Bnei Brak - the coronavirus capital of the Jewish state

Who is to blame for the proliferation of the virus in the bastion of the haredi community?

Coronavirus test site for the residents of Bnei Brak (photo credit: ROI HADI)
Coronavirus test site for the residents of Bnei Brak
(photo credit: ROI HADI)
There are police checkpoints placed at key entrances to the city, special riot police units patrol the streets, and regular police ensure compliance with government orders. People are being asked to show their IDs before entering the city, and only residents are allowed to enter.
This is now the situation in Bnei Brak, the capital of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, the city of Torah and famed yeshivot, and seat of the most revered and most learned ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the entire world.
But the city has become a ghost town, its vibrant yeshivot and synagogues are empty, its usually teeming streets are desolate, with the city’s residents now confined indoors in fear of the march of the coronavirus epidemic.
As of Thursday, there were 900 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Bnei Brak, an increase of some 25 percent in one day over Wednesday’s count of 723 cases, with predictions of more than 1,500 cases by next week.
As of Wednesday, there were some 2,000 people in formal quarantine, in accordance with Health Ministry regulations, with that number expected to grow massively as the number of confirmed cases grows.
Bnei Brak now has more cases than any other city in Israel, bar Jerusalem, and by far the highest per capita rate of infection in the country.
WHAT HAS gone so badly wrong in this ultra-Orthodox metropolis, which is now the corona capital of the Jewish state?
According to most opinions, the critical failure was the severe delay in the implementation of social-distancing instructions, and then orders, which allowed the coronavirus to run rampant among the city’s residents.
While gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited only in the middle of March, it took till last week for this instruction to be taken seriously in the city.
Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein has come in for heavy criticism for his ponderous and lackadaisical handling of the crisis, including his participation in the wedding of a relative after instructions prohibiting mass gatherings had already come into effect.
Yeshivot, synagogues, and shtiebels (where multiple prayer services are conducted simultaneously) all continued to function, while celebrations and other events were also allowed to continue for too long.
But Yaakov Veeder, a member of the Bnei Brak City Council for the Likud Party, who sits in the opposition, also directs criticism to the government and the Health Ministry for failing to undertake efforts to raise awareness within the ultra-Orthodox community of the mortal danger the epidemic posed.
He noted that “the health minister is from one of the central streams of the ultra-Orthodox community,” referring to the Gerrer Hassidic community to which Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman belongs, and said that Litzman should have reached out to the senior rabbinic leadership of the entire community to obtain their help in informing the sector about the danger of the epidemic.
“In any battle the ultra-Orthodox wage, they always use the biggest artillery of the rabbis, so why not in this case as well?” he asked.
Veeder noted that many ultra-Orthodox families in Bnei Brak do not even have radios and do not receive newspapers, let alone smartphones.
So while the rest of the population was receiving a steady stream of news push notifications and social media messages with dire information about the calamities in China, Italy and Spain, as well as seeing nightly statements with the new regulations by the prime minister, many in the ultra-Orthodox community were simply unaware of the danger.
The consequences of them being unaware were that the social-distancing orders were not viewed seriously, and people who had been infected but were asymptomatic continued to move freely around Bnei Brak, praying, studying, shopping and coming into contact with, and infecting, large numbers of other people.
“We know that noncompliance with social distancing is, unfortunately, an effective means for increasing the number of people infected,” said Prof. Jonathan Gershoni of the Tel Aviv University department of cell research and immunology.
“If people don’t adhere to social distancing, isolation and quarantine, then the immediate result is the exacerbation of the situation, and then dramatic increase of the number of those infected, of hospitalizations and, God forbid, the number of people who will die.”
Veeder cited two other reasons for the severity of the outbreak in Bnei Brak.
Because the city is indeed a center and capital, including a commercial capital, for the ultra-Orthodox community across the country, on a typical day there is a stream of visitors to Bnei Brak from around the country, which he said could have exacerbated the severity of the outbreak there.
In addition, he points to “extremists and anarchists” within ultra-Orthodox society who strongly opposed the social-distancing instructions and orders because of the severe limitations on religious life they impose.
