Ultra-Orthodox object to tight New York synagogue restrictions

New York Governor Cuomo: Torah says religious obligations can be excused if you’re going to save a life. This is about saving lives.

Orthodox Jews gather for "Hoshanot prayers" as part of their Sukkot observance on a neighborhood lawn to avoid over-crowding at an indoor synagogue, Monsey, New York, Ocotber 5, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)
Orthodox Jews gather for "Hoshanot prayers" as part of their Sukkot observance on a neighborhood lawn to avoid over-crowding at an indoor synagogue, Monsey, New York, Ocotber 5, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has introduced tough new restrictions for houses of worship following a recent uptick in COVID-19 infections in the state and in New York City, provoking outrage from the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters staged a mass demonstration in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, with thousands, most without masks, crowding down central streets.
The new regulations affect several large ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn and Queens that have experienced higher than average increases in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, as well as those in Kiryas Yoel, Monsey and New Square in upstate New York.
Agudath Israel of America, the primary communal association of ultra-Orthodox US Jews, described the new restrictions as “appalling to all people of religion and good faith” and that it would “explore all appropriate measures to undo this deeply offensive action.”
The new regulations delineate red, orange and yellow zones for coronavirus infections and impose restrictions of increasing severity in accordance with the severity of the new spike.
In red zones, houses of worship may operate at 25% capacity with a maximum of 10 people, mass gatherings are prohibited, only essential businesses may open, restaurants can operate on a takeout-only basis, and schools have been closed and will only be able to operate remotely.
In orange zones, houses of worship can operate at 33% capacity with a maximum of 25 people, and at 50% capacity in yellow zones.
New York City data shows that there have been significant spikes in Borough Park which has had a COVID-19 infection rate of 231 per 100,000 population over the last four weeks and which has a large ultra-Orthodox and hassidic community.
Another spike has been observed in Far Rockaway in Queens, which also has a large ultra-Orthodox community.
Both Borough Park and Far Rockaway are included in the new red zones.
The infection rate in Kiryas Yoel in Orange County has spiked to a huge 27% positive test rate; Cuomo pointed to red zone infection areas around Monsey and New Square, all of which have very large hassidic communities.
The governor also highlighted large crowds at concerts, bars and college parties in recent weeks which he said were partially the cause of the recent increases in New York COVID infections, as were mass gatherings of ultra-Orthodox Jews for a second time this week.
“One of the prime places of mass gatherings are houses of worship,” Cuomo said during a press conference on Tuesday, noting that colleges, and “miscellaneous foolish behavior in bars and outdoor venues” have also contributed to the recent spike in infections in the state.
He said he spoke with ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders earlier in the day, and had “asked for them to work with me to follow these guidelines and it was positively received.” He went on to cite the principle in Jewish law that many religious practices can be overridden to save lives.
“In Jewish teaching one of the most precious principles is saving a life… the Torah speaks about certain religious obligations that can be excused if you’re going to save a life,” he said.
“This is about saving a life. No large gatherings in synagogues – to save a life.”
Agudath Yisrael rejected Cuomo’s plan, saying he had not discussed it with them in his conversation with Jewish leaders, and noted that legal challenges during the first wave of infections that had been brought against restrictions on houses of worship had been successful.
Tuesday evening saw mass protests by members of the ultra-Orthodox community against the new regulations, with huge crowds gathering in Borough Park without masks and in defiance of those regulations.
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters took part in the demonstrations; at least one fire was set and masks were burned.
A Jewish individual who sought to photograph and document the mass violation of the new regulations was severely beaten by some protesters and had to be hospitalized.
Video footage of him being harassed and apparently beaten was published by The New York Post.
Also on Wednesday, evidence emerged that the Satmar community in Kiryas Yoel and other parts of New York State do not intend to abide by the new regulations for the upcoming Simchat Torah holiday that takes place on Friday night and Saturday.
The ultra-Orthodox Israeli reporter Yisrael Cohen published an image of a leaflet on Twitter written in the name of Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, the grand rabbi of one branch of the Satmar hassidic sect, in which it was written that the traditional, mass celebrations which take place on Simchat Torah will go ahead as usual.
“I take responsibility that anyone who comes to rejoice with the Torah will not be harmed and will not fall ill,” said the grand rabbi, who himself contracted COVID-19 in New York’s first wave, along with his wife and brother who had severe cases of the disease.