Demonstrations in Borough Park
Demonstrations in Borough Park Screenshot

Last week, it looked like street protests in Borough Park were probably the right thing to do. After all, the community was being threatened with having their shuls and yeshivas closed down for at least two weeks, and probably longer than that. The governor and mayor say it was a public health emergency, but a closer look shows that it was unfortunately more politically motivated than anything else.

But now, a bit more than a week later, it occurs to many that, on second thought and regardless of the realities, maybe that was not such a great idea. Sure, we certainly have the right to protest — as much as anyone else does — but looking back to last week, we are really not such good protesters.

Let’s just face up to the reality — dancing in a circle on 13th Avenue in Simchas Beis Hashoeivah style is no match for the performances of groups such as Black Lives Matter. It was important to note the next day that we don’t riot or loot, and in no way am I suggesting that this would be an acceptable option. That is not our way, not the type of behavior we indulge in.

But the looters and rioters were treated with reverence and awe, while the hassidim on 13th Avenue were not regarded with that type of esteem.

I had the opportunity to listen in on a conference line to last Friday’s appeal of the Governor Cuomo edict that basically closed down our religious institutions in selected areas. The judge upheld the governor’s executive order. Two things occurred to me as I listened to the arguments of the attorneys for the Jewish institutions and, later in the day, the lawyers for the archdiocese.

The first is an understanding of why the government edict does not just shut down shuls completely but allows the odd formula of limiting service to 25% of the building capacity but not exceeding ten people.

The attorney’s arguments were that the edict was a violation of our constitutional right to free exercise of religion. As far as the law and the judges are concerned, if this was a true suppression of religion, ten people would not be allowed in any shul or institution. By virtue of that allowance, it is not an illegal suppression of the practice of our religion. Those ten per shul, so to speak, are free to practice as they please. Clever.

Later on, the lawyer for the Catholic Church was arguing that they have been abiding by the COVID-related regulations and that it was not proper to include them in the closure (or near closure) of the shuls. The attorney for the church told the judge that unlike the shuls, people do not arrive and leave at the same time to and from church. He added that also unlike synagogues, there is really no singing or dancing in church.

The state and city could not afford to be seen as differentiating between religions, so the judge upheld the governor’s edict, which also limited each church in red hotspots to a maximum of ten people.

Far Rockaway Queens cluster

The governor and mayor do not see their move as being a suppression of religion, but they know that is exactly what it is. However, they feel that they have a right to come down hard on religious practices when it involves a public health emergency.

That might even be OK, if not for their contradictory policy that allows large demonstrations and even rioting on city streets without any regard for the number of people in close proximity to one another, many with no masks.

Another curious thing about the quick shutdown of our shuls in the middle of Sukkos was that there were other areas of New York City with higher positive infection rates that escaped the color-coding or shutdown of designated areas. If the statistics are accurate, then this was a suspicious move.

Far Rockaway and parts of Lawrence that were designated by the governor as hotspots had lower infection case rates than locations such as Elmhurst, Queens, East New York in Brooklyn, and Jackson Heights in Queens. Not to pass any definitive judgment on the matter at this point, but there is no denying that these exempted areas are largely a combination of Hispanic and Muslim residents.

Local officials at this time are still a bit befuddled by the inequity and imbalance in the policy. The coronavirus needs to be brought under control, but there still has to be a method to the madness.

Speaking of madness, let’s get back to those street demonstrations in Brooklyn last week. There is a dispute about whether they helped or hurt us in terms of our overall image as a Jewish community. On the one hand, it was a spontaneous response to a sense that we were being targeted as a community while all around us, other ethnic groups were not only receiving passes but had their mass-gathering activities encouraged.

When Mayor de Blasio was confronted with this puzzling and contradictory policy, his response was that those mass gatherings (and riots) were the response to 400 years of discriminatory practices and systemic racism.

Whether or not that assessment is accurate is irrelevant. Is there a public health emergency or not? It cannot be that there is a health crisis for some in New York but not others.

An explanation is in order as to why shuls in Brooklyn are limited to ten people in an entire building while newspapers and websites display photos of mosques with unlimited crowds of people praying together without notice of police, the health department, the mayor, or the governor.

The hope is that in the coming days and weeks the numbers will go down and our religious institutions will be able to open. That said, on a conference call with community leaders last week, Nassau County Health Commissioner Larry Eisenstein said that in terms of contact tracing, the infection rate for the most part has not been traced to shuls.

According to a study done by Brown University conducted over the last two weeks of September, it was determined that neither elementary nor high schools are super spreaders for COVID-19.

The study was conducted in 47 states involving 200,000 students. The study found that the infection rate was .13% among students and .24% among staff.

For us, though, this is an auspicious week to point out all we’ve learned, a vital lesson that we need to internalize going forward. Unlike so many others, we view events of this nature from a different perspective. We see it as a manifestation of G-d’s Will that He has chosen specifically for us and at this point in time. While it is no doubt puzzling and challenging, the Kotzker Rebbe is known to have made the following observation about the ways of Hashem. He said, “I don’t want to believe in a G-d that I can understand.”

It is, however, also covered in the very first Rashi in Bereishis that we begin reading this Shabbos in all our shuls and minyanim, both indoor and outdoor. In that Rashi, as you know, he addresses the matter that while the Torah is, to a great extent, a book of laws, Hashem chose to start the first of the five books with the details involved in the creation of the world.

Rashi explains that the Torah is structured in this fashion to teach us that the land of Israel is a part of the world that Hashem created, and He chooses which people and which nations will live there, as well as when. As Rashi explains, He chose when to allow the nations of the world to live in, or can we say “occupy,” that land, and He will decide when the Jewish people live there in peace and security.

I suppose we can say the same thing today about our shuls and yeshivas here and around the world. It is G-d who will choose when we can daven in shul and when we cannot; He will decide when our children can return to yeshiva and when they have to be at home. Perhaps someday we will understand why. Hopefully, that will be soon.

Larry Gordon is editor in chief of the 5 Towns Jewish Times.