Extremists from the radical, anti-Zionist Eda Haredit association of ultra-Orthodox communities, as well as those from the Jerusalem Faction, insisted on keeping open schools, yeshivot and synagogues, and have fought enforcement efforts by the police.
Even as of this writing on Thursday, reports were made of extremists conducting a prayer service in the renowned Ponevezh Yeshiva and the police going to break up the service.
BUT THERE is another side to that story, too. Because it was not only the extremists who resisted the social-distancing orders.
Two-and-a-half weeks ago, the senior rabbinic leadership of the ultra-Orthodox community, rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein, ruled that schools and yeshivot should remain open, despite Health Ministry instructions that gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.
Closing synagogues was not even discussed.
At the beginning of March, just before the election, Kanievsky was asked by his grandson, the general fixer and politico of his “court,” if voting for United Torah Judaism would protect an individual from coronavirus, to which the revered rabbi answered in the affirmative.
Two weeks later Kanievsky’s grandson asked the rabbi if the yeshivot and schools of the community should be closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, to which the rabbi replied “God forbid,” because “the Torah protects and saves,” as the Talmudic dictum goes.
Only at the beginning of this week did Kanievsky and Edelstein rule that synagogues should be shuttered.The decision to keep schools and yeshivot open was never rescinded, since the school semester ended last week and so students were automatically no longer in class, although Edelstein, who is the dean of Ponevezh, closed his yeshiva a week before the end of term.
Kanievsky and Edelstein are now taking the outbreak seriously.
Edelstein ruled on Wednesday that praying in a minyan (prayer quorum) of 10 men is not only prohibited but a sin due to the danger it poses to human life, as is reading from the Torah in a public prayer service.
The rabbi also forbade people from hosting others for the upcoming Passover holiday, or from going to anyone else’s home for the celebrations.
Cars with loudspeakers have been sent around Bnei Brak and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem announcing Edelstein’s rulings.
Veeder does not blame the rabbis themselves, but, rather, the fixers and politicos who surround them and serve as gatekeepers, strictly controlling the information that makes it to the learned leaders, whose usual realm of habitation is the study hall and the dense pages of the Talmud, not the everyday world.
Because of the spiralling situation in the city, efforts to stop the outbreak have been dramatically ramped up.
A special team within the Interior Ministry has been established to help coordinate the effort, while former IDF general Roni Numeh has been appointed as the head of the Bnei Brak municipal team battling the epidemic, and has been referred to as the de facto mayor at present.
A quarantine center for those who have come into contact with people who have the coronavirus has been established in the city, while those who have tested positive themselves are being removed to treatment centers set up in hotels in the North.
Veeder said that a new quarantine center needs to be established, and the number of those moved from house quarantine to a quarantine center dramatically increased, because of the small apartments and large families which typify Bnei Brak.
“There are families of 10 people living in three-room apartments; so if one of them is ill, they can infect the entire family,” he said.
At present, isolation in quarantine centers is voluntary, and there are quarantined people who have declined to go to the centers because they are concerned to be away from their families for an extended period, and especially over Passover.
Concerns about the level of kashrut and other religious strictures are also playing a part.
Veeder said that the municipality has established a call center where volunteers and municipal workers are calling those who are formally in quarantine to try to convince them to go to the centers, and he said he hopes it will not be necessary to do mandatory quarantine outside of homes which would be enforced by police.
Gershoni said that the policy of locking down the city, as has started with the police checkpoints “could be effective in curbing the spread of the virus to neighboring neighborhoods,” despite Rubinstein’s assertions that the virus itself would not be stopped by police checkpoints.
Said the professor “Indeed, the virus knows no borders, but restricting the movement of those infected with the virus does make sense.”
“[Residents of Bnei Brak] need to adhere to social distancing, reduce contact between infected people and non-infected people, and any means within reason that can separate the non-infected from infected would be good.”
The government, the Health Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the Bnei Brak Municipality are now all strongly engaged in trying to prevent a real catastrophe in the city, and the consequences it may have for the wider country.
It must be hoped that this effort is not too late.