The haredi man I met had a Hebrew daily newspaper open in front of him. One page showed the now-famous funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, with some ten thousand haredim paying their respects to the 99-year-old head of the Brisk Yeshiva. The second page featured the no-less-packed funeral of a young Arab student killed during an exchange of fire between criminals and the police.
“You see,” said the man, “for the Brisker funeral, for a man who was more than a father for thousands of haredim, the title is offensive and aggressive, but for the funeral of this young man, whom I mourn also, no criticism at all, not to mention the large numbers of protesters at Balfour Street allowed by the police. And you ask me how we feel? We feel insulted, offended, hated.”
Over the last year, critics – especially some politicians expressing themselves on social media with more than a hint of hatred – have singled out the haredi sector in Jerusalem and across the country who have the highest numbers of COVID cases, blaming them for infecting the society at large by not observing rules meant to slow the spread. Often, police have had to track down large weddings, students meeting in substantial numbers inside yeshivot, men sneaking secretly into mikvaot (ritual baths) or holding group prayers inside synagogues while those activities were forbidden or severely restricted by the government.
Then came the funeral of the Rav Soloveitchik, and the anger toward haredim reached unprecedented heights. Just a few days earlier, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav – founder of the ZAKA rescue and recovery service, a man honored with lighting a torch on Israel’s Independence Day, whose sons served in the IDF and is himself ultra-Orthodox – lost both his parents within a week to the pandemic, and accused the haredi community of murder because of its refusal to obey corona-related restrictions.
Between the desire to stick to traditions despite the danger, and critics from both inside and out, the haredi community is going through a profound upheaval and now faces several major threats.
Indeed, the sight of some 10,000 haredim – some of whom belong to the most extremist sects of the Eda Haredit and do not recognize the State of Israel – walking so close to each other at the funeral brought up some dramatic associations from the past. Were these people ready to die because they were told the virus was a Zionist conspiracy threatening their loyalty to Jewish tradition? Lots of pashkevilim – those boldly printed broadsheets routinely pasted on buildings in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods – said so.
Was it a case of readiness to die for the sanctification of their strict way of life, as happened during the Crusades and in other dark periods of Jewish history?
“I don’t think that was their state of mind,” says Moshe Lefkovitch, a hassid of the Alexander sect who founded and manages Afikim, an afternoon educational program for underprivileged students. “But I do believe that for them, as well as for most of the haredim, protecting and mourning the loss of their way of life inside the Torah world is so painful that they stick to it despite the danger. However, let’s not forget that most [sic] of them were already recovering from the coronavirus, and others wore masks.”
Close to a year has passed since 2020’s Purim led to a surge of coronavirus cases throughout the country, but with a particularly heavy toll on the haredi sector. The unprecedented cry of Meshi-Zahav, spoken amid the pain of losing his parents to the disease, has caused a lot of anger among the ultra-Orthodox. However, according to several haredi sources, what most frightens the community’s leadership is the potential loss of the younger generation as the result of yeshivot being closed.
“YEAR AFTER YEAR, the entire young generation has been raised according to a strict way of life that focuses on the yeshiva and Torah study,” says Lefkovitch. “Then one day you close down the yeshivas and send these young men home, where they have to live without all their habits and frameworks, in tiny apartments with many siblings. What can you expect other than the dissolution of their way of life? That is what raised the concern of the rabbis.”
The photo of thousands of haredim following the casket of Rabbi Soloveitchik – who headed the last Lithuanian yeshiva that taught in Yiddish, whose community does not recognize the State of Israel and whose yeshiva does not get any money directly from it – caused a lot of ire among the general public. Yet for many haredim, the picture says something very different.
“First of all, if it was not for the coronavirus there would have been at least 150,000 people there, so the 10,000 or so who arrived were a clear expression that people did care,” insists Lefkovitch.
Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, a member of the non-hassidic haredi community, warned some 15 years ago that haredi society was on a collision course with reality. He says that while all the attention was focused on pictures from the funeral, which was taking place outside, nobody was talking about the kollels – advanced study yeshivot for older, often married, students – which were full of students, even if many of them took care to use a system of “capsules” to prevent the spread of COVID.
