Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have been soaring in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities around the world, most of all in Brooklyn neighborhoods in New York City and in Israel. The Israeli city of Bnei Brak, east of Tel Aviv, has become an epicenter of COVID-19 in the country, with some estimates that 40 percent of the city’s nearly 200,000 residents have been infected.
Israel’s 71-year-old Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, himself Haredi, tested positive last week for coronavirus along with his wife Chava. Litzman reportedly violated his ministry’s own guidelines and attended group prayer services last week, endangering his fellow community members and government officials.
There are one million Haredim in Israel — over 10 percent of the population — but they currently account for as much as 60 percent of Israel’s COVID-19 cases in major hospitals. In total thus far, nearly 8,000 Israelis have tested positive and 44 people have died.
The Israeli media has been dominated with headlines about an impending humanitarian disaster in Haredi communities. The main picture being painted is that the Haredim are deliberately flouting government directives and continuing with their lifestyles as if nothing is happening. Several videos of Haredi children coughing on and cursing at police has generated further negative stigma of Haredim, even as they brace for more sickness and deaths.
“It’s a total misconception,” explains Eli Bitan, an Israeli journalist who writes in the Haredi press. Raised Haredi in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, Bitan also hosts a daily morning radio show on Israel’s Public Broadcaster, Kann, and is contributor for Makor Rishon and for Local Call.
For Bitan, the real cause of the crisis was the failure on the part of the government, particularly Minister Litzman, to properly communicate with the Haredi community, whose religious practices required different methods for raising awareness about the pandemic. “Instead of making sure everyone was informed, he [Litzman] campaigned to convince Netanyahu to keep the synagogues open. He wasn’t protecting his community – he abandoned them.”
I spoke with Bitan over the phone on April 1 to better understand what is happening in Haredi communities during this pandemic. The interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Tell me about what is going on within the Haredim in Israel right now.
The turning point — or hysteria — in Israeli public opinion around the coronavirus began with Netanyahu’s speech just after Purim (March 12), when he announced the closure of all schools in the country. But the Haredi community was not exposed to this information at all. The Health Ministry should have known ahead of time that the Haredim not only aren’t consuming this news, but are at much higher risk of getting infected.
There is a self-fulfilling triangle among Haredim in Israel: poverty, density, and lack of trust in the authorities. The Haredim are the most impoverished group among Jews in Israel, and in many places even more so than Palestinians citizens of Israel. Where there is poverty, there is lack of trust in the government.
Places like Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim have some of the most densely populated areas in the Western world. I’m the eldest of 11 children, and it’s not even an especially large family. In my parents’ building in Beit Shemesh, there are around 200 children and lots of elderly folk. The option of assisted living or retirement homes barely exists. In general in Israel, the rate of elderly living outside their homes is very low, at 3 percent, and among Haredim it’s almost nonexistent. Grandparents instead live with their children and grandchildren, who take care of them and keep them company.
There’s usually something very comforting and beautiful about growing old in the Haredi community. But these days, it puts the elderly in grave danger. When it comes to coronavirus, it’s not just a danger to one population. If one sector collapses, all of society does, because the beds and ventilators run out all at once and the healthcare workers cannot keep up.
The Health Minister — himself Haredi — has failed. He failed to communicate this to the Haredi public. It took them nearly three weeks to grasp the tragedy taking place. How did they finally begin to process what was happening? Once they started hearing about the deaths in the U.S., recognizing more and more names of people they know in these closed communities, they realized this would hit them as well. I myself know three people in Brooklyn that died and two others in critical condition.
How did they hear about it? What is the communication like between Haredi communities in Israel and the U.S.?
Through WhatsApp mostly. It is the most popular form of communication among Haredim; Haredi users can often be members of 200 to 300 WhatsApp groups at a time. And there are the Haredi websites and dailies; there’s one called “Mevaser” [a global Yiddish broadcaster], which last week published a whole page of photos of the deceased from Borough Park, Williamsburg, and other places – with the women blotted out in black.
That suddenly sent people into shock and anxiety, to the point that a Haredi man in Bnei Brak was beaten by a fellow community member for violating the lockdown restrictions. They are now taking action irrespective of the authorities — but two weeks late.
What is the Haredi approach to medicine and science?
The Haredim are pretty advanced when it comes to medicine — even more than many secular Israelis. There are three Haredi hospitals in Israel: Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center, Laniado Hospital, and Shaare Zedek. Thousands of Haredim volunteer with first aid groups. There are no anti-vaxxers in the Haredim community. But coronavirus has become such a catastrophe because they simply did not see it coming.
So the image in the news in both Israel and the U.S., that the Orthodox are indifferent to the outside world and ignoring government orders, is off?
It’s a total misconception. For example, one of the worst transgressions in halakha [Jewish law] is to violate the fast on Yom Kippur. But even in the law’s most stringent form, if a rabbi instructs you to fast but your doctor says you must eat on Yom Kippur, you will have transgressed if you ended up fasting. You did not fulfill a mitzvah [religious deed or commandment]. In Jewish law, there is no room for fundamentalism when it comes to medicine.
However, the moment anarchy sets in — the disease spreads, the mortality rate soars, poverty levels rise — fundamentalist characters suddenly start coming out of the woodwork. They say things like, “You know why God sent us this punishment? Because we haven’t been observant enough and we need to be even more observant now.” There are people like that who think if they just pray and study the Torah, they will defeat the virus. This certainly happens during times of panic and fear, and you can see it in Mea Shearim. But it’s marginal. It’s not relevant for the vast majority of Haredim, yet it gets a lot of attention.
