The rabbinic leadership of major hassidic communities in New York state have shuttered their communal and educational institutions due to the coronavirus pandemic, following a conference call held by the White House with leading rabbis.
Avi Berkowitz, assistant to the US president, conducted the call on Tuesday with 15 of the leading rabbis from New York's Orthodox Jewish community, during which they were urged to follow the administration's guidelines to limit the number of attendees at social gatherings to 10 people.
The call was conducted after 100 people in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City tested positive for coronavirus.
The grand rabbis of the hassidic communities of Satmar Kiryas Yoel, Satmar Williamsburg, Satmar Monsey, Bobov, Vizhnitz Monsey and others were all on the call.
An administration source said that the White House cares about the ultra-Orthodox communities and was anxious to ensure that they are aware of and follow the guidelines for tackling the outbreak.
Berkowitz spoke with the rabbis for 45 minutes, going over with them the Trump administration's new guidelines, a source with knowledge of the details of the conversation told The Jerusalem Post.
“He explained to the rabbis how critical the situation is,” an administration official told the Post.
Berkowitz, who is an Orthodox Jew, explained to the rabbis that the new situation could make it challenging to partake in daily Jewish rituals such as services in synagogues which require at least 10 men, as well as funerals, weddings and studying in yeshivot.
According to the source, Berkowitz was asked if the study of Torah could take place in the same building but in different rooms, in groups of no larger than 10 people.
He responded that it would be problematic, telling the rabbis that this is a situation of “pikuah nefesh” – the Jewish principle that preservation of human life overrides other religious rules.
“He told the rabbis that it is crucial to follow the guidelines even though they are not mandatory, because someone could carry the virus and infect vulnerable people,” an administration official told the Post.
Berkowitz also mentioned during the conversation that even though the guidelines were originally issued for a 14-day period, it could take even longer than that until the coronavirus outbreak subsides, mentioning the possibility that it could affect Passover on April 8.
Grand Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, head of the Kiryas Yoel branch of the Satmar Hassidim in upstate New York, issued an order to shut down all its educational and religious study institutions for a 15-day period, which could be extended.
The Kiryas Yoel Satmar branch also has communities in New York City, where its institutions have been ordered closed as well.
The grand rabbi himself has self-quarantined at his residence in Kiryas Yoel.
The shutdown covers all of Satmar Kiryas Yoel’s study centers, schools, yeshivot and mikvaot (ritual baths).
On Sunday, a large wedding of an important figure in the Satmar community was staged in Brooklyn, leading to outrage that the hassidic community was holding such large events which could cause the infection of numerous people with coronavirus.
Following the call with Berkowitz, the Vizhnitz Monsey hassidic community closed all its institutions in New York due to the pandemic, and hassidim were instructed to take their tefillin and prayer shawls home since the synagogues and study centers were being closed.
According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, the 100 positive tests have come since the clinic began testing on Friday morning. The report also stated that the New York City Department of Health has reported 814 coronavirus cases in the city.
There are currently some 1,700 confirmed cases of the virus statewide.