’re going to beat Mayor de Blasio, we’re going to knock that Cuomo out, we’re not going to let him get reelected,” he said, before plugging his own campaign for City Council.
The New York Daily News splashed the words “Oy, revolt” on its front page with a sub-head declaring, “Here in Borough Park, we don’t go by the laws of America. We have our own laws.”
Cuomo even attempted to cite Jewish sources to urge Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers living in COVID-19 hot spots to refrain from large gatherings.
“I say to my friends in the hassidic community: The Hebrew faith teaches us pikuach nefesh, which means ‘save a life,’ and under the Hebrew teachings... participation in a religious ceremony can be excused for a matter of health and life,” he said during a Sunday phone call with reporters.
“CULT-LIKE” was how a Borough Park resident, who requested to remain anonymous as a safety precaution, described the events in his neighborhood.
As the protests made headlines, the ultra-Orthodox public affairs organization Agudath Israel launched on Thursday a federal court challenge seeking a temporary restraining order to bar the State of New York from enforcing its limits on house of worship attendance in certain areas of the state.
According to the lawsuit, Cuomo’s executive order, which was announced 48 hours before the holidays of Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah began, would “disrupt the religious observance of tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews, depriving them of their religious worship and holiday observance.”
A federal judge denied the request. Agudath chairman of the board Shlomo Werdiger expressed his remorse over the ruling, and called upon Cuomo and other governmental officials to be more attentive to the community’s religious needs.
“Whether the issue relates to our shuls, or to our yeshivos, or to anything that is essential to us as a religious community, we appeal to our elected officials and executive agencies to work with us collaboratively in developing policies that both ensure good health and allow us to practice our faith. It shouldn’t be necessary to have to fight these things out in court.”
There have been five reported acts of antisemitism so far in October across New York State, according to data provided to the Post by the Anti-Defamation League.
Only one can be definitively linked to the protests, said an ADL spokesperson, referring to an October 5 incident in Westchester County in which a mask-wearing individual was approached on the street and told, “Your people are responsible for the virus.”
Blaming Jews for pandemics dates back to the mid-14th century when the Black Death had begun to ravage Europe. Rumors grew that it was a Jewish conspiracy, and as a result, Jews suffered horrific persecution.
In 2019, Jews in New York City were blamed for the measles outbreak, which disproportionately affected Orthodox Jewish communities. Health officials said it was more easily spread in the tight-knit community due to the large number of children in each family and low rates of vaccination.
But Leifer said for members of his insular community, the current fear is internal.
“It seems goyim are being far more tolerant than members of our own community are being toward each other,” he said. “I would be discriminated against for walking into shul with a mask far faster than I would be for walking around Bushwick with a yarmulke.”
Leifer left Borough Park four years ago, drawn to the less expensive housing options in nearby Flatbush, where he currently lives with his wife and three young children. His parents and five of his seven siblings remain in Borough Park. A close childhood friend of his was critically injured in the riot last week.
“It genuinely scares me. You get this feeling of dread and hopelessness when you hear this is happening to everyone you love and care about,” he told the Post.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to support President Donald Trump and Republicans, according to several polls, one reason Leifer says that many oppose lockdowns.
“Forty percent of the country are behaving the same way as the hassidic community,” he said.
Large families are another factor.
“To keep the kids home from school, it’s not usually just three kids but more like 10 kids and not a lot of space,” he said. “Compounded by the fact that we’re not allowed to have Internet, so there’s no Zoom school option.”
For hassidic students, the school day includes mandatory study of Torah.
“It’s not a choice. It takes a lot to voluntarily stop learning Torah,” said Leifer. “And then there is this idea that anyone on the other side of things is a snitch, which brings its own consequences, so everyone has to choose a side,” he said.
Leifer, who has chosen not to attend synagogue since Purim, other than a brief appearance to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, called it “sad and upsetting” that hassidic Jews are viewed as monolithic.
“I urge people to not generalize. What I would tell those who think we are single minded – that’s a mistake to think that about any community,” he said. “I reject the idea that raising your voice makes you a snitch. I’m not just going to sit around and hope that not everyone thinks we’re crazy. I’m going to speak up.”