Hasidic Jews feel like the only minority New York officials are comfortable targeting – Religion News Service

Posted By on October 24, 2020

(RNS) On Oct. 8, mere hours before the happiest day on the Jewish calendar, during which adherents gather en masse to dance with the Torah,new COVID-19regulationsthatNew York Governor Andrew Cuomo had announced two days prior went into effect, more than dampening the holiday mood.

The regulations were for cluster areas hot spots with spikes in new COVID-19 cases in Brooklyn, Queens, Broome, Orange and Rockland Counties. Many of the neighborhoods singled out included Hasidic communities, and Cuomo told CNN: The cluster is predominantly an ultra-Orthodox cluster.

After months of new in-state cases plateauing around 1%, spikes in certain parts of the city led the governor to delineate red, orange and yellow zones, with a range of limitations on gatherings, including religious ones. The restrictions were to be in place a minimum of 14 days.

Since the announcement, Hasidim have protested in Borough Park streets, and The New York Times, which characterized racial justice protests as mostly peaceful, drew criticism from a Jewish paper for its reference to Hasidim as angry and a mob.

Were an easy target. The last remaining group that its acceptable to target and vilify are Orthodox Jews, said Barry Spitzer, who represents the Brooklyn neighborhood Borough Park and is the first Hasidic district manager in the state. There is no group in the entire country that its acceptable to make fun of, belittle, malign, and smear as Orthodox Jewish people.

Cuomos new regulations included $15,000 fines for mass gatherings and $1,000 individual fines and came the day before the two-day holiday Shemini Atzeres, which culminates in Simchas Torah (which was nightfall to nightfall Oct. 10 and 11 this year).

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Those laws, which Orthodox and Catholic groups sued in vain to stay, are arbitrary, capricious, and unsustainable to Spitzer, who said he accepts prayer groups limited to 10 the minimal quorum (minyan) for communal Orthodox prayer during the week, but not on holidays. Officials knowingly restricted Jewish prayer ahead of Simchas Torah, he said.

Neither the office of the mayor nor the governor reportedly among Joe Bidens attorney general picks responded to a request for comment.

The timing also struck Susannah Heschel, chair and distinguished professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, as imprudent.

These regulations come at a moment as if they are taking away everything Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Simchas Torah, she said.

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She has a nuanced perspective about Hasidic communities, in which (some of her) family members live. She thinks the New York government could have handled things much better by enlisting a consultant with deep expertise on Hasidim. If it comes from within a community, of course people will listen to it differently, she said.

Hasidim are Orthodox Jews whose religious practice draws inspiration from 18th-century Ukrainian rabbi and mystic Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of a Good Name). To a greater extent than other Orthodox communities, Hasidic life centers around a spiritual leader, called a rebbe, and its worship often emphasizes the spiritual and emotional. Hasidic attire fur hats and long black frock coats for men, and hair coverings and long dresses and skirts for women are also distinctive from other Orthodox Jews.

Indeed, last March, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow a renowned Hasidic leader known as the Novominsker Rebbe issued a video imploring fellow Jews to follow medical guidelines about the pandemic. The next month, Perlow, who was Heschels cousin, died at 89 from coronavirus complications.

Another cousin, who is also a Hasidic Rebbe, has received calls from many very sick Hasidic Jews with COVID-19, who are asking that he pray for them.

Not everybody is out in the streets making a demonstration, Heschel said.

Heschel blames at least some of the mischaracterizations of Hasidic Jews on popular culture, including the Netflix mini-series Unorthodox, that she believes denigrate Hasidic communities for popular consumption. Such shows, she said, often center on captive women who need to liberate themselves from narrow-minded communities.

Part of it is that people just dont understand piety, she said. Theres something very profound about leading a religious life. Its a different kind of life.

Even so, Heschel acknowledged particular challenges for Hasidim among lockdown, including large families in often cramped homes perhaps eight kids in a three-bedroom apartment and lack of internet. She also worried about what she dubbed the Trump virus and its politicizing effects.

