Haredim and the virus: more than what the lens captures

Those images – broadcast far and wide – led to angry reactions in Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, with many recoiling at what they described as the “selfish” behavior of haredim.

Haredi Youth (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi Youth
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Three televised images over the last two weeks from the haredi (ultra-orthodox) community regarding how it is dealing with the coronavirus rattled much of the general public.
The first was a video showing the grandson of the most venerable rabbi of the Lithuanian stream of ultra orthodoxy, Haim Kanievsky, saying in answer to a question by his grandson that learning in yeshivot should continue, despite Health Ministry regulations at the time ordering the closure of all schools expect preschools and daycare centers.
The second image was broadcast on Arutz 12 last week, after regulations had been ordered limiting public gatherings to 10 people, of a hassidic wedding taking place in Beit Shemesh with some 200-300 celebrants. And the third image came this week, when police who went into Jerusalem's Meah Shearim neighborhood to close educational facilities were cursed by a group of people, and called Nazis.
Those images – broadcast far and wide – led to angry reactions in Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, with many recoiling at what they described as the “selfish” behavior of haredim whose actions were endangering the larger public. Though there was some similar outcry when footage was broadcast of packed Tel Aviv beaches or crowded promenades in the city, the ferocity at this flaunting of the rules did not reach the level of when haredim were involved. With the haredim, the question became: why don't these people think the rules apply to them.
First of all, said Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the founder of the ZAKA emergency response team who in his younger days was the operations officer of the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit, it is important not to paint – or in this case, to tarnish – an entire community with the same brush.
“Up until a week ago, there was a problem with yeshivot, synagogues, mikvahs being open – but now that is behind us,” he said. “At first people did not understand the severity of the situation. The hasidim closed first, then the Lithuanians.”
According to Meshi-Zahav, a distinction needs to be made between the haredi centers in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Bnei Brak is more open, he said, the haredi public there affiliated with political parties and more attuned to what is happening outside their own community.
In Jerusalem, he said, a large segment of the haredi community is connected to the Eda Haredit, and has no connection to the outside world. “My parents live in Meah Shearim. They have no television or radio, no transistor, they will not bring a haredi newspaper into the house. They really do not know what is being talked about [regarding the virus]. They really don't know.”
Meshi Zahav, who has 13 siblings, said he placed one of his brothers in his parents home to make sure that they don't leave. “My father would say he was just going downstairs to pray,” he said.
“Yesterday my mother's sisters said they wanted to come to visit. I said ‘no way.’ Every Friday my family – dozens of children and grandchildren – go to my mother’s for gefilte fish and kugel. We put a notice on the door last week saying nobody should get close. People are living in a different reality. They really do not see what is happening.”
According to Meshi-Zahav, pictures of coffins lined up in northern Italy need to be plastered on the walls in Meah Shearim  to impress upon the residents there of the severity of the current plague. Those pictures are needed, he said, because the community -- not bombarded by news on either traditional or social media --  does not appreciate the life-and-death seriousness of the situation.
The Eda Haredit represents a small fringe of the haredi community, as do those at the wedding in Bet Shemesh that made the news last week, said Kimmy Caplan, a Bar-Ilan University Jewish history professor who studies haredi society in Israel. But the cameras go there – to the outskirts of the haredi community – and it creates a perception that the whole community is not abiding by the regulations.
“We have to be a bit more nuanced,” he said. Since the haredi community is one of some 800,000 people, to focus on a few hundred people “gets the dynamics blown out of proportion.”
Eli Paley, the publisher of Mishpacha magazine and chair of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, said that with haredi society becoming such a growing demographic in the country, more effort is needed by the government to loop them into the decision making process.
For instance, Paley said the decision to close down schools and yeshivot in the haredi world is different than if the decisions made among the general public, both because of the ultimate value placed on Torah study, and the fact that if schools are closed down in the haredi community, any possibility of formal teaching ends since the community - much less outfitted with Internet connection, computers and smartphones -  is ill-equipped for remote learning.
In addition, he said, it is necessary to keep in mind regarding the recent regulations that the haredi population for the most part lives in extremely crowded conditions. “Think what happens when you put eight people in one small apartment and don't let them leave the house. And remember, they don’t have Zoom, or other means of entertainment.”
Matityahu Cheshin, a 7th generation Breslov hassid who lives in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood, said that despite what may be the public perception, the community – considering the very crowded living conditions many live in – is taking the coronavirus threat seriously and abiding by the regulations.
“Because of the election campaigns, which were very negative toward the hadreim, the level of trust among the haredi public toward the establishment is low,” said Cheshin, whose business card reads “The Haredi Consul” and who acts as in interface between the haredim and some in the diplomatic community. “But in my humble opinion, even if there is little faith in the establishment, if you check obedience by haredim and the general public – across similar socioeconomic parameters and similar living conditions - the haredi public will get high marks.”