Israel’s ultra-orthodox reject criticism and defy virus rules of lifestyle

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JERUSALEM (AP) – Mendy Moskowits, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Belz Hassidic sect in Jerusalem, doesn’t understand the uproar against believers like him.

For the past few weeks, ultra-Orthodox Jews have been resisting the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus by holding grand funerals for beloved rabbis who have died of COVID-19, celebrating grand weddings, and continuing to send their children to schools. The gatherings have sparked clashes with the police and an unprecedented wave of public anger against the religious community.

On Tuesday evening, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters protested lockdown restrictions, set dumpsters on fire and faced police officers in Jerusalem.

Moskowits, like many other ultra-Orthodox believers, says Israeli society does not understand their way of life and has made his community a scapegoat.

“I think the media is giving us a very bad misrepresentation,” he said.

The ultra-Orthodox community makes up about 12% of Israel’s 9.3 million people. But it has exerted an overwhelming influence, using its kingmaker status in parliament to secure benefits and generous government subsidies.

Ultra-Orthodox men are exempt from military service and often receive social benefits while studying full-time in seminars throughout adulthood. Their schools enjoy broad autonomy and focus almost exclusively on religion while avoiding basic subjects such as math and science.

These privileges have sparked disdain among the public – resentments that led to outright hostility during the coronavirus crisis.

Gilad Malach, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, says ultra-Orthodox believers accounted for more than a third of the country’s COVID-19 cases in 2020. Among Israelis over 65, the ultra-Orthodox death rate was three times that of the general population, he added.

Health ministry data shows that vaccination rates in ultra-Orthodox areas are well below the national average.

The ultra-Orthodox non-compliance, Malach said, was in part because members did not believe they should “obey the rules of the state, particularly on issues of religious conduct.”

Ultra-Orthodox, also known as “Haredim,” follow a strict interpretation of Judaism, and prominent rabbis are the community’s arbitrators in all matters. Many view secular Israelis as a recent departure from centuries of unchanged Jewish tradition.

“We have rabbis. We don’t just do what we have in mind, ”said Moskowits. “We have listened to them for a few thousand years. We will listen to them today too. “

While the ultra-Orthodox community is anything but monolithic, many rabbis have either ignored or even deliberately disregarded safety rules. 93-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most influential spiritual leaders, has insisted that schools remain open during the crisis.

On a final day, dozens of ultra-Orthodox girls came out of an illegal elementary school in the Romema neighborhood. Few wore masks or kept their distance from others. Classes were held in the boys’ primary schools and yeshivas nearby.

“We cannot let a generation go broke,” said Moskowits, who lives in Romema. “We still send our boys to school because we have rabbis who say that studying the Torah saves and protects.”

In a community that largely eschews the Internet, rabbis post pashkevils or public notices on walls in religious neighborhoods to get their messages across.

Some notices urged people not to get vaccinated and even used Holocaust images to scare people. “The vaccine is completely unnecessary! The pandemic is already behind us! “They read and compared the rush for vaccinations with getting on a train to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders say that such views are held by a radical minority. Most people respect the safety rules and the virus is spreading because the communities are poor and people live in small apartments with large families.

Moskowits, a 29-year-old father of two, said some families have up to 10 children and only one bathroom. From the age of 14 boys are sent to boarding schools and only spend the Sabbath at home.

For many, the lockdown “does not work technically and physically,” said Moskowits. He called it a “human rights violation”.

Muscovits, who grew up in the UK, speaks English with a British accent, but his vocabulary is heavily spiced up with Yiddish and Hebrew words. He wears the black velvet skull cap, the pressed white shirt and the black trousers typical of ultra-Orthodox men – but no mask, although the government publicly demands them. He said he signed COVID-19 in March and claims a letter from his doctor excuses him from wearing a mask.

As a real estate developer, he interrupts his working day with prayers in a neighborhood synagogue and tries once a week to pray on Jerusalem’s western wall, the holiest place where Jews can worship. Once a day he performs ablutions in a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, and regularly studies religious texts with a partner.

The religious community is growing rapidly, although economists have long warned that the system is unsustainable. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, around 60% of the population is under 19 years of age.

Protecting the ultra-Orthodox way of life – or Yiddishism – is the ultimate goal of the community. If that means infection is spreading, it is a price some members are willing to pay.

Ultra-Orthodox people “sacrifice most of their lives for the next generation and for the preservation of Yiddishness. We’re giving everything away, ”said Moskowits.

This view is hardly universal.

Nathan Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi living in Israel, recently complained in a statement in the Jewish Chronicle that members of the Haredi community “really see no connection between disregard of restrictions and deaths from COVID.”

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of an ultra-Orthodox ambulance service called ZAKA, lost both of his parents to the virus in January. He says rabbis who urge supporters to break coronavirus regulations have “blood on their hands.”

Funerals play a central role in traditional Jewish life, and the pandemic has made them all too common. Cars with megaphones drive through religious districts, announcing deaths and details of the funeral. Pashkevils notify communities when a prominent rabbi dies.

Shmuel Gelbstein, deputy director of a Jerusalem funeral home for the ultra-Orthodox community, said this year has been “very busy, very difficult in terms of mortality, both in terms of ordinary deaths and of course the coronavirus, which is certainly a lot adding to the burden . “

Funerals for two leading Haredi rabbis who died of COVID-19 drew an estimated 10,000 mourners last week.

The non-Orthodox majority in Israel was outraged by what they viewed as disregard for the rules and selective enforcement by the authorities.

But the ultra-orthodox claim that they were wrongly singled out states that demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – protected by free speech laws – were allowed to continue during the pandemic.

Moskowits stated that prominent rabbis are “a big part of your life” for the young men who flocked to these funerals.

“When these younger men go to a funeral, they feel like their father has died,” he said. “Nothing stands in the way. He’s going to the funeral anyway. “

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