Gov. Andrew Cuomo shuts down New York City yeshivas in virus hot spots

 Both the mayor and governor are frustrated at ongoing displays of Hasidic Jews flouting mandates to socially distance and wear masks.

(RNS) — With COVID-19 rates rising again in some parts of New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have agreed to shut down schools in nine ZIP codes in Brooklyn and Queens that include a large number of Orthodox Jewish yeshivas, or religious schools.

De Blasio wanted to go a step further and shut down businesses in those ZIP codes, too, but the governor said essential businesses could stay open. Nonessential businesses — including restaurants, bars and gyms — would close.

The closures have angered Hasidic Jewish communities in those areas, who feel they are being unfairly singled out.

Many who belong to these tight-knit, insular and ultradevout communities are poor and live in small, cramped apartments, typically without internet access, potentially leaving many children without any learning options.

Cuomo was scheduled to meet with members of the Hasidic communities on Tuesday (Oct. 6).

The coronavirus has strained relations with elected officials, such as de Blasio, who as a city councilman once represented Hasidic Jews in Borough Park. Back in April, de Blasio sparked controversy after ordering the shutdown of a large funeral for a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn — and vowing to fine or arrest residents who continue to defy social distancing rules.

His tweet drew criticism from some who said he was generalizing against the whole population of Jews, and he apologized.

Cuomo, too, has had long-standing ties to these Jewish communities, and those have generally been positive.

But preventing a resurgence of the virus, which killed more than 24,000 New Yorkers this spring, has leaders talking tough.

“If the religious leaders do not agree to abide by these rules, then we will close the religious institutions, period,” Cuomo said.

The ZIP codes identified are responsible for about 1,850 new cases in the past four weeks — more than 20% of all new infections in the city during that span, the AP reported. Both the mayor and governor are frustrated at ongoing displays of Hasidic Jews flouting mandates to socially distance and wear masks.

At a news conference on Monday, Cuomo displayed images of large gatherings of unmasked Orthodox Jews and warned that he might close some religious institutions if their leaders did not abide by restrictions. But the governor used a 2006 photo of a Satmar rabbi’s funeral to illustrate his point.

“WILL CUOMO APOLOGIZE?!?” a headline in The Yeshiva World screamed.

Staff at the governor’s office quickly swapped it out with other photos.

Cuomo has also floated the idea of closing down houses of worship, a measure that would outrage many Hasidic Jews, now celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, also known as the Festival of Booths. The holiday culminates on Oct. 10 with Simchat Torah, a celebration that is centered in the synagogue and marks the conclusion of the liturgical cycle of public Torah readings.

Enforcing public health mandates in Hasidic communities has been a challenge for a host of reasons. Community members who live in close quarters don’t consume secular sources of information, whether on TV or the internet. Most speak Yiddish and some do not have a good grasp of English. They are accustomed to trust secular sources but only those within their communities, and especially the rabbis.

In addition, many Hasidic communities may mistakenly believe the coronavirus crisis has passed.

Hasidic Jews are the most traditional of U.S. Orthodox Jews. Founded in 18th-century Poland, these religious sects prize ecstatic worship and devotion to God. Hasidic Judaism is usually structured around a “rebbe,” or revered spiritual teacher whose interpretations of Jewish law govern the community.