Top rabbi defies orders for preschool reopening limits

Netanyahu: 'I call on the ultra-Orthodox... not to do it' * First step toward end of lockdown starts today

Rabbi Haim Kanievsky takes part in a Rabbi Conference for the foundation for Ultra Orthodox Jews, partners in the Torah, on January 23, 2016 (photo credit: YAAKOV COHEN/FLASH90)
Rabbi Haim Kanievsky takes part in a Rabbi Conference for the foundation for Ultra Orthodox Jews, partners in the Torah, on January 23, 2016
(photo credit: YAAKOV COHEN/FLASH90)
While the country takes its first steps toward returning to routine today, most of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community will defy the government by opening up educational institutions for hundreds of thousands of students in first through eighth grades against the law.
On Saturday night, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky – one of the leading rabbis of the Lithuanian haredi community – ordered that his community’s elementary schools open up while adhering to Health Ministry regulations, such as wearing masks, organizing students into small groups, and maintaining social distancing.
The move comes after negotiations between authorities and the haredi sector failed last week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon the haredi community to keep their children at home and not obey the rabbi’s order.
“I call on the ultra-Orthodox public and its leaders not to do it,” Netanyahu said. “We followed the health official’s recommendation to open the preschools. They clearly said that there should be no opening beyond that.”
But Netanyahu said that while he would send police to enforce the regulation, he does not anticipate mass arrests and does not want to see violence like that which occurred between the police and haredi violators in recent weeks.
“We are unable to send a police officer to every street corner or alley,” the prime minister said. “We will exercise our best judgment. Understand that there are limitations here.”
But he said the haredim were not giving the country an insurmountable task.
Earlier, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu addressed the public. “Most of the red cities are in the ultra-Orthodox sector... meaning the rate of positive tests is high. There is a hidden morbidity. The message is clear: Opening the schools for ages [other than 0-6] is not permitted – it is dangerous and against the law.
“Such an opening will lead to another outbreak,” he continued. “Education is of supreme value – but only in a safe way.”
Sources close to Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, also considered a senior Lithuanian leader, told The Jerusalem Post that in contrast to Kanievsky, Edelstein believes that schools should continue to provide distance learning and should not break the law. As such, it can be assumed that the heads of these Torah institutions will act as they see fit, based on how much space they have, their ability to continue distance learning and which rabbi they follow more closely.
Moreover, the Peleg Yerushalmi extremist group is also expected to open its schools.
The only haredi sect that said it would definitely stay closed as per the government guidelines is the Sephardic sect. Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a leading Sephardi rabbi and the spiritual leader of the Shas political party, said that Talmud Torahs should not be opened.
In response, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Alon Schuster said: “It is unfortunate that Rabbi Kanievsky, instead of using his spiritual authority to lead his followers on the right path, chose an unbearable defiance of the law and the authority of the government.”
Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel said that no other authority should be making decisions in the State of Israel than the government.
“It is better not to have to turn to enforcement, but to responsible leadership,” he said. “I will not give a hand to anywhere where there is contempt for human life.”
Finally, MK Avigdor Liberman called out the haredim: “All of Europe is looking and trying to figure out who is making the decisions” in Israel.
At the same time, the rest of the country will see some restrictions loosened on Sunday, one month after the start of the closure that began on the evening of Rosh Hashanah.
The cabinet approved the loosening of several restrictions last week, including allowing businesses that do not serve customers, preschools, nature reserves, national parks, beaches, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple Mount to open.
Restaurants will be able to serve takeaway, the ban on traveling more than one kilometer from home will be lifted and people will be allowed to visit the homes of their extended family and friends.
People will be able to gather in groups of 10 inside and 20 outside.
In a last-minute move late Friday, the government voted to keep a handful of “red” cities locked down through Wednesday at midnight but decided to allow preschools in those cities to open like in the rest of Israel.
The reduction of restrictions comes against the backdrop of a sharp decline in morbidity. According to the Health Ministry, on Friday 1,469 people were diagnosed with coronavirus – 4.5% of those tested. Although few new cases were reported by Saturday at press time – 313 – the rate of positives appeared even lower at 3%. However, this number could change as the data is updated.
There were less than 700 patients in serious condition, including 238 who were intubated. Some 24 people died over Shabbat, bringing the death toll to 2,1670.
Gamzu warned Saturday night that while the country was taking its first steps out of the lockdown, breaking the restrictions that are still in place could send Israel back to where it started.
“In every green city there is still disease. We have to be diligent to prevent an outbreak,” he warned.
The Education Ministry published an outline for the opening of preschools for newborns up to the age of six on Friday. Schools will run six days a week with their regular teachers and aides and the option for substitute teachers who can work in up to three preschools at a time.
Teachers are being told to wear masks and children to bring in daily health forms to confirm they are in good health. No outside service providers can enter classrooms. Parents will only be allowed to enter classrooms for the first 10 minutes to help transition their children.
After school programs will also be able to operate. Special education classes and programs for youth-at-risk will continue as usual, too.
Some daycare facilities and other programs will only open on Monday or Tuesday, saying they need more time to prepare.
The Health and Education ministries worked vigorously over the weekend to have as many teachers and aides tested throughout the country as possible, opening hundreds of stations manned by the Home Front Command.
“We call on all teachers and assistants to come and get tested for coronavirus,” the Health Ministry said in a statement.
Teachers were not required to bring a referral from their doctor, but simply their national identity card and a recent pay slip.
The final list of red cities is Beitar Illit, Bnei Brak, Elad, Modi’in Illit, Rehasim and the Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Ma’alot Dafna and Kiryat Mattersdorf neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
Entry and exit from the cities or neighborhoods will be forbidden except for special education students, at-risk-youth, or people in need of social welfare services.
A city’s color is defined based on several factors, including the number and rate of increase of new weekly patients per 10,000 in each authority, the overall rate of infection and how many people test positive out of those who are screened for the virus.
In response to accusations that the government allowed preschools to open in these cities against health experts recommendations, Netanyahu said: “There is an outline and we followed it point by point, including with everything related to the ultra-Orthodox sector in the red cities. Exactly what was determined. I did not agree to any changes or give in on anything.”
Then he called on the ultra-Orthodox sector to keep the guidelines:
“The Torah sanctifies life. Life and health must be maintained,” the prime minister said. “Health precedes the economy.”
He said that the “crowns” around the red cities will be enforced: “I do not want to see the infection in the red cities flow out to the rest of the public.”
Over Shabbat, in anticipation of the easing of restrictions, many citizens took the liberty of spending time on beaches and outdoors.
Israel Police gave out 4,045 tickets to people who violated coronavirus restrictions in the 24 hours between Friday and Saturday evening.
Some 1,036 people were fined for failing to wear a mask and 2,781 tickets were given to people who traveled more than 1,000 meters from home for a reason that is not permitted. Only handfuls of tickers were administered to people who broke their isolation requirement.