Asked if he sees signs of readiness to die al kiddush Hashem (for the sake of God) through the refusal to change habits, renounce traditional yeshiva learning and avoid large weddings and other community events that contribute to the pandemic’s heavy toll, Cohen says he would rather use the term mesirat nefesh: self-sacrifice, literally “giving of the soul” in order to maintain one’s strict adherence to Judaism.
“Living in poverty, dedicating one’s life to Torah study is something we all know inside haredi society. So continuing to go to the yeshiva or the kollel even in these days of pandemic, even if using masks and social distancing and nevertheless taking the risk to become infected and become ill, is the same.”
However, there is no question that something has seriously changed inside the haredi world. The breaking of strict frameworks of life in both the hassidic and “Lithuanian” non-hassidic sectors has created facts on the ground that virtually everyone understands mean many things will not be the same once the pandemic is over.
In the Lithuanian sector, the highest goal and greatest obligation is Torah study. They were the first to admit that in order to continue that pursuit, they would have to use masks, divide their yeshivot into capsules, and close their synagogues and move outside to pray.
In the hassidic sector it is quite different. Torah study is, of course, very important, but the life of a hassid revolves around the rebbe of the sect. A hassid has to use the mikveh, reach the rebbe’s home and join with many other hassidim like himself in the morning prayers. Grand weddings are part of the ritual of a hassid’s life, as are participating in large funerals and the tish – the traditional Friday-night gathering with the rebbe attended by hundreds of hassidim packed shoulder-to-shoulder. All these activities were severely restricted and sometimes eliminated because of the pandemic.
“IT IS RISKY, but there is a limit to what they can renounce,” explains Israel, a Lithuanian student who asked not to be identified. "But I would say the most important issue is not how many participated in that funeral or that wedding, but what happens meanwhile with the young students of the yeshivot.
"A large number of them have discovered the outside world. They are in isolation, which is a means to checking other things they can’t access when they’re in the yeshiva. They check the possibilities of studying academic courses, or perhaps finding some job here or there. To the administration of the yeshiva, they are in bidud [isolation], so they are not present at the yeshiva and are free to see and experience something else.”
Asked if this implies these yeshiva students are lost to haredi society, Israel hesitates a minute, then says the situation is more complicated.
“Many of them will continue, once the coronavirus is behind us, to be part of the yeshivot. What other choice do they have? They can’t work in the outside world, they have no qualification whatsoever.”
Lefkovitch sounds even more concerned.
“It’s not only a question of whether they will go back to the yeshiva or not,” he says. “It is the concretization of something that was already here but not in such large numbers. Many of them will drop out of the yeshivot, that’s a fact. The question is, where will they go instead of the yeshiva? Are there any places ready to integrate them and give them tools for the real life outside of there? No. They will drop out, and they will continue to stay without any schooling or educational programs. They can’t study Torah all day long. They’re no longer fit for that.
"The coronavirus crisis has pushed them out, and now they won’t go back, so what will happen to them? Nobody seems to care, but that’s a ticking time bomb for the whole society.”
Haim Epstein, representative of the hard-line Jerusalem Faction, or Peleg Yerushalmi, and a member of the Jerusalem City Council, asserts the government is not using all the resources at its disposal to protect the population from those who do not care enough to protect themselves and others.
“I expect the government to decide that whoever refuses to take the vaccine will have to pay from his own pocket the cost of hospitalization and care if he becomes sick.”
Asked about the violent demonstrations held by members of his faction, Epstein stresses that people should not mix up separate issues and cause confusion.
“We demonstrate only against the draft [into the IDF] of our yeshiva students, since the law is stuck and the police seem to act with more power than years ago. Regarding the virus, we were the first to take all the measures to protect ourselves with the use of masks and closing of synagogues, but the general public doesn’t see the difference.”
Epstein expects there will be some changes to his community after the coronavirus is behind us.
“We will change a few things,” he says. “First of all, we will no longer accept that a grandchild or a relative alone decides what the gedolei hador [the spiritual leadership, literally “the giants of the generation”] will hear regarding any situation. It was not like that years ago. A leader would hear many different opinions before he would express his decision.
"This thing that happened – that first we are told there is no pandemic, or that it is a Zionist illness and other nonsense – I hope we are done with it.”