Hasidic Jews Defy New York’s Lockdown

When does religious observance override community health?

Last Tuesday an estimated 2,500 male Hasidic Jews gathered in the streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to attend the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz. The gathering was contrary to New York City’s coronavirus lockdown, which forbids gatherings of more than ten persons while also mandating that individuals must maintain “social distancing” of at least six feet from each other. The separation rules, mandated by both the State and City governments, have been enforced by the New York Police Department. They are based on the premise that the only way to defeat the virus is to limit its proliferation among the healthy population, a view which admittedly has been challenged by those who believe that the preferable way to beat the disease is to allow everyone to be exposed to it to create a “herd immunity.” Even if that were true, it would not be a comforting thought for the tens of thousands who might die as a result.

Ironically, Rabbi Mertz died from coronavirus, suggesting that his many supporters were being particularly foolish in exposing themselves to the same affliction that killed their religious leader. As most would agree that the virus is particularly contagious, a large gathering of people crowded together on a city street might well be considered at a minimum to be inadvisable, if not criminal.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was outraged when he learned of the gathering, tweeting that “Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic. When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed. And what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.”

De Blasio described the funeral as “by far the largest gathering in any community of New York City of any kind that I had heard of or seen directly or on video since the beginning of this crisis, and it’s just not allowable.” He ordered the police to disperse it immediately. He also tweeted a warning to “the Jewish community, and all communities” that violations of social-distancing mandates could result in summonses or even arrest.

Mayor Bill de Blasio


My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.

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De Blasio was inevitably immediately called an anti-Semite. Chaim Deutsch, a City Council member representing Williamsburg’s large Orthodox Jewish population, tweeted angrily that “This has to be a joke…singling out one community is ridiculous. Every neighborhood has people who are being non-compliant. To speak to an entire ethnic group as though we are all flagrantly violating precautions is offensive, it’s stereotyping, and it’s inviting antisemitism. I’m truly stunned.” Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, predictably joined in tweeting that “The few who don’t social distance should be called out — but generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews…”

At a press conference on the following day mayor de Blasio defended his reference to the “Jewish community” explaining that “Members of the Jewish community were putting each other in danger. They were putting our police officers in danger.” He also conceded that he had spoken with some passion on the previous evening but rejected the claim that he had unfairly targeted the Jewish community. Referring to frequent large gatherings composed of Hasidic Jews who have repeatedly chosen to ignore the restrictions, he maintained that “It has not happened other places, let’s be honest. This kind of gathering has happened in only a few places and it cannot continue. It’s endangering the lives of people in the community.”

Hasidic Jews, recognizable for their distinctive attire, operate much like a cult and have frequently had problems in dealing with the broader communities that they wind up settling in. They have established their own tribal groupings, primarily in New Jersey and New York, where they buy up properties and, once they achieve enough presence to have an electoral majority, they take over school boards and local government while inter alia cutting school budgets for public education and shifting resources to their own private schools. The aggressive takeover of entire existing communities in places like Lakewood NJ and Kiryas Joel NY has generated considerable friction with the longtime residents of established neighborhoods. Their schools are notable for study of the Talmud and for the failure to study mathematics and the sciences. The Hasidic communities are also well known for their high levels of welfare fraud as they have many children, the men study Talmud all day, and there is frequently no visible means of support for families.

It would not be unfair to claim that the Hasidim play by their own set of rules and are either contemptuous or oblivious to the demands made by the broader society around them. De Blasio is correct in asserting that their neighborhoods are hot spots for the coronavirus. Hundreds of Hasidim have died of the virus, a percentage of their community that exceeds all other comparable demographics in New York City.

And de Blasio might have also noted that the Orthodox Jewish community has a history of spreading other diseases. As of mid-May 2019, 880 cases of measles were confirmed in the U.S. It was “the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.” Between September 2018 and May 2019, 535 of the cases were confirmed in Brooklyn and Queens concentrated in Orthodox Jewish communities. Another 247 cases were confirmedin Rockland County, north of New York City, where there is also a large community of Orthodox Jews, meaning that nearly 90% of all the measles cases in the country were among Hasidim, apparently due to a cultural resistance to vaccinations.

And one might add another cultural affectation that is largely practiced by Orthodox Jews called kapparot. On a September day last year, between the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, groups of worshipers gather in the streets and in Jewish religious centers for a ritual called kapparot. Kapparot, a tradition eschewed by most Conservative and Reformed Jews, occurs most frequently in Orthodox communities in New York, New Jersey and also in California. It consists of taking a live chicken by its feet or wings and swinging it around one’s head as a Rabbi chants a prayer. It is presumed by those participating that one’s sins are transferred into the chicken, which then has its throat cut before being thrown in the garbage.

Kapparot, Brooklyn, New York. Credit: Several seconds/ Flickr
Kapparot, Brooklyn, New York. Credit: Several seconds/ Flickr

Last August the Animal Protection and Rescue League of California filed suit in court against one such ceremony because the chickens were not killed for food but instead were slaughtered in violation of “an animal rights law that bars maliciously and intentionally mutilating, torturing or wounding animals.” In one specific incident cited in court, a Jewish center “blared loud music, masking the sound of the traumatized crying chickens…” One critic accused of being hypocritical as she engages in eating meat responded “If you have the right to eat beef, that doesn’t mean you have the right to beat up a cow before you slaughter it.”

In short, religious liberty in America does not mean that you can embrace a bizarre set of practices that are damaging to the broader society without any consequences. Spreading disease and torturing animals to please some deity that may or may not exist is not guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America, nor should it be, and if there are penalties attached to such behavior they should be enforced rigorously without regard for ethnicity or religion. And finally, crying anti-Semitism and citing victimhood any time Jews engage in bad behavior should never be acceptable and Mayor Bill de Blasio is to be commended for standing up to the usual bullies.


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