More than half of over-65s with COVID are from the ultra-Orthodox community

Many infected at High Holy Day prayers • Some 18 Bnei Brak residents died in past week • prominent rabbi Asher Weiss insists community adhere to health regulations, calling situation "shameful"

HAREDIM BURN garbage and protest enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in Mea She’arim earlier this week.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
HAREDIM BURN garbage and protest enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in Mea She’arim earlier this week.
Some 52% of COVID-19 patients over the age of 65 in Israel are ultra-Orthodox, new figures released by the Health Ministry show, and a large number were infected during prayer services over the High Holy Days.
Ultra-Orthodox citizens over the age of 65 are just 3% of the population, however, meaning that the rate of coronavirus infection among the elderly in the ultra-Orthodox sector is far higher than their proportion of the population.
At the same time, at least 18 people in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak died from COVID over the last six days, and 61 people in the city were hospitalized in severe condition on Monday alone.
The percentage of positive tests in the city is also extremely high standing at 25%, compared to 7.7% nationally.
In Bnei Brak, which has an older population than other ultra-Orthodox cities, such as Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit, the mortality rate among those aged 70-74 is 4.9 deaths per 1,000 population, six times the national average, and 12.9 deaths per 1,000 population for over 75 in the city, nearly four times the national average.
In light of the worrying figures, the Health Ministry’s Ultra-Orthodox Public Advocacy Desk launched a new information campaign calling for extra diligence in observing the health guidelines to reduce infection and protect seniors in particular.
“Do not forsake me in old age,” the Health Ministry ad implores with a picture of an elderly man holding a cane.
“They are the ones who sacrificed for us all their lives, they were there for us day and night, taught, educated and took care of us. They are our mothers and fathers,” it continues and urges people to obey the COVID health regulations.
Despite these worrying figures, the rate of infection in the ultra-Orthodox sector is now declining along with the rest of the country, albeit from a far higher level.
Among the general public, the rate of infection is 2.8 per 10,000 compared with 14.1 per 10,000 in the ultra-Orthodox sector as of October 10, although that figure has declined from a high of 23 per 10,000 on October 6.
Similarly, the number of positive COVID-19 tests among the ultra-Orthodox community is also declining, and currently stands at 18.9%, compared with 28% at the end of September.
The nationwide percentage of positive tests is, however, just 6.3% as of October 11.
Against the background of the high rates of infection in the sector, and the high mortality rate amongst its elderly, Rabbi Asher Weiss, a prominent and highly respected ultra-Orthodox leader and arbiter of Jewish law, issued a strongly worded statement in which he insisted the community adhere to health regulations and said the situation in the sector regarding COVID-19 was shameful.
The rabbi listed a series of examples from the Talmud and later rabbinical authorities who all ruled that Jewish law required health instructions of the time to be adhered to in the extreme.
“Shame should cover our faces when there is no day whose curses are not greater than the previous one, and when every day the sick from this disease are dying every day, amongst them hassidic grand rabbis, yeshiva deans, incredible Torah teachers, and Jewish people, with thousands groaning in pain and suffering,” wrote Weiss.
“And we will not be able to say our hands did not shed this blood,” he added.
The rabbi said that the ultra-Orthodox community should be stricter in its observance of measures to reduce COVID-19 infections than even those prescribed by the Israeli and global medical authorities because of their Jewish faith, which demands that people protect their lives.
“The holy Torah alone is our guiding light, and it commands us to ‘greatly protect your lives,’ and how can we not be embarrassed when those who do not observe the commandments and the nations of the world are astounded when people of the Torah are not spared,” he said.
Separately, the religious freedom NGO Hiddush said on Tuesday that it will file a petition to the High Court of Justice against any government decision which allows ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshivas to return to their studies before the state school system, which is currently shuttered due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The ultra-Orthodox parties are reportedly seeking to implement a plan whereby they would agree to lockdowns of ultra-Orthodox cities as long as schools and yeshivas for boys and young men in the sector could reopen.
Ultra-Orthodox girls schools would not reopen and boys would use their empty classrooms to reduce class sizes.
Hiddush director Rabbi Uri Regev sent a letter to the prime minister, health minister, education minister and attorney-general, stating that as long as the relevant authorities are of the opinion that opening educational institutions is dangerous enough to justify keeping them closed, the government must not allow institutions in the ultra-Orthodox sector to open.
Regev also insisted that the proposal itself to keep girls’ schools shuttered in order to allow boys schools to open was discriminatory and unlawful.
“Any discrimination in the education system is fundamentally illegitimate, whether between ultra-Orthodox and others, whether between boys and girls, whether it is any other form of discrimination,” wrote Regev. “Any decision of the coronavirus cabinet at this difficult time requires total equality for all Israeli pupils from all sectors, Jews and non-Jews, the completely secular and the ultra-Orthodox, and boys and girls.”
He said that if any discriminatory decision is made regarding the reopening of schools, including “the ongoing policy of authorities to turn a blind eye to institutions which blatantly violate the coronavirus regulations,” Hiddush would appeal to the High Court to prevent it being implemented.
Similarly, the Israel Be Free secularist organization also threatened to petition the High Court over such a decision, saying such a policy would amount to “the politicization of decisions regarding public health.”
Israel Be Free director Uri Keidar wrote in his letter to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein that his organization would fight any decision which exempts ultra-Orthodox yeshivas from the national closure imposed on the general education system in the relevant courts.