The haredi sector and coronavirus: Just the facts, please

To Ron Jager: It is sad that what began as a factual piece concerning COVID-19 descended into lambasting all of Haredi society. Opinion.

Ari Walfish ,

Haredi man wears face mask and gloves as he shops in northern Israel
Haredi man wears face mask and gloves as he shops in northern Israel
David Cohen/Flash90

First and foremost, I commend writer Ron Jager for his attempt to find meaning in these turbulent times. However, I would like to address a number of inaccuracies presented in his Arutz Sheva article.

The author’s understanding of the effect of COVID-19 on Haredi communities across the world is incorrect. Relliable statistics have been notoriously hard to come by with regard to specific demographics. How can the author make bold claims using detailed numbers vis a vis one sect within one religious group, yet not source a single study or reliable news source? The author claims that Haredim of New York City “… made up approximately 13% of all confirmed cases in New York.” The author fails to provide a source. The New York Times (among others) did point out that zip codes where there is a large Hasidic (not Haredi) population have seen a higher count of positive tests of COVID-19, but that still falls short of the author’s claim.

Similarly, the author does not provide a source for his assertion that “A reported 5% of all fatalities in the Britain are Jews, though they constitute only 0.3% of British citizens.” If indeed this is accurate, how does he know to what extent the Haredim are represented in these numbers?

The claims levelled against Harav Chaim Kanievsky (shlita) are inaccurate. The author asserts that, “Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ordered his followers… to ignore the new orders and to keep holding mass prayers and the Yeshivas open.” An article published by Israel Hayom noted that “Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the leading rabbinical figures in Israel's haredi sector, has issued an unorthodox ruling to the observant – that they pray alone and avoid a minyan. This is a ruling with major implications that is even more stringent than the current guidelines from the Health Ministry (my emphasis), which has banned prayer inside synagogues but at that time allowed minyans to gather in open air if the members observe social distancing rules and stand two meters (six feet) apart from each other.”

Whether Haredi leaders should have acted faster and imposed stricter measures before being instructed to do so by the Health Ministry is up for debate, but it is inaccurate to state that Rav Chaim Kanievsky (shlita) completely disregarded directives from the Health Ministry. There is no question that he was misinformed at first and that there was a tragic delay in his ordering compliance with the government's orders, but it is the government that failed to realize in time that they should have spoken directly with the accepted leaders of the haredi sector.

The author states that “haredi Rabbis and their community leaders continued to ignore explicit warnings and instruction by authorities, in New York City, in European cities, and in Israel.” This is simply not true. The Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah of America issued a proclamation on March 18th, 2020, advising all Jews across America to refrain from attending synagogue or study halls, and to “listen to the direction of the expert medical professionals who are unified in warning about the seriousness of the current situation.”

I do not dispute that the rates of Haredim infected and those hospitalized with COVID-19 in Israel and abroad have been higher than national averages. However, I challenge the author’s unfounded and unempathetic claims about the causes behind the increased infections. The author writes that the Haredim “behaved individually as well as communally as if they are not obligated to abide by any state order or decree concerning the Corona virus,” and asserts that the laissez-faire attitude of the Haredim is what led to the spread of the virus in their ranks. However, upon further inspection, this does not necessarily seem to be the case.

A Times of Israel article points out that “Haredim generally have large families, live in dense urban areas,” and it is therefore highly plausible that the viral spread had more to do with living conditions than disregarding the law. The author himself notes that “Adding to this, large families living in cramped quarters made individual isolation almost impossible,” so it begs the question why the author is unaware that living closely together can also increase viral spread.

The CDC notes that “current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.” The manner in which minority groups conduct themselves by placing a premium on social interaction can lead to higher rates of infection. This again shows how it is not simply a case of Haredim “behaved individually as well as communally as if they are not obligated to abide by any state order or decree concerning the Corona virus,” but rather can be caused by communal structure.

On another note, while shouting “Nazis” at passing soldiers is abhorrent, I think the author would be quite surprised should he choose to investigate Haredi society further. Painting all Haredim with a broad stroke of the brush does nothing but increase acrimony. Actions such as those are conducted by fringe extremists, and do not represent general Haredi society, nor the way they have responded to the current crisis.

The New York Times recently ran an article entitled “Hasidic Jews, Hit Hard by the Outbreak, Flock to Donate Plasma,” describing the enormous efforts conducted by Hasidim and other groups of Jews in donating plasma to fight COVID-19. Dr. Michael Joyner, leading a study at the Mayo Clinic which investigates the use of plasma in fighting COVID-19, was quoted as saying, “By far the largest group is our Orthodox friends in New York City.”

In another example, massive efforts have been undertaken to provide needy individuals with food. In Kiryas Joel, Haaretz reported that a drive-thru has been giving out thousands of pounds of food to those in need. In Israel, prior to Passover, an individual from the Williamsburg Satmar (Hasidic) community arranged for distribution of meals for the holidays to 15,000 families in need.

It is unfortunate that what began as a “factual” piece concerning COVID-19 quickly descended into a wholesale lambasting of Haredi society for a host of ills: failing to observe the moment of silence for fallen soldiers, evading the army, restrictive dietary laws, etc. The relevance of these topics to the pandemic is unclear. The author claims that this article is not a case of “Jews hating Jews.” I beg to differ. He also makes a sweeping prophesy about loss of respect for Hareidi rabbis in the future, one that is totally off the mark.

In my opinion, it would behoove the author to refrain from denigrating specific Jewish communities. Instead, emphasis should be placed on increasing unity and mutual respect among all Jews, regardless of their level of religious observance, especially during these unprecedented times.

Ari Walfish was born and raised in Toronto, graduated from Yeshivas Darchei Torah, and spent several years learning in Yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. Ari earned a degree in Business Administration, and has always taken an active interest in world affairs, specifically Israel.




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