'Plague on a biblical scale': Hasidic families hit hard by virus

Liam Stack, The New York Times

Posted at Apr 22 2020 09:36 AM

'Plague on a biblical scale': Hasidic families hit hard by virus 1
Mourners at a funeral procession for Rabbi Leibel Groner in Crown Heights on April 8, 2020. Most people kept their distance from one another as they prayed. The coronavirus has hit the Hasidic Jewish community in the New York area with devastating force, killing influential religious leaders and tearing through large tight-knit families. Kirsten Luce/The New York Times

NEW YORK — One of the first people Shulim Leifer knew who died of the coronavirus was his great-uncle. Then his grandmother fell ill, as did two of his cousins. The man who lived next door to his childhood home died on a Tuesday, and by Friday the neighbor on the other side was dead as well.

Each neighbor was given a small funeral, with a handful of mourners standing 6 feet apart on their front lawns in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park.

“There is not a single Hasidic family that has been untouched,” said Leifer, 34. “It is a plague on a biblical scale.”

The coronavirus has hit the Hasidic Jewish community in the New York area with devastating force, killing influential religious leaders and tearing through large, tight-knit families at a rate that community leaders and some public health data suggest may exceed that of other ethnic or religious groups.

The city does not track deaths by religion, but Hasidic news media report that roughly 700 members of the community in the New York area have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Borough Park is a leafy neighborhood of low-rise buildings and small businesses like the kosher bakeries and Judaica shops on Raoul Wallenberg Way that cater to the local Hasidic population. More than 6,000 people there have tested positive for the virus, with one of the neighborhood’s ZIP codes being the city’s fifth most heavily affected, according to data released by the city.

Other neighborhoods with large Hasidic populations, like South Williamsburg and Crown Heights, have some of the city’s highest levels of positive COVID-19 test results, the data show.

Hasidic groups say they prepared for the pandemic — for example, making decisions on the closure of schools and events — by taking their cues from state and federal authorities, whose response to the crisis has been at times halting and inconsistent.

'Plague on a biblical scale': Hasidic families hit hard by virus 2
People walk through the streets of Borough Park in Brooklyn on March, 18, 2020. Jonah Markowitz/The New York Times

But community leaders say Hasidic enclaves in New York were also left vulnerable to the coronavirus by a range of social factors, including high levels of poverty, a reliance on religious leaders who were in some cases slow to act and the insular nature of Hasidic society, which harbors a distrust of secular authorities that is born of a troubled history.

That distrust has manifested itself in ways that have risked spreading the virus and have drawn the attention of law enforcement, which in recent weeks has been called to disperse crowds at events like weddings and funerals in Hasidic areas of Brooklyn, upstate New York and New Jersey.

That, in turn, has led to concerns over anti-Semitism in places like Rockland County, which has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the nation and was also the site of an anti-Semitic attack in December that killed one Hasidic Jew and injured four others.

Celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which fell on March 10 this year, were canceled by many Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox synagogues. But many Hasidic groups observed the festival, drawing people to gatherings where they may have been exposed to the virus.

“Not only the Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews but a lot of Jews responded to the idea of not going to the synagogue or gathering in a public place with a feeling of outrage, because it brought to mind times when religious persecution closed down synagogues,” said Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College.

That sense of defiance has been evident in neighborhoods like Borough Park and South Williamsburg, where some businesses and religious bathhouses have displayed signs written in Yiddish — a language not widely spoken outside the Hasidic community — informing patrons of hours and prices or instructing them to use an entrance not visible from the street.

“The problem there was confusion of persecution that comes from a human being and a plague, a virus,” Heschel said. “But there was a sense that we are not going to be subjected to this kind of treatment; we are going to fulfill our lives as Jews in a rich way, and we are going to go to the synagogue. It is a sort of defiance and affirmation of Jewish identity, combined.”

Heschel’s cousin, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who led the Novominsker Hasidic dynasty as well as Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella ultra-Orthodox organization, died earlier this month of COVID-19.

