Coronavirus hits haredi communities in Israel hard

As coronavirus spreads throughout Israel, haredi communities emerge as hotspots where rates of infection are particularly high.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Several weeks after the novel coronavirus was first reported in Israel, more data regarding patient locations and behavior has become available, making the spread of the virus easier to track.

Coronavirus patients have been identified in every region of the Jewish state, but officials are worried about one group with a particularly high rate of infection – members of the haredi (or ultra-Orthodox) community.

The highest per capita infection rate in Israel was recorded in Kiryat Arim-Telz Stone, a haredi town with 30 cases within a population of 5,565, giving the town a 0.53% infection rate. But Kiryat Arim is not the only haredi community with a higher than average rate of infection.

According to data released by the Ministry of Health, the per capita infection rate in the haredi city of Bnei Brak is four and a half times higher than in Rehovot and three times higher than Ashkelon, cities with a mixed religious-secular population.

There have been 267 coronavirus carriers identified in Bnei Brak, a city with a population of 199,000. In the haredi town of Kfar Chabad, there are 25 confirmed virus carriers within a population of just 6,421 people.

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The Ministry of Health cites several possible reasons for the higher than average infection rate within haredi communities. One is the delay in the closure of the ultra-Orthodox educational institutions, partly due to Minister of Health initially demanding to exclude them from the nationwide school shutdown.

Haredi schools and institutions remained open a few days longer than those in the rest of the country, and it’s theorized that the virus spread during that time.

Another reason cited by the Ministry of Health are large Purim parties that were held in haredi communities. The Ministry of Health has traced “many infections” to these events.

Over the weekend, Israel Hayom reported that hundreds of haredi residents of Bnei Brak filled the streets for the funeral of Rabbi Zvi Shinker, in violation of Ministry of Health guidelines forbidding large funerals.

The news sparked anger from Ministry of Internal Security Gilad Erdan, who said,”The mass funeral in Bnei Brak is a very serious and life-threatening event for the public. I will have an urgent discussion with the police about the enforcement of restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox sector.”

However, some in the haredi community have criticized the Ministry of Health for not effectively educating and reaching out to minority communities.

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“The ultra-Orthodox population, as well as the Arab population, are known to struggle with accessing this kind of information,” said MK Yaakov Margi of the Shas party.

“The outreach to these communities should have happened much earlier. If that effort had been made, