“These were members of my own community with hatred in their eyes, flipping the finger toward me, calling me a Nazi, saying I deserve to die,” Kornbluh, a politics reporter for Jewish Insider, told The Washington Post. “All these months I keep a distance, wear a mask not to get sick, advocate for measures that save lives, they disrespect my space and do something horrifying."
The attack underscores the escalating tensions playing out this week in many of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. As a surge in coronavirus cases has prompted government authorities to issue new lockdown orders, including restrictions on houses of worship, some in this mostly insular community have turned their skepticism of public health measures into open defiance.
For three consecutive nights, hundreds of men have congregated on the streets of Brooklyn, dancing, clashing with police and burning face masks. They have also physically attacked journalists and others documenting the scenes, including one Hasidic man who ended up in the hospital early Wednesday.
Kornbluh said the reasons fueling the community’s defiance are difficult to untangle: There’s a history of government mistrust, a sense the pandemic has passed and a feeling that lawmakers should stay out of their religious activities. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), meanwhile, have singled out Orthodox Jews while failing to conduct proper outreach, he said.
Perhaps inevitably, President Trump is also playing a role.
“When I’m on the street, I don’t have to wear a mask,” Heshy Tischler, an activist behind some demonstrations, told the Forward. “Just like the president.”
While Tischler has claimed the uptick in infections is a hoax, Cuomo said it is the direct consequence of sloppy adherence to measures like masks and social distancing.
“To the extent there are communities that are upset, that’s because they haven’t been following the original rules,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday. “That’s why the infection spread.”
In New York’s Orthodox neighborhoods, the pandemic hit early — and hard. These areas were some of the first to report cases in March, and during the peak of the city’s outbreak soon after, dozens of Orthodox funerals took place day after day, Kornbluh said.
But after years of growing tensions with health authorities, the pandemic only made things worse. In April, many said de Blasio unfairly singled out their community when he publicly made an example of social distancing violations at the funeral for an influential Hasidic rabbi.
Following a steep drop in cases this summer, some started to act against public health rules: Fliers have instructed families not to get their children tested, according to the New York Times, warning that doing so could bring the positivity rate up and risk a shutdown of in-person celebrations for the High Holidays.
Kornbluh added that city health officials had failed to properly encourage — or enforce — public health guidelines in the area, with only five Yiddish-speaking contact tracers working for the state and little presence in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and suburbs farther upstate.
“This is a community where a lot of people believe they have already had the virus, a lot of people believe they have herd immunity, so they really believe they don’t need to get tested,” Simcha Eichenstein, a New York state assemblyman representing the area, told the Times last month. “That is why it is so important to communicate with people on the ground.”
With positivity rates on the rise recently in neighborhoods across Brooklyn and Queens — all of which are home to large Orthodox populations — city and state lawmakers moved to take action. On Tuesday, Cuomo ordered schools to close, shut down nonessential businesses and imposed strict capacity limits on religious gatherings.
That drew almost immediate blowback from the community’s elected officials, who said the governor lied to them in a “duplicitous bait and switch” and had made “irresponsible and pejorative” comments targeting Jews.
“We are appalled by Governor Cuomo’s words and actions today,” Eichenstein and three other Orthodox Jewish lawmakers wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “He has chosen to pursue a scientifically and constitutionally questionable shutdown of our communities.”
On Monday night, the first standoff unfolded in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Revelers at a Sukkot holiday celebration, some of them not wearing masks, spilled onto the street as they danced shoulder to shoulder. Multiple police officers tried but failed to break up the event, according to video published by Gothamist.
“We are not going to be deprived of the right that we have in America, like everybody else in America, to observe our religion,” New York City Council member Kalman Yeger told a group of demonstrators, according to the Boro Park News, a local Orthodox Jewish news outlet.
Bruce Schaff, a freelance photographer who captured the scene in Borough Park on Tuesday, said he was singled out for carrying a camera, even after responding in Yiddish to gain trust.
In videos, Schaff appears to try to get away before he’s brought down by blows, disappearing into a wave of the large-brimmed, black hats that Hasidic men commonly wear on weekdays.
“I have a feeling, a hunch that someone told people who are coming that ‘anyone you see who is press, who is media, anything, attack them, break their stuff,’ ” Schaff said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I don’t have any proof of it, but if you see the way they are attacking media, I’ve never seen that in this community, not any community.”
Meryl Kornfield and Antonia Noori Farzan contributed to this report.