Orthodox Jews face collateral damage from unbalanced COVID-19 measures

Many people of faith have faced limits on meeting for services. But when Jewish Americans have gathered publicly, they have faced a slew of anti-Semitic attacks — some from prominent government officials.

(RNS) — Over the last several months, the urgency of quarantining American citizens from the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic has led to government-imposed shutdowns of houses of worship all over the country. And while many Americans have slowly been able to return to church recently, gathering together for religious worship is still tantamount to a crime in several states.

Leaving religious gatherings out of what are considered “essential” activities (while including gambling, selling marijuana and alcohol and elective abortions) has been frustrating for evangelical Christians and a painful disruption for Catholics who are unable to share Communion or the intimacy of the confessional. But for some Americans who have been scapegoated for the spread of the virus, the limits on gathering have been destructive to their standing in the larger community.

Orthodox Jews face particular difficulties when asked to take a complete pause from communal life. For example, while many Christians can temporarily worship via Zoom, Orthodox Jews’ faith prohibits using electronic devices on the Sabbath.

Nonetheless, Jewish institutions for the most part have joined other faith traditions in scrupulously adhering to social distancing. When they have gathered publicly, however, Jewish Americans have faced a slew of anti-Semitic attacks — some from prominent government officials.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made national headlines April 28 after he personally helped to disperse a gathering of Jews from a rabbi’s funeral, later tweeting: “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed.” He added, “what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.”

And yet earlier that same day, larger crowds were tolerated as thousands of New Yorkers turned out to watch a flyover by the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels saluting the city’s health care workers. The mayor’s sudden turn on the Jewish mourners marked a double standard that’s been echoed in other communities.

Already conscious of rising levels of anti-Semitism, many Orthodox Jews have been reluctant to share stories of their hardships out of fear that doing so might increase their marginalization, or even persecution. In Brooklyn, New York, in May, a rabbi was arrested for letting his children walk through their Jewish neighborhood alone.

As the pandemic continues, government officials need to consider how their actions impact religious groups they serve. Many states throughout this crisis have chosen to severely limit people of faith under the guise of health and safety regulations while allowing businesses to reopen.

Nevada, to point to just one example, cleared casinos, restaurants, indoor amusement parks and many other secular businesses to open to 50% capacity while limiting religious gatherings to 50 people, regardless of how large their building is or how rare COVID-19 is in the area. California and Washington have also treated religious gatherings differently than secular assemblies.

Government at every level has a legitimate role in protecting citizens from physical dangers, but officials also have an important role to play in preserving America’s legacy of religious diversity. Singling out religious Americans for uniquely harsh treatment or even disparate criticism puts that legacy in danger.

While the government takes the steps necessary to save lives, it should do so with an eye toward the institutions that will keep America strong both during and after this pandemic. Faith communities play an essential role, helping our citizens heal, encouraging them amid the ongoing dangers of the pandemic and facilitating acts of kindness and generosity to meet the growing needs of those caught in both the economic undertow and physical realities of the coronavirus.

Our congregations need the space to make these crucial contributions. Public officials should pay attention to how their actions and comments impact members of religious communities.

(Brett Harvey is senior counsel and vice president for alliance legal affairs with Alliance Defending Freedom. Howard Slugh is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)