NEW YORK (AP) — Leaders at six top Orthodox Jewish organizations on Friday (March 20) jointly urged their members to heed social distancing rules designed to fight the coronavirus, a show of unity that underscores the importance of behavioral changes that amount to a massive upheaval in their faith communities.
While limits on gathering during the pandemic have required significant sacrifices for all Americans in multiple faiths, Orthodox Jewish communities have faced unique challenges in constraining practices built around social engagement, including multiple daily group prayers. The joint statement, issued hours ahead of the Jewish Sabbath, highlights the extent to which representatives of the faith have pushed in recent days for a large-scale disruption of sacred practices in the interest of public health.
“We have heretofore urged not only full compliance with all health guidelines issued by federal, state, and local governments, but have gone beyond those pronouncements in urging our communities to remain at home and avoid, to the maximum extent feasible, any outside interactions,” read Friday’s announcement, signed by leaders at Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union, the National Council of Young Israel, the Lakewood Vaad, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Rabbinical Alliance of America.
In New York, Fire Department officials were called to break up a large Hasidic wedding on Tuesday that took place while gatherings of more than 50 were barred – a development that drew public attention. But at a time of rising anti-Semitism in New York and nationwide, Orthodox Jewish leaders made clear that their communities are speaking with one voice to discourage group gathering.
Their announcement came on the same day that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded the state’s gathering limits on Friday to bar any group meeting of any size.
“It’s very hard to pull the plug of somebody who has three-times-a-day prayer,” said Rabbi Abe Friedman, an Orthodox leader in Brooklyn. But, he added, “I am very proud of the community, which over the past few days has been taking it very seriously.”
Among the steps that helped unite Orthodox Jewish communities was a call that some leaders held earlier this week with Avi Berkowitz, an assistant to President Donald Trump who was raised in the Orthodox faith. The White House held two other faith outreach calls this week on its efforts against the pandemic, according to a senior Trump administration official, including one on Thursday that drew more than 1,200 interfaith leaders.
For some Orthodox Jewish leaders, reports of large gatherings in their community during the pandemic — which has seen secular areas struggle to fully comply with social distancing — raise the specter of biased stigmatization of their faith, the year after a measles outbreak in New York prompted officials to order vaccinations in a predominantly Orthodox neighborhood.
“I’m frightened to see the types of comments that people are putting out there, generalizing against the community,” said Avi Greenstein, CEO of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn. Misinformation disseminated during the measles outbreak fueled anti-Semitism, he said.
Beyond the Orthodox world, the spread of coronavirus has only heightened concerns about anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric. The Anti-Defamation League warned this week about increased spread of “hate and misinformation, making it more difficult to access accurate information while elevating fear and anxiety” during the pandemic.
“It’s important to understand that these communities are not a monolith,” said Motti Seligson, media relations director for Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement. Given the extensive diversity within Orthodox Judaism, he added, “taking the actions of a few extreme individuals and projecting that on an entire community of hundreds of thousands is not fair nor accurate.”
Some Hasidic Orthodox Jewish leaders were closing down schools before New York’s public schools shut, Seligson said, and others are “working with law enforcement to ensure that there are no gatherings of any kind, even small outdoor gatherings with everyone distantly separated.”
New York City’s Jewish community started feeling the pain of the pandemic earlier this month, when coronavirus began affecting the city of New Rochelle a few miles north. Synagogues in that area and in Seattle, an early hot spot for the virus, limited their celebrations of the Purim holiday in response. Student volunteers helped residents under quarantine celebrate while adhering to health guidelines.
But as difficult as the pandemic’s limits on foundations of Orthodox life have been, the Jewish value known as pikuach nefesh — the protection of human life, above all — takes precedence.
Signatories of Friday’s statement noted that “as observant Jews we have an obligation to place supreme value on protecting human life.”
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