The Corona crisis not only continues to dominate headlines but also the lives of billions of people in the world while an effective treatment isn’t available yet.
So far, there is no medicine that can cure the now more than one million Corona infected people in the world, including more than 7.000 in Israel, although up to now the Jewish state has a lower death toll than other countries.
That optimistic picture could rapidly change if the health expert who estimated that 75.000 residents of the haredi town of Bnei Brak are infected with the COVID-19 virus.
I would be good to compare what happened in Bnei Brak to what occurred in another haredi city, Kiryat Yearim near Jerusalem because the events in that city over the past month show that a very strict regime of limitations and quarantine could help the world beat the Corona pandemic.
Let’s first examine what happened in Bnei Brak, a city of 200.000 residents, almost all haredi.
While most of Israel slowly adapted to a new lifestyle and accepted all sorts of restrictions which limited social interaction, in Bnei Brak it took much longer and for a crucial period, many of its residents continued holding large gatherings, didn’t lock themselves in their homes and continued sending children to schools while also studying Torah in yeshivas and praying in minyanim (a quorum of ten men or more)..
Part of the reason for the lack of observance of the governmental guidelines in Bnei Brak is the absence of modern communication devices, smartphones and internet in the community there.
However, many haredi Jews in Bnei Brak were obeying orders of some of their rabbis who at first said that increased Torah study and prayer in a quorum would protect the population, not realizing the gravity of the outbreak. Eventually, all the rabbis jjoined the calls for isolation.
Nevertheless, an extremist group in the community in Bnei Brak caused a new uproar by holding a mass gathering at a funeral.
The results of this huge error became visible this past week.
Residents of Bnei Brak made up the bulk of the new diagnoses daily and now one out of seven confirmed Corona patients in Israel is living in the town near Tel Aviv.
On Thursday, the Israeli Health Ministry reported that 900 of the confirmed Corona cases in Israel were residents of Bnei Brak, an increase of 25 percent in one day.
Also on Thursday Ran Sa’ar the director of Israel’s largest health fund Maccabi made a shocking announcement that could change the whole picture of the Corona crisis in Israel.
Sa’ar estimated that a staggering 38 percent of the population of Bnei Brak had attracted the COVID-19 virus. This would mean that 75.000 residents of Bnei Brak are currently infected with the virus.
It was feared that this number would continue to rise if Bnei Brak residents did not adhere to the strict limitations of the Israeli government and continued to shop while not taking preventive measures such as wearing a mask and gloves or ignoring the two-meter obligatory distance. As it is, the small apartments in which many of the large families live make isolation extremely difficult.
The government has now imposed a lockdown on the city and in order that isolation of the elderly can be implemented, has evacuated 4.500 elderly Bnei Brak residents who were transferred to so-called Corona hotels.
Police, furthermore, set up 50 checkpoints and do not allow anyone into or out of Bnei Brak while IDF soldiers of the Home Front division are distributing aid to the population of the city.
Let’s now take a look at Kiryat Yearim the other haredi town that was hard-hit by the COVID-19 outbreak.
At the beginning of March during the Purim festival in Kiryat Yearim a large party was organized that was attended by somebody who had returned from France.
That person was the source of a large Corona outbreak that would make 2.000 residents of Kiryat Yearim’s population of 6.000 sick or infected without symptoms.
When the full scope of the disaster in Kiryat Yearim became visible, Kiryat Yearim Local Council head Yitzhak Ravitz stepped in.
Ravitz took draconian measures on top of the existing government rules and even closed the local supermarket after which he organized an order and delivery system comparable to internet supermarkets.
The virtual supermarket remained open 24 hours per day and local council workers helped with deliveries.
"I didn't want to completely close down the supermarket in order to avoid an atmosphere of absolute depression, but we completely eliminated the possibility of infection in public areas,” Ravitz told Globes.
The chief rabbi of Kiryat Yearim, meanwhile worked together with the local council and issued a rabbinic injunction, a‘Psak Din,’ that is binding for everybody with few exceptions that ordered the town’s population into quarantine.
The Rabbi also went into voluntary isolation to give an example to the community and helped in convincing residents to accept the two-week lockdown without synagogue prayer services and a fast.
"There were no breaches. We enforced it mainly through explanations, street patrols, and a huge amount of aid to residents. We went down to 150 people in isolation today, compared with 2,000 before. No synagogue was open on the Sabbath. Worshippers formed ‘minyanim’ in the streets, and some of them prayed and sang together from separate balconies," according to Ravitz.
The past week there hasn’t been a single new case of COVID-19 in Kiryat Yearim.
Ravitz has advice for other leaders who have to manage the Corona crisis.
“Don't compromise. Make the hard and unpopular decisions.' It goes against the basic instinct of elected public officials to appease the voters who elect them. When I was exposed to this, I realized that we had to do everything to save lives; that's the most important thing. This happened with closing down the supermarket, mikveh (ritual bath), and synagogues, even before the Ministry of Health ordered it,” he said.
Ravitz also advised leaders to become more active at isolating people and at tracking Corona paths.
His remarks about the sanctity of life are based on two commandments: The Divine order to take good care of our souls (and bodies) and the pikuach nefesh principle that overrules everything including Shabbat observance in order to save a person’s life.
The adherence to this principle in Israel is one of the cornerstones of the state and its society whereas in, for example, Europe, the freedom of an individual has become the most important guiding principle and now hinders the campaign to beat the COVID-19 virus.
It also explains why Israel is the safest country in the world when it comes to the Corona outbreak.