The funeral was one of several gatherings Lakewood police have broken up in recent weeks, shutting down at least four weddings and another party. Police arrived about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to find 60 to 70 people gathered outside the synagogue, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement. The crowd became “unruly and argumentative” when police tried to disperse the mourners, before 15 were issued summons for violating the executive order and one was placed under arrest for failing to identify himself, police said.
“To be blunt, ignoring the Governor’s Order places lives at risk — not just the lives of everyday citizens, but the lives of our brave men and women in Law Enforcement who are required to respond in order to break up these unlawful gatherings,” Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer said in a statement Thursday. “I am imploring everyone to abide by the Governor’s Order and stay at home, so that we might all get through this very difficult time together — as painlessly as possible.”
The case is the latest example of religion clashing with public health during the pandemic as people of faith have been asked to forgo traditional religious ceremonies and abandon places of worship, arguably the most painful sacrifice of social distancing for many Americans. Many have turned to virtual religious services and even virtual funerals, as coronavirus robs families of proper goodbyes. But law enforcement has intervened in numerous cases, in which either religious leaders or groups have defied bans on gatherings.
Pastors Rodney Howard-Browne and Tony Spell were both charged with disregarding emergency orders to limit crowd sizes after they continued to welcome dozens of people to large church services in Florida and Louisiana, respectively, despite officials’ urgent pleas to stop. “Never been more proud to be persecuted for the faith like my savior,” Spell said. Police in Baltimore shut down a Baptist preacher’s service after he promised to defy the social distancing orders, and a California pastor has vowed to do the same, arguing the bans on church services violate religious freedoms.
But in Lakewood, where about two-thirds of residents are Orthodox Jews, rabbis have joined government officials in urgently pleading that people halt traditional religious ceremonies that are central to their faith. Not everyone listened or heard. In addition to the funeral, Lakewood police have broken up several traditional Orthodox Jewish weddings, one bat mitzvah and shuttered a yeshiva that resisted school closure orders.
Of the 1,200-plus confirmed cases of covid-19 in Ocean County, N.J., Lakewood has about 36 percent of them, with a population of 103,000, the Asbury Park Press reported. As of Tuesday, at least five Lakewood rabbis have died of complications from the coronavirus. Rabbi Aaron Kotler, president of Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva, worried Thursday whether the spike in coronavirus cases in the community might be connected to celebrations held on March 9 for the Jewish holiday Purim, the Press reported.
Once the situation became urgent, however, rabbis began issuing dire pleas to the Orthodox Jewish community to stay home, even issuing repeated robocalls that said, “We beg you to prevent all and any congregating,” the Press reported on March 20.
“We have taken the unprecedented and deeply distressing step of shuttering the central fixtures of our lives — our shuls, yeshivos and schools — and certainly to eliminate other gatherings,” a group of prominent local rabbis said in a statement last month.
Still, while some continued to hold gatherings, the incidents have drawn concern from local and state leaders about anti-Semitism directed toward the religious group. One man from Howell, N.J., was charged with making a terroristic threat toward the Jewish community in Lakewood, threatening to beat them with a baseball bat over the violations.
Lakewood Mayor Raymond G. Coles told News 12 New Jersey on Wednesday that bigotry has seemed to “dramatically increase” in recent weeks, despite the vast majority of Lakewood residents, including the Orthodox Jewish community, are following orders. “The entire Orthodox community has come out as a whole and condemned these gatherings,” he said.
“Folks are using a couple of examples [in Lakewood] to extrapolate and start blaming and vilifying communities, in this case our Jewish brothers and sisters,” Murphy said. “Regardless of how you worship, regardless of your ethnicity, race, who you love, your gender, we are one family. ... We need each other more than ever before. And any amount of scapegoating or any other bullying or vilification of communities, one community or another, is ... completely and utterly unacceptable.”
He warned that officials would “crash” parties that anyone threw.