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No community is an island: The ultra-Orthodox Corona crisis

As long as Haredi Israelis see themselves as cut off from the institutions of state, their behaviors will run counter to wider public norms and rules
Israeli border police officers check citizents on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 7, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli border police officers check citizents on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 7, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In recent weeks, Israel has been overwhelmed by skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates. According to Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s coronavirus czar, more than 40 percent of all new Coronavirus cases are found in members of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.

According to the government statistics bureau, however, the Haredi community makes up only some 12% of the overall Israeli population (a number that is expected to increase dramatically, until the Haredi community constitutes approximately 25% of the population in 2048). This shows us that during corona times, even a small group of people can have an enormous impact on the nation’s future.

What accounts for the dramatic rates of infection in the Haredi community? How have we gotten into a situation that not only threatens human life but touches on raw nerves politically and socially, and is causing a huge rift between the different sectors in Israeli society?

For starters, it is important to note that while there is a tendency to lump members of the ultra-Orthodox community together and to blame all the Haredim for the rise of infection in Israel, there are different factions within the Haredi community.

The Haredi community is divided into three main factions: Lithuanian (Ashkenazi), Hasidic, and Sephardic. The Lithuanian-Ashkenazi and the Sephardic Haredi communities are generally careful to abide by Israeli national law (roughly speaking, that is; there are those who break the mold in each of the groups). Rabbi Gershon Edelstein who leads the Lithuanian Haredi sect and Rabbi Yosef who leads the Sephardic Haredi sect both came out with an unequivocal call against large gatherings and demanded the closure of synagogues.

The Hasidic faction, however, is split in its practices; some Hasidic groups are very particular to follow national laws, while others are less compliant. The Admor of Karlin, the chief “Rebbe” of the Karlin Hasidic community, who has been a wondrous figure in Israel during the last 40 years, has an unwavering commitment to the laws of the state. Similarly, the Admor of Gur stringently adheres to the law of the land. Along with the heads of these Hasidic dynasties, however, are other Admorim who are less particular about following the Israeli government’s regulations.

While I don’t defend anyone who is not keeping to the rules – in fact, I condemn such behavior in the strongest terms – I do believe it’s critical to gain insight into how those who are breaking the rules can be so mistaken to begin with.

In order to understand why so many members of the Hasidic community — of which I am a member — are becoming infected with COVID-19, it is necessary to look beyond the crowded living conditions that characterize the community and to understand the deep-rooted primal, worldview that underlies the Haredi community’s discourse and the behavior that comes along with it.

There are three main reasons why the leaders of some of the Hasidic factions have given up the fight against the coronavirus:

  1. Practical – Some of the factions see COVID-19 as a heavenly decree that cannot be fought and believe that it is only a matter of time until we all get the disease, after which we will have herd immunity. At the same time, those who ascribe to this approach take steps to protect elderly people and other members of the community who are at high risk, in order to minimize the damage done by the disease. This explains the high number of cases among young yeshiva students in the ultra-Orthodox community, and the low mortality rates among older members of the community (at least at the present time).

  2. Spiritual – Some Hasidic factions are concerned that closing community institutions such as yeshivot and synagogues will damage the spiritual life of the community. They fear that as a result of such closures, there will be an increase in members who stray from their ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, the educational system will disintegrate, and marriages will be strained when couples are confined to home and cannot go about their daily routines.

  3. Psychological – During times of uncertainty, there is a need to create stability. Some of the rabbinic leaders of Hasidic factions want routines of prayer and study to continue in order to protect their followers psychologically. In Hasidic communities, many tales are told about the great “mesirut nefesh” – self-sacrifice and strength of character – of various saintly rabbis, who continued their service of God and kept on praying and studying Torah even in situations of extreme difficulty. The rabbinic leaders of these factions hope that future generations will look back at the community’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic as a shining example of perseverance in the face of adversity.

The problem with the list of reasons above is what it is missing. In the communities that do not follow the health regulations imposed by the government to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, there is no awareness of the fact that we don’t live alone, but rather are part of a larger society. There is no understanding that we are part of a nation, that our actions affect our surroundings, and that sometimes we cannot make decisions just for ourselves. There is no recognition of the fact that Israel has governing bodies, professional systems, researchers, public health officials, and doctors who are formulating policy and whose positions are constantly being reviewed because decisions made in this area have critical impact. Some Hasidic factions are not taking these variables into consideration at all.

I myself do not know the right way to deal with the pandemic. Thankfully, the decisions regarding how to deal with the current chaos and its consequences are not in my hands. However, if we want to see change in the way similar challenges are dealt with in the Haredi community in the future, it is essential that a core curriculum of general studies be added to ultra-Orthodox education. We must ensure that the coming generations will continue their study of Torah and religious studies, but that they will also learn about civics and will have a knowledge and understanding of science and statistics. These studies will raise their civic awareness and sensitivity.

About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Bombach is a community leader and educational entrepreneur in the Haredi community. He heads the 'Netzach' Haredi educational network, which he founded, and which combines religious and secular studies, and aims to educate students to become observant, Torah-loving Jews who are also prepared for practical life. He also heads the Hasidic girls’ seminary affiliated with the network. Menachem has served as principal of the award-winning 'Le’Zion Be’Rinah' high school; founded the preparatory program for Haredi students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and directed the youth department of the Beitar Illit local authority. Menachem studied at the Vizhnitz “Ahavat Yisrael” yeshiva and at the Mir yeshiva, and holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Moreshet Yaakov College and a master’s degree in public policy from the Hebrew University. He lectures in Israel and abroad on education and society.