Bnei Brak’s haredi community gets message – city streets almost empty

The vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox city’s residents have internalized the life-threatening danger of the coronavirus.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Bnei Brak is finally on board with the rest of the country regarding the coronavirus pandemic, as streets in the ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, city are almost empty and many stores have begun selling their products only via delivery service, Israel Hayom reported Thursday.

Bnei Brak has been the location with the highest number of infected people in the country per capita – 2.87 for every 1,000 residents. The average in all the other cities combined is 0.27 per thousand.

Israel’s Channel 13 reports on Thursday that the director of health provider Maccabi, which cares for about half of Bnei Brak’s residents, says that indications suggest that a third of the city carries the virus.

Leaders of the community blamed the government for the situation, saying residents were simply not aware of the seriousness of the pandemic. Most don’t own televisions or computers and they said the authorities were slow to get the word out in a way that that would reach them.

Stories had abounded in Israeli media of residents defying orders against gatherings of more than 10 people in one place (the rule has since been tightened to more than two people). This was especially true of synagogue-goers, as praying three times a day in a quorum of 10 is one of the basic tenets of Jewish life.

As of Sunday night, however, all houses of worship were ordered closed by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the Ashkenazic haredi world. Cars were sent throughout Bnei Brak – and other haredi centers in the country – with recorded messages broadcast through loudspeakers explaining the dangers of coronavirus and the rules of self-isolation. The haredi press got involved as well.

These measures seem to be working. When a few residents defiantly tried to enter a synagogue on Wednesday morning to pray, they were met with shouts of “Murderers! Murderers!” from residents on surrounding balconies, and threats to call the police, Israel Hayom reported.

Shlomo Margaliot, director of a Chabad synagogue, told the daily, “The issue is closed. The people are disciplined. It’s simply that until this last week they didn’t understand the dimensions of the problem. In my opinion, there’s no need now to put Bnei Brak under lockdown. The residents aren’t stupid, and the minute they understood the situation they are acting like everyone else in the country. You don’t see people in the streets.”

The government has been mulling putting a total closure on the city as the concern is that the number of those infected with the virus could rise to the thousands. As of Thursday morning, the police said blockades have been set up at the entrances to some of the main streets of the city to limit those who can enter and exit.

Soldiers and Border Police have also been sent to Bnei Brak, as well as to other haredi centers such as Modiin Ilit, Beit Shemesh and the Meah She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem. They are to patrol the streets to deter people from disobeying the government’s health rulings.

The number of residents diagnosed with the virus in these locations soared overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday. According to a Haaretz report, in Bnei Brak it jumped 27 percent, with 730 cases in total, while in Jerusalem, the rise was 23.5 percent to 781 cases.

Modiin Ilit, with 64 new patients, had a rise of 28 percent, and in Beit Shemesh there was an increase of 20 percent, with 95 people in total testing positive.