The worst thing you can say about Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio is that despite having aides who are members of the Jewish community, at the end of the day, they just do not understand the mechanics and complexities of what makes us tick.
It is an extreme simplification to say that either or both of them have picked on or specifically targeted the Orthodox Jewish community for discriminatory treatment — in particular when it comes to their arbitrary policies on whether or when our shuls and yeshivas should be closed due to the pandemic numbers.
Another critical thing you might be able to say about them is that they fail to grasp the relationship between observant Jews and their shul or their children’s yeshiva.
However, one thing you really can’t say is that they are indulging in antisemitic behavior. They are not antisemitic. They are not too sharp or smart about the matter, but are they Jew haters? Absolutely not. Do their actions make it look like they are indulging in anti-Semitic behavior? Yes. Are they aware of it? I don’t think so.
These leaders of areas of the United States that have such a dense Jewish population should be more sensitive to the history of persecution that is in the collective memory of so many Jewish families. According to the ADL, last year 22% of all bias attacks targeted Jews, while we are just about 2.7% of the American Jewish population. In 2019, there was an increase of 56% in bias attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions. Certainly, the governor and the mayor singling out the Orthodox Jewish community for criticism contributed to that increase.
Last week, after a contentious and frustrating half-year in which our shuls and yeshivas, along with other religious institutions, were often arbitrarily singled out and ordered shut, the U.S. Supreme Court finally weighed in and effectively chided the governor for his audacious and foolhardy behavior in this area.
The court said that Governor Cuomo was wrong to place limits on the fashion in which we can pray in our shuls. From our perspective, it looked like both the governor and mayor were relishing the opportunity to crack down on the frum communities in New York, especially in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Boro Park. The reason for that might not be anything more than that we are easy or even traditional targets of these types of charges.
All these months after the pandemic first made its appearance on our shores, we have time and again seen political leadership make a series of inconsistent decisions that often inflict more damage. Unfortunately, nothing about this virus and how to approach it will be definitive until it is long gone, and we all hope that is as soon as possible.
One of the matters that the high court found particularly egregious was this incongruous idea that a synagogue with a building or fire department-certified capacity of 500 people should be limited to no more than 10 people in the building for services, whether weekday or Shabbos.
All along in these policies, whether in New York, New Jersey, or California, the concept of a maximum of ten is little more than an effort to skirt the issue and avoid an anti-religious and anti-organized religion image by allowing these minimal numbers of people into their houses of worship.
The question still to be tested is whether the SCOTUS ruling applies to yeshivas or, down the road, summer camps, as both revolve around the freedom of our ability to practice our religion.
It is important to note that a high court victory like last week’s is not by any measure about exempting us from adapting measures that keep us all safe and healthy. Somehow, the impression has been created by political and other leaders that, left to our own devices, we would carelessly and wantonly spread the virus around if it is convenient for us. This is an absurd contention that assumes that we are willing to take ill — and even risk our lives and the lives of others — so long as we can lead our daily routines as we did before this began ten months ago.
It looks like that is where the rationale for destroying small businesses from coast to coast has its genesis. In Brooklyn, food stores that had their front door open to allow fresh air in were fined for being open when in fact they were only filling takeout orders as per state and city directives. Schools were ordered shut in crowded neighborhoods where children circulate and fraternize in much more crowded environs than they do when they are actually in school.
Does the virus know the difference between a school and a building with 200 apartments?
Here in New York City, no one has flip-flopped on schools more than Mayor de Blasio. First he closed them for no legitimate health reason and now they are being opened two weeks later for the same reason: none whatsoever.
Health officials said many months ago that according to data on contact tracing, there was almost no spread of the virus in either schools or shuls. Still, both were ordered shut so that those in charge can look like they are taking action or doing something while achieving practically nothing.
If nothing else, we know to wear masks when we cannot socially distance. We also know in shul to socially distance and even wear masks throughout the services if it makes others in the room more comfortable. The point is that after all these months we know the drill and we want to be safe. Assuming that we prefer danger and illness is ridiculous; treating us like that is becoming obvious and people are deciding to reject that kind of folly.
That is what the Supreme Court was essentially saying in their 5–4 decision last week. They are not saying that it is OK to spread the virus so long as it is in shul or during davening. On the contrary, their majority decision was that people are smart enough to proceed wisely and to practice their religion safely.
Will there be exceptions? Of course, but there are exceptions to everything. The idea that we must achieve 100% and if not we consider a lockdown is punitive and unrealistic. That there was a wedding in Brooklyn last week with 7,000 people in attendance hurt us all in a broad brushstroke. It was an unnecessary and selfish endeavor, and the organizers, no matter how seemingly pious, should have known better.
At the same time, why are we all responsible for that, or why is the assumption that we all agree with doing something like that? We clearly do not. In the pre-corona days the same uncontrollable frenzy took place regarding the measles and the available decades-old vaccination. As far as corona goes, that might be the next big Jewish community crisis.
At this juncture, shouldn’t we be able to expect smart leadership from our elected and appointed officials? After all, they’ve been through a few waves of the virus according to some of them. Did Cuomo and de Blasio learn anything from this entire fiasco aside from figuring out who to blame for what?
We need to be thankful for the current sane composition of the Supreme Court and the justices’ ability to issue decisions that are protective of the people and not the elites who exempt themselves from their own edicts.
Now, in addition to protecting our ability to practice our religion, hopefully they will use that same wisdom to untangle the recent election. Let’s hope that once again justice is done.
Larry Gordon is editor-in-chief of the Five Towns Jewish Times. Contact Larry Gordon at email@example.com.