Were dealing right now with, actually, two viruses. We have the coronavirus and we have the Trump virus, she said. Its clear that in Borough Park, many people have been infected with the Trump virus, and that has given rise to all kinds of dangerous mentalities. The sense with the Trump virus is now you dont trust the doctors. It is a kind of virus. It affects the mind.

Indeed, it is a common and popular practice to criticize Hasidim as anti-science, as Halley Bondy, a freelancer who writes for NBC News and others, tweeted recently. Hasidic jews are NOT the same as Orthodox, she tweeted on Oct. 11. It is not anti-semitic to call the Hasidim an isolationist, anti-science cult. It IS anti-semitic to lump all jews together.

Moshe Krakowski, associate professor and director of the Jewish education masters program at Yeshiva University, thinks this charge misses the mark entirely.

Unequivocally, they are not anti-science, said Krakowski, an expert on Hasidic education.

Hasidim see science and medicine as powerful tools, he said, but they dont use science as a framework with which to understand the world in any truth with a capital T kind of way, he said. My power drill is not a source of meaning for me or explanation of the world.

On several occasions when there have been family emergencies, Krakowski, who is Orthodox but not Hasidic, has called Hasidic hotlines that help community members identify top treatments, doctors and hospitals. You can hardly call this anti-science, he said.

However, Hasidim may be unique in their skeptical, active questioning of what theyre told, he allowed.

They might not just take someones word for it as quickly as someone else would take someones word for it, Krakowski said. I think thats probably a healthier attitude in a lot of ways toward pronouncements. Just look back at how the WHO and the CDC told us all not to wear masks for the first who-knows-how-long and then switched their views.

Hasidim will be less impressed by official pronouncements than by their own perceptions of what the science says, according to Krakowski. They may err sometimes, he said, but thats not anti-science.

A broader challenge in American Haredi life often pejoratively dubbed ultra-Orthodox, and which includes Hasidic and non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews is the lack of heir apparent since the death in 1986 of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, widely held to be a gadol hador, the greatest Jewish legal authority of his generation.

There hasnt really been someone with the stature to fill his shoes, Krakowski said.

I think the lack of hearing anything from leaders is much more a function of the very weak American Haredi leadership than anything else.

Of the perception that Hasidim are unfairly targeted, Krakowski thinks its true simultaneously that some Hasidim dont take COVID-19 as seriously as they ought to and that the government singles them out unjustly.

There are segments of all sorts of other populations that are not taking things seriously protest marchers, partiers and people in neighborhoods where they are just completely unconcerned about it, he said. The level of attention that the Haredi community is getting strikes me as something that is incredibly unfair.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, disagreed. Schneier, who founded and served for more than 25 years as rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue (Orthodox), is a member of Cuomos New York Forward Interfaith Advisory Council. He joined leaders of many faith traditions on a call with Cuomo on Oct. 8 about houses of worship during the pandemic.

I wholeheartedly support the governors directive. I believe that our enemies in Jewish history remind us how casual Jews become Jewish casualties, Schneier said. Now, were fighting a different kind of enemy an invisible enemy, in terms of COVID-19. Now is not the time for any segments or elements of the Jewish community to be casual. We have to be vigilant.

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This is a temporary pause, he said. If compliance is in place, probably things will begin to get back to normal in two weeks. No matter what the observance, practice, precept in Judaism is, its all secondary to the preservation of life. Not just of your life, but of others lives, which there seem to be elements of the Jewish community who were absent in class that day.

Spitzer, the Hasidic Brooklyn district manager, believes the media and New York government perpetuate misconceptions that Hasidim willfully buck laws and put neighbors, friends and relatives in jeopardy. He thinks politics plays a role.

Lets put it in a few words: We dont hold the right views, he said. We are extremely tolerant of everybody and anything. Its just we dont practice some of the things that the left holds dear.

RELATED: Click here for complete coverage of COVID-19 on RNS

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