Police, officials discuss with ultra-Orthodox leaders on school closures

The most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis ruled on Sunday night to keep schools open, but to reduce class sizes, increase distance between pupils in accordance with Health Ministry directives

Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi delivers a torah lesson at Ateret Yisrael Yeshiva in Jerusalem, November 19, 2019. (photo credit: AHARON KROHN/FLASH90)
Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi delivers a torah lesson at Ateret Yisrael Yeshiva in Jerusalem, November 19, 2019.
(photo credit: AHARON KROHN/FLASH90)
The police and Health Ministry have been in discussions with ultra-Orthodox rabbis and yeshiva deans to impress upon them the importance of adhering to government instructions regarding the closure of schools and other educational institutions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Late Sunday night, the senior rabbinic leadership of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic haredi community, rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein, decided to keep open educational institutions in the sector but to do so “in accordance with principles of the Health Ministry.”
Many elementary and high schools in the haredi community have indeed continued to operate, albeit with changes to accommodate Health Ministry instructions.
The Shas Maayan Hinuch Torani network of primary schools for the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community have closed, and some hassidic communities, including the Gerrer Hassidim, have stopped formal studies.
Many schools in the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic, or Lithuanian, haredi community have continued to operate, although most of their girls’ schools have closed.
An Education Ministry source told The Jerusalem Post such activity is in complete violation of its orders, which state clearly that studies shall not take place in the ultra-Orthodox sector.
Enforcement of these orders is in the hands of the police and Health Ministry, the source said.
According to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, senior police and Health Ministry officials met with haredi leaders, rabbis and yeshiva deans to communicate how important it is that schools close.
The ultra-Orthodox representatives agreed to reduce class sizes and implement the required distance between individuals in classes but not yet close schools.
In some cases, classrooms in girls schools reportedly have been used for the ongoing studies of boys. It is unclear to what extent the number of pupils in haredi classrooms has been reduced.
Full compliance of government orders in the ultra-Orthodox sector “is a process that takes time to implement,” Rosenfeld said, adding that greater enforcement of the orders would be carried out in the near future. He declined to specify a timeframe.
The haredi leadership has been reluctant to adhere to the government’s instructions to close schools and other educational institutions to combat the coronavirus pandemic, believing that ongoing Torah study has a positive metaphysical impact on the well-being of the Jewish people.
Edelstein, who is the dean of the renowned Ponovitz Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, gave instructions for students to study in smaller groups in the dormitories of the yeshiva, as have other yeshiva deans.
Kanievsky and Edelstein, in a joint letter published Monday morning, instructed their community how to behave during the current national health crisis.  “It is appropriate to strengthen oneself in Torah study, to be careful over negative speech about others and gossip and to strengthen oneself in the trait of humility and to judge others favorably,” the rabbis wrote.
They cited the famous Talmudic dictum that the world exists “for the sound of children studying Torah,” saying that “this is the greatest protection so that the destroyer not come to Israel’s rooms.”
The rabbis said practical measures must be taken to help prevent the spread of the disease, including dividing up classrooms to smaller groups, increasing the physical space between groups and ventilating synagogues and study halls properly.
They also insisted that anyone who suspects they or any of their family members are ill should not come to the study hall.
“And for certain we must awaken ourselves to [greater] fear of Heaven and repentance, since calamity only comes into the world for Israel, [which must not do like the world, which tries] to strengthen itself in faith in the ‘small power and strength of my hand’ of all countries at this time, but rather to trust in God, who oversees all his creations.
“There will be no one who will be harmed by the disease who was not decreed from above, and the merit of the Torah and all of its strength will protect and save us,” the rabbis wrote.
Ya’acov Veeder, an ultra-Orthodox member of the Bnei Brak Municipal Council for the Likud Party, said the insistence by the rabbinic leadership in keeping schools open was due to an ideological and religious belief in the metaphysical importance of Torah study and not to a desire to belittle or denigrate the state authorities or the scientific and medical reality.
“The Talmud says the world stands on three things: Torah, service of God and acts of kindness. In the ultra-Orthodox worldview, Torah study is a critical aspect in the sustainment of the world, and this is why the rabbis find such difficulty in closing the schools,” Veeder said.