“We have been turned into lepers and criminals.”
These were the words of David Rubinstein, a resident of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, one of the main epicenters of the coronavirus in Israel and currently on a full lockdown because of the severity of the outbreak there.
As the rate of infection with the novel coronavirus among the ultra-Orthodox has increased and outpaced that of the general public, increasing criticism and opprobrium has indeed been felt in the public realm against this community.
Prominent television news anchor Rinah Matzliah alleged that the majority of the ultra-Orthodox community did not accept the authority of the state and showed a lack of responsibility for it, although appeared to conflate the radical elements of the sector with its mainstream.
Elsewhere, it was reported that ultra-Orthodox workers at a pharmaceutical company were all furloughed while other employees continued to work as usual. After receiving criticism, the company reinstated the furloughed workers, but forced them to work separately from the rest of the staff.
Although there was a definite lag in the time it took for the government’s messaging and instructions on social-distancing to get through to the ultra-Orthodox public and leadership, government ministers and officials are now reporting that the community is now overwhelmingly complying with the Health Ministry orders.
But the attacks against the sector are not going unnoticed amongst the ultra-Orthodox community and are causing no little disquiet.
“It feels like the coronavirus in its entirety came from Bnei Brak, despite the fact that it came from people who took flights to and from Italy,” noted Rubinstein, 46, who works in the tourism industry.
“I have been turned into a leper and a criminal and a spreader of disease, and this is a very difficult feeling, it causes damage to all of us,” he told The Jerusalem Post during a phone conversation.
Miri K, another resident of Bnei Brak who did not want to give her full last name, felt similarly.
“Its not pleasant, the accusations against the ultra-Orthodox, especially when people are demanding a lockdown,” she said, also by phone.
Miri insisted that the ultra-Orthodox community had complied with the Health Ministry instructions, and later orders, as they came out regarding the number of people permitted in a gathering and social distancing in general.
She said that the one area where the community diverted from official orders was that some ultra-Orthodox schools were kept open after the Health Minstry ordered them closed, but said nevertheless that these schools reduced hours, staggered classes and reduced class size to a maximum of ten pupils.
“Everyone is listening to the orders, we immediately stopped going to synagogue when that was banned, no one in my family is ill, as far as I known none of my neighbors in the buildings next to me are ill, which is dozens of people,” said Miri.
Rubinstein said that the most important thing for him was to feel a sense of solidarity from the rest of Israeli society.
“People are taking this [lockdown] decree with understanding, but we’re expecting mercy from Israeli society,” he said, although he conceded that some mistakes were made in the ultra-Orthodox community.
“Bnei Brakites can do this lock down but we need solidarity, we want people to be with us and not besmirch us. People can send food for those who cannot go and buy, they can send volunteers, we are people, human beings, like everyone else, but we have become the punching bag for coronavirus.”
With the accusations hovering in the background, Bnei Brak residents also have to deal with the reality of life under lockdown.
For Miri, with ten children at home at ages ranging from under a year old to 19 and Passover to prepare for, life is “not simple” as she put it.
“In a regular year, the month leading up to Passover is very difficult, where we clean the house and take out and put back in the entire kitchen,” she said.
Miri said that usually there are different activities for children at this time to get them out of the home to make it easier for the preparations, but this is clearly not possible this year.
“It’s very difficult, but everyone also finds their own corner in the apartment,” she said uncomplainingly, noting that her home has three bedrooms for the children, and that the baby is currently sleeping in the parents’ room.
She has bought plenty of arts and crafts material for the children, and prepared other activities, but has also assigned Passover preparations for them as well.
“I can’t say that all the time it is quiet and tranquil, sometimes one kid takes from the other and there’s a fight, but everyone understands its an unusual time.”
Miri’s apartment has a balcony, and there is a public courtyard common to her building and that of a number of others, and she says that when she sees no one is there she will send one or two of her children down.
She also sends her older children out when she needs food or medicine, which residents are permitted to leave their homes for, so that they can get some outdoor time in this way.
For the moment, Miri says her family is not in any financial danger. Miri herself works as as a video producer and although there is no work at present she says income from previous months, together with her husband’s stipends for yeshiva study mean that they have not had money problems yet.
“I don’t worry for the moment. What we do need though is better information from the government, especially for those who are not connected to information sources, and for some agency to ensure that those who people are ok and have everything they need,’ she concluded.