But there are reports that people still aren’t isolating. There was a funeral just a few days ago in Bnei Brak that was attended by hundreds of people.
The funeral of a rabbi took place there last Saturday night (March 28) and some 400 people attended. It caused a storm. But the funeral was permitted by the police, and they did not give out any tickets. This was the police’s failure. If there was such a gathering with more than 10 people in Tel Aviv, the people would have been arrested.
How do you explain that difference?
I really don’t know. I asked the police spokesperson about this on my radio show and they didn’t answer. Maybe the police thought that if they let the funeral go on, they would be able to assume control and avert chaos on the streets. But just yesterday, the wife of a senior rabbi passed away and there was no funeral; less than 10 people showed up and that was it. Four days passed, and people got the message that they could die — and the rabbis are the first to go.
What is it like for a Haredi family to shelter in a place where there are such large families in tight quarters?
It’s a serious challenge. These are families with 10 to 15 children. Some households have children who are already married with their own kids, so there can be 20 to 30 people living in one home. The average size of a Haredi apartment is 60 to 70 square meters [700 square feet]. It’s like a small ghetto. On a normal day, everyone is out studying, but these days everyone is together 24/7 with nothing to do. There is no internet, no smartphones, no T.V., no leisure books, nothing. You can’t leave the house, and for many Haredim this has felt impossible.
There are some efforts now to isolate the elderly and build sites for them, but this is coming late, after many have already gotten sick. My mother made sure early on to put her parents in separate living spaces – but this is a luxury. My mother is taking care of them while she has young kids at home, so I don’t know if my grandmother will survive this.
There are various solutions. One is providing educational content through telephones — just like schools today doing Zoom calls, but it’s audio and without visuals. This service already exists for Haredim and the blind. There are 30,000 such phone lines for Haredim in Israel, including for schools, new sites, etc. I work for one such news source called “Nayes” (news), and I broadcast shows there daily.
Who has access to these phones?
The vast majority of Haredim have phones with no internet or apps. A paucity of Haredim — mainly those with jobs — have “kosher” smartphones that only have WhatsApp and Waze, and on WhatsApp, you cannot send videos. These phones have kosher certifications from rabbinical courts. They are very popular: the head of Cellcom [an Israeli wireless service company] told me that these lines reach 20 million minutes of usage each day. We’re talking about a huge network of people who get their information this way.
What about recent videos of Haredi children calling the police ‘Nazis?’
It’s rare. Naturally, this gets more media exposure, which is understandable; a kid coughing on a cop is not pleasant. It happens among small, ideological, anti-Zionist groups, primarily in Mea Shearim, who are against anyone in uniform coming into their neighborhood on any given day. If there’s a fire and firefighters come in with the Zionist symbols on their trucks, the residents throw rocks at them. These are a few hundred families out of around 10,000 residents in Mea Shearim. There’s no chance this would happen in Bnei Brak or Beit Shemesh.
How do you explain Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s conduct?
A commission of inquiry should be appointed to investigate this issue. This was a failure of communication. Since the Haredi community was not aware of what was going on, they initially pressured Litzman to ease the government’s coronavirus restrictions. And he did so, instead of reaching out to people on the streets — which he knows how to do, as a politician who heads the United Torah Judaism party and who has campaigned in many elections.
Litzman himself is super conservative, and doesn’t have internet at home or get text messages on his phone. But instead of making sure everyone was informed, he campaigned to convince Netanyahu to keep the synagogues open. He wasn’t protecting his community — he abandoned them. I think Litzman, and the mayor of Bnei Brak, and even the rabbis who kept things open, have blood on their hands. There’s no two ways about it. It was a total lack of awareness.
Zaka [Orthodox Israeli voluntary emergency response teams] recognized the problem and suggested sending out ambulances into the streets of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem to drive around and recite the Health Ministry’s directives in Yiddish and Hebrew over megaphones. But the mayor instead decided to get the ambulances out of Bnei Brak so that they don’t “poison the youth.” This went on for two weeks. This is an unforgivable crime, and shows negligence and misunderstanding of the city he runs.
There were two school principals, one in Jerusalem and one in Bnei Brak, who didn’t close down their schools. This week, both principals tested positive for coronavirus. In that time, they came into contact with hundreds of students, who go back to buildings brimming with other kids and the elderly. The principals didn’t do it out of malintent; they did it because they did not understand. Those responsible — the Health Ministry — did not do their job of explaining it. And they can’t make the excuse that they don’t know how to work with Haredim, because the head of the ministry is Haredi.
This is very different from a lot of the coverage I have been seeing in the media, which gives the impression that the Haredi just don’t listen.
I write a lot about Haredim, I write about homophobia, chauvinism, and racism in these communities. I have no interest in giving them a pass. It’s just not the story here. When you see the high number of cases coming out of Bnei Brak, when you see a video of a kid spitting on a policeman, it gives the image that they spread disease and such. I have been getting a lot of questions and it’s very hard to dispel the myths, to placate the hate. But no one wants to kill you — they are themselves being killed.
The upside is that, after all this, no one in Israel will be able to say anymore that they don’t care about what happens in Bnei Brak. If there is pedophilia in Bnei Brak, it matters in Tel Aviv. If there is homophobia in Bnei Brak, it impacts Tel Aviv. If there is coronavirus in Bnei Brak, it affects those in Tel Aviv. That at least may be one of the good things to come out of this.