The Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of the American Agudath Yisrael and of the Moetzez Gedolei Hatorah of America, was one of the very few top Chareidi rabbis who understood the coronavirus danger. In the above video clip from March 20th, 2020, he called upon all, to heed doctors’ orders for a danger so great we have never seen. For himself, it would be too late. He fell sick and sadly, passed away yesterday.
I’ve seen already writings on our subject at hand that seem written with either cold distance and indifference or even glee and schadenfreude (from a fanatical Zionist and from a fanatical anti-Zionist). I hope I’ll do a better job; that the reader can perceive the tears about paradise lost. And about the survival of tens of thousands right now hanging in the balance.
I know that some deeply Muslim populations and some fundamentalist Christians also still haven’t gotten the message. But this hits close to home. I hope that I was able to write with empathy. I know that not all Chareidic groups are insular, like Chabad. And many Chareidic Jews aren’t insolated, may not have an iPhone or TV but have a PC, and some serve in the IDF.
Some have claimed that life after the pandemic will never be the same. One may speculate. But surely, this will be true for the ultra-Orthodox. These insular communities, so dedicated and so innocent of modernity.
The 2008 Gaza Disengagement was a terrible hit for Israel’s National Religious. The State they championed had let them down. Suddenly, their government betrayed them, ignoring their sacrifice, and didn’t even help them properly resettle. The shock has brought forth the Hilltop Youth.
Not so different now, is the coronavirus disaster for the ultra-Orthodox. The G^d and leaders whom they followed blindly had let them down as never before since the Holocaust. But that genocide could be blamed on wicked strangers — nothing new. Here the culprits are G^d and a virus.
Not only did their saintly leaders give no or wrong advice at the beginning of the outbreak. They also didn’t bounce back admitting their mistakes. Rather, they fell silent, in fact abandoning their flocks. The poor common Chareidi, unknowledgeable about biology and science, was misled by his inept leaders, people of infinite Torah knowledge, almost on the level of prophets if not the Messiah — or so their followers always believed.
In some areas, a third of these people were infected with the virus. While the more worldly Jews already had kept their distance during Purim, they had been blissfully unaware. How could fidelity to a Commandment be dangerous? They together danced, prayed and celebrated grooms and brides as if there would not and could not be any hazard in doing so.
(Of course, G^d didn’t betray anyone. Rather, the emergency had pushed many regular Commandments aside. Saving lives became the main thing.
It’s not supernatural that so many of the great rabbis were ‘targeted’ early. When all kiss their hand, it takes only one sick congregant to infect them.)
And those who came to feed, teach, protect, and heal them were largely sent by the secular State. This all is a big shock. That is not going to heal quickly. We see that already now, with Chadreidi youths running amok.
It’s long-standing medical practice to help patients who gets sick through their own stupidity without judging them. The smoker, the alcoholic, and the not-social-distancing alike. Thankfully, critiquing is not a doctor’s job.
And so far, I haven’t here mentioned the heartache in these communities of losing so many, including leaders and rabbis, or the bad name that this failure has given them in society at large. These are big traumas too but the main problem is yet the culture shock of the superior coming in last.