400 rabbis back Cuomo and de Blasio in shutdown of New York Hasidic neighborhoods

Some 400 rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders have signed a statement in support of New York officials’ efforts to curb COVID-19 in hard-hit Jewish neighborhoods of New York City.

Members of the Hasidic Jewish community surround a rubbish fire in the street on Oct. 6, 2020, in the Borough Park section of New York’s Brooklyn borough. Hundreds of Hasidic Jewish men gathered in the streets of Borough Park after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to reinstate restrictions on houses of worship, schools and businesses in areas where coronavirus cases are spiking. (Joe Marino/New York Post via AP)

(RNS) — Some 400 rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish institutions have signed a statement in support of efforts in New York to shut down schools and limit synagogue attendance in Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods hard-hit by COVID-19.

The statement comes in response to chaotic protests that have broken out in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, driven by Hasidic Jews opposed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to shut down yeshivas and limit the number of people attending synagogues in ZIP codes where large numbers of Orthodox Jews who have been flouting coronavirus health mandates.

“We are rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders representing every movement of Judaism, who stand in support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for using data-driven, geographically-based efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19,” the letter reads.

“Judaism and Jewish texts are filled with vociferous debates and disagreements, however nothing is more universally accepted and agreed upon than the need to protect and preserve human life and dignity.”

The statement was organized by the New York Jewish Agenda, a new nonprofit that works on social justice issues. 

The new restrictions have outraged members of the insular Orthodox communities, who say they are being singled out. Videos taken earlier this week showed hundreds of Hasidic Jewish men, most without masks, setting fires and burning masks in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood.

The signers include more than 150 rabbis from the larger New York City area, from all the major Jewish denominations, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and others.

The rabbis were especially sharp in rejecting the protesters’ tactics, saying: “We are also deeply disturbed by what we have witnessed in the form of mask burnings and large, unsafe, and even violent protests against sensible precautions and regulations.”

The nine ZIP codes identified by the governor and mayor 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 Associated Press reported. Both the mayor and governor are frustrated at ongoing displays of Hasidic Jews flouting mandates to socially distance and wear masks.

On Wednesday (Oct. 7), Cuomo said the virus test positivity rate in those areas was about 5%, compared with 1% in the rest of the state.

Four Orthodox Jewish lawmakers representing the areas affected by the shutdown — state Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein and state Sen. Simcha Felder, and City Council members Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch — denounced the lockdown as “a duplicitous bait-and-switch,” The New York Times reported.

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 not accustomed to trusting secular sources except for those within their communities.

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.

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