Cuomo vs. Chassidim


If you have been listening to the news as of late, you are well aware of the public relations war between the ultra-Orthodox (their words – not mine) and the Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo.

I have some thoughts on this and I believe that both sides should take a time out to reflect.


There is an uptick in some areas of New York State. Quite a few of them are in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, but not exclusively. The Governor singled out the Jewish community in an October 14 tweet where he wrote, “We’re now having issues in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York — where because of their religious practices, etc. we’re seeing a spread.”

He held a press conference also on October 14 and one interesting point he made was, “The micro-cluster we’re focusing on is the ultra-Orthodox communities. As you know, it is still the same. It is enforcement. This is no longer a question of public education, it’s enforcement. I’ve made it very clear to members of this community what the law is, what the rules are, what the science is. I’ve had personal conversations, dozens and dozens of them. It’s not a question of education. It’s a question of enforcement.”

Therefore, from his point of view, he needs to control the uptick in cases. He feels that the Orthodox are completely flouting the rules.

The Governor does not tell you the whole story.


The ultra-Orthodox claim that the Governor says one thing privately to them and then a completely different discussion publicly. On October 6, Governor Cuomo held a private phone call with some Rabbis. The Governor opened the call saying he was speaking and acting “out of love for your community.” He then explained to the participating rabbis, “The current rule is no more than 50% in any indoor gathering, 50% of capacity. That’s in a church, in a mosque, in a synagogue, in any venue, any private venue. It’s 50% of capacity. That’s the current law.” He continued, “We have to follow that law. If we don’t follow that law, and the infection rate gets worse, then we’re gonna have to go back to close down. And nobody wants to do that.”

Cuomo repeatedly mentioned “50%” on the call. So, listeners were justifiably surprised when on the same day Cuomo implemented a “25% capacity, 10 person maximum” limit on houses of worship within “red zone” areas with a cluster of COVID-19 infections. Notably, there is no adjustment for building size.

He then on October 14 in the same press conference as above made the following remarks. “I don’t have the resources to do enforcement statewide. If I had to do this all over again, on lessons learned, I would have had the state take over or hire statewide enforcement because the enforcement from the local governments is very uneven. Especially when it’s politically sensitive. And that’s where we’re running into, with a lot of these ultra-Orthodox communities, who are also very politically powerful. Don’t kid yourself.”  He reiterated that sentiment later in the call, saying that New York’s religious Jews are “a politically powerful community. You know it, and I know it.”


The following is my common-sense approach.


As Jews, we are taught that we are obligated to respect the law of the land. Therefore, we must wear masks, social distance and not overcrowd. I personally hate the mask but it is the law. I wanted to host a huge wedding for my son, but I complied and did not invite my community where I have served as a Rabbi for 26 years. I did not even invite my own mother.

The Governor is not asking you to stop eating kosher or putting an end to circumcisions. He is asking you to wear a mask and be careful. Jews do not need this kind of press. Who does? Wear your darn mask already!

My take on the mask, in addition to being the current law, is while it is an inconvenience and makes me gag, it is nonetheless a selfless act to wear it. Even if it saves one life, it is completely worth it. Even if it allows your fellow congregant or co-worker to feel a bit more at ease, why not do it? A small price to pay to end the debilitating lockdown.

Therefore, if there is an uptick in cases in certain communities, it means that you are not doing the right thing and you need to start taking the law seriously and think of your neighbor. This flouting is not just a Jewish problem though. All community leaders need to take a strong stand. No one comes into our lobby without a mask. No one should come in your store or place of business without a mask.

Even if there is no uptick in your community, you still need to wear a mask regardless of your stance on the topic, as it is the current law/order. I don’t light traffic lights either.


On the flip side of the very same coin, you cannot allow protests and incredible violence to go on and on endlessly, and then gloss over it as if it does not exist. To have selective reinforcement for some of your constituency and not for others is a very dangerous game and will cause enmity. As an example, when some communities had to suffer dangerous fireworks every night for weeks on end and nothing was done, but then you turn to them and say we will penalize you if you do not want to wear a mask, it makes them unhappy and rightly so.


We as Jews know selective discrimination well. The Governor stepped right into an old deeply rooted, and painful anti-Semitic trope: that Jews spread diseases. Throughout Europe, Jews were scapegoated for spreading the Black Death. In response to the outbreaks, there were violent attacks against the Jewish people. Pogroms spread in France, Spain, Germany, and Switzerland, where many Jews were lynched.

This anti-Semitic trope did not end there. In the 19th Century, Jewish immigrants were accused of bringing tuberculosis to the United States. “Consumption,” as it was called, was also known as the “Jewish Disease.”  The Third Reich would continue the theme. The Nazis routinely published propaganda that accused Jews of spreading disease and used this tactic as a reason to have ghettos as it protected the citizens from disease.

The reckless decision of the Governor to hold a press conference showing pictures of thousands of Chassidic Jews at a funeral, but not show any recent pictures of thousands of “general community” protesters in Brooklyn and Manhattan, is unconscionable.

I know I am owed an apology from the Governor.

About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
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