As police have pushed into some of these neighborhoods, violence has broken out. Young ultra-Orthodox men threw rocks at police in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood Monday after officers broke up a gathering at a synagogue and cited residents for straying more than 100 meters from their homes. Thirty residents were fined up to $1,400 for violating health restrictions, and the army sent patrols into the neighborhood Tuesday.
Officials are now considering locking down entire ultra-Orthodox areas.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, himself an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who had been criticized earlier for not clamping down more vigorously, called for police to control access to the city of Bnei Barak after an ultra-Orthodox funeral there drew hundreds of mourners in defiance of police.
“There is no public that is exempt from the regulations, and there is no population that can stand aside and not participate in the law,” Litzman said in an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
Government officials say most members of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, communities complied with restrictions when they were imposed nationwide more two weeks ago. But some sects have flouted these rules, in Israel as well as in sections of New York, New Jersey and London, as urgent public health messages have failed to penetrate a population isolated by cultural, religious and language barriers.
Some Haredi sects lead lives tailor-made to facilitate the spread of a new pathogen, health officials said. The ultra-Orthodox routinely have large families packed into small apartments and interact constantly with others at religious schools, synagogues and ritual baths. Many eschew smartphones, ignore mass media and distrust government authority.
“You cannot stop, you cannot even regulate, the spread of the infection inside a family of 10 or 12 in crowded into an apartment of two bedrooms,” said Moti Ravid, medical director of the Maynei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Barak.
He expects contagion among the ultra-Orthodox to outpace the 40 percent rate of infection that occurred inside families in Chinese cities. “We will see 50 percent or more in these Orthodox families,” he said.
Already, the infection rate within Orthodox communities is four times of that of Israel’s general population, Ravid said. A survey by Israel’s Channel 12 news, using data provided by individual hospitals, found more than half the coronavirus patients were from the Haredi community.
In Bnei Barak, the number of cases testing positive for the virus soared from 30 to 244 over three days last week, while in Jerusalem the figure increased from 78 to 314, according to Health Ministry figures. Officials in Jerusalem on Sunday opened a converted hotel-hospital to isolate ultra-Orthodox patients, offering kosher food and holding up to 300 patients.
Overall, Israel has recorded more 4,800 infections. Nineteen have died.
Some practices that pose a heightened risk for infection are central in the religious lives of the ultra-Orthodox. Congregating multiple times a day to pray is fundamental, with a quorum of 10 adult males often required. Closing ritual baths, for instance, would mean couples are forbidden from being intimate or even touching and sleeping together.
Meanwhile, the outside world remains remote.
“Many Haredim are cut off from the digital world,” said Esty Shushan, a Haredi activist and chief executive of Nivcharot, a movement working for women’s rights in her Orthodox community. She said, “They are not updated on what is going on in the wider world.”
As the word of the outbreak spread elsewhere in Israel, the Haredim — some of whom speak Yiddish rather than Hebrew and reject the authority of the Israeli government — looked to their spiritual leaders for guidance. Some of their rabbis balked at the government’s call to close schools, reduce gatherings to no more than 10 and hold funerals only outdoors with no more than 20 participants spaced at least six feet apart.
One of the leading Haredi authorities in Bnei Barak, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, directed his followers earlier this month to keep the religious schools open, Shushan said, because studying the Torah and praying would save lives. A week later, as the number of confirmed cases mounted, he reversed himself and ordered adherents to pray alone.
Meanwhile, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Israelis rushed back from abroad as other countries began to restrict movement. One El Al flight from New York transported at least 65 students from a Brooklyn religious school who tested positive for the virus and were quarantined upon arrival.
The ultra-Orthodox have not been the only Israelis reluctant to surrender their freedom. Sun seekers, barred from schools and offices, filled the beaches as recently as two weeks ago. But as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked people to stay home and ratcheted up restrictions, compliance climbed. And with it, public resentment over the still-crowded streets in Haredi neighborhoods.
“Yes, I’m angry,” tweeted news anchor Eylon Levy. “They — and we — don’t deserve to pay the price in blood for their medieval superstitions.”
With every circulating video of an ultra-Orthodox wedding or prayer gathering, complaints grew that police were failing to enforce regulations that held most of the country in confinement.
The tipping point came over the weekend, more than two weeks after the beginning of home isolation and following the Jewish holiday of Purim with parties and gatherings, when some 300 ultra-Orthodox packed a funeral for a rabbi in Bnei Barak. Images of mourners crowded shoulder-to-shoulder as police stood by infuriated many, including security officials.
Police defended their failure to act, saying that trying to break up the funeral could have sparked a confrontation, drawing even more Haredim to the scene and prolonging the gathering. “Usually in such funerals there are thousands of people, and it was decided that it could have got much worse,” Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Police patrols and outreach have now increased in Haredi areas, Rosenfeld said, with officers on the streets and loudspeaker warnings in Yiddish that residents must avoid congregating.
“They do not have phones, they are not online, they don’t have televisions, though some listen to the radio,” he said. “We’ve emphasized getting [the] message out with rabbis and community leaders who they listen to.”
The heightened police presence was obvious Monday on the streets of Mea Shearim. The sidewalks were less crowded than previously, but still busier than most parts of a Jerusalem that is largely a ghost city a week before Passover.
Families with children filled the pavement in many places, and men frequently stopped to stare tensely at passing police cars. One group of officers in riot gear took away a young man with side locks dangling beneath his broad black hat.
All of the police wore the masks and gloves that have become common around the city. The ultra-Orthodox remained unprotected.