30,000 ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students return to school today

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky told ultra-Orthodox school principals to open their doors the day before.

Haredi children return to school amid the coronavirus crisis (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi children return to school amid the coronavirus crisis
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Many ultra-Orthodox yeshivas for students aged 17 and above have reopened their doors Monday for the new semester.
Around 30,000 yeshiva students studying in 400 yeshivas with dormitories will be able to return to their studies within a capsule system. This process is largely being conducted in agreement with the government.
Another 13,000 yeshiva students study at yeshivas not included in this plan, and it is expected that many of those yeshivas will open in violation of the Health Ministry regulations.
The yeshiva capsule system was much criticized during the Elul semester, when yeshivas seemingly did not enforce the capsule rules and some 5,000 students became infected with COVID-19.
The move comes a day after in a massive display of civil disobedience, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox children in COVID-19 red-zone cities went back to school on Sunday in defiance of the government decision to keep such institutions closed.
Children in Bnei Brak, Elad, Modi’in Illit, and Beitar Illit, all of which are defined as red-zone cities due to high COVID-19 infection rates, and some Jerusalem neighborhoods as well, returned to their studies despite the government’s instructions.
In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday night somewhat obliquely that enforcement would be increased inside red-zone cities, including the issuance of fines, and called on “community leaders” to ensure that government health regulations are observed.
“I call on all community heads, to the ultra-Orthodox community, to comply with the rules, to ensure that they are respected – and regardless, we need more enforcement,” said Netanyahu.
“Increasing enforcement means ensuring the closures are tight, and inside cities we need to issue fines as far as this is necessary,” he continued, saying however that he hoped that compliance with the government decisions would be done “voluntarily and with mutual understanding.”
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein was more forthright, however, saying that institutions which open without authorization will be subjected to heavy fines, and that he is also examining the possibility of revoking the budgets and even operating licenses of schools which keep their gates open.
In a speech at Ariel University, Edelstein admonished those not obeying the rules – specifically schools in the ultra-Orthodox “red” cities that reopened illegally – saying they would be dealt with harshly. If the regulations were not followed exactly as they should be, he said, it would send the entire country back to a sweeping lockdown.
Edelstein threatened to revoke the licenses and slash the budgets of those yeshivot that opened against the rules and that “they should not complain later that the state is abusing them.
“I call on all parents, and even more so if they are MKs and elected officials: Do not send your children to educational institutions that operate in violation of the law,” Edelstein added. “This should be clear to all of us.”
He also said that, “if regulations are not followed and morbidity rises, then these [red] cities will stay in lockdown,” adding that “it’s important to remember that the lockdown is not a punishment, but a way of bringing down the infection rate.”
He pleaded with the public to obey rules to the letter of the law, even when there was no law enforcement nearby.
Over the weekend, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the two most senior rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox non-hassidic community, instructed such schools to reopen regardless of the government’s decisions.
Kanievsky did not issue a blanket order or public statement on the matter, but when ultra-Orthodox school principals asked whether or not they should open, he instructed them to do so.
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who along with Kanievsky is the other most senior rabbi in the sector, has been somewhat more cautious, urging principals who asked him whether or not to open not to come into conflict with the government and police, but to open schools if possible.
Many hassidic schools have also opened.
Children in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods within the Sephardi sector have not opened, in line with the ruling of Rabbi Shalom Cohen, president of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, a decision affecting some 50,000 children.
Shortly after Netanyahu’s comments, senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni spoke with the prime minister by phone, and “underlined the demands” of Kanievsky.
“The possibility of finding an agreed-upon plan for reducing the number of children in classrooms and studying in large spaces inside schools while observing the Health Ministry regulations is  being examined,” said Gafni, adding that “we believe that the great Torah scholars will not cause mistakes.”
Hannah Brown contributed to this report.