He had urged Hasidic Jews to abide by public health guidelines and was perhaps the most high-profile Jewish leader in the world to die of the coronavirus. But others have died as well, most of whom have been deprived of the sort of large funeral that would typically honor a religious figure.

“Normally there would be tens of thousands of people here,” said Malka Phillips as she stood on Eastern Parkway earlier this month to watch the socially distanced funeral procession for Rabbi Leibel Groner. “We’re losing an entire generation.”

But not every event has been sparsely attended. Funerals and wedding in parts of Brooklyn and suburban towns have drawn widespread news media coverage.

A Hasidic funeral in Lakewood, New Jersey, turned “unruly and argumentative” once police officers arrived to disperse a crowd of more than 60 people earlier this month, Bradley D. Billhimer, the Ocean County prosecutor, said in a statement. His office charged 15 attendees with violating Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s executive order barring large gatherings.

Hasidic community leaders bristle at any discussion of such violations. They say they feel singled out by the news media and several Hasidic people interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retaliation from others in the community.

“There have been several very disappointing incidents that are very unfortunate, but the vast majority of people in these communities are staying home under very tough circumstances,” said Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, one of the largest Jewish religious organizations in the world. “When people violate the isolation guidelines within these communities, they become the focus of frustration and anger from others within the community.”

He said the community was vulnerable to the virus not because of isolated incidents of rule-breaking but instead because of the very things that make it vibrant: tight-knit families, a commitment to ritual and multigenerational households where the very young and very old live side by side.

“Everything that makes these communities so beautiful is likely a factor that puts them at risk in this situation,” Seligson said. “To really understand how the virus is spreading within these communities, one really needs to understand how these communities operate on a regular basis.”

Efforts to inform the community of public health guidelines may have been complicated by the strictures of Hasidic life, which emphasize the guidance of religious leaders and cast a wary eye at outside authorities, including health officials and the mainstream news media.

That dynamic also played out during a measles outbreak last year that hit the community hard and deepened its distrust of state and local authorities.

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, said he thought outreach to the Hasidic community could be improved.

“The reality is that some members of the Hasidic community and other religious communities do not look to mainstream outlets for information,” Adams said in a statement. “We have to reach out to these communities to reach them and others where they are, not where we want them to be.”

He said it was “counterproductive” to criticize members of the community for violating public health guidelines if the city was “unwilling to invest in outreach strategies that prioritize them in the first place.”

But the city health department says it has invested in outreach. In late February, it launched a $27 million ad campaign on the dangers of the coronavirus that included material in 22 languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew, said Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman. He said the department also sent robocalls and distributed thousands of leaflets in both languages,

For Leifer, the problem started closer to home. He said he thought the community’s yeshiva education system, which emphasizes religious study, had left many in the community “uneducated and unprepared” for a widespread medical crisis.

Leifer said the “firewall” between Hasidic Jews and the outside world had served the community very well over the years. But a pandemic was different.

“The same characteristic that in normal times has been good for us is right now going to be our downfall,” he said. “Which is what we are seeing.”

The rules of Hasidic life have also made the prospect of giving up religious gatherings and staying at home daunting, said Meyer Labin, a Yiddish writer who said he knew many who had died of the virus, including several rabbis, the fathers of two friends and his eighth grade teacher.

Labin said going to synagogue — which some might do three times a day — or attending a wedding was more than a religious event. These activities play a social role for people who have fewer ways to blow off steam than most New Yorkers, he said.

“That’s where we get our news and our information or our entertainment; everything is the community,” Labin said. “Our lives are completely, completely different than life for most other communities and people in that we don’t have a lot of other entertainment at home. For example, no Netflix or TV.”

From a Hasidic perspective, he said, the stay-at-home orders issued last month across the country did not seem like “that much of a sacrifice” for non-Hasidic people, he said.

“I don’t mean to minimize it, but like you lay back, watch Netflix, drink tea — now imagine a family that is not set up that way,” he said. “The way we live — small apartments, big families — our outlet is to go out and mingle and socialize, and now it’s very hard to put an abrupt stop to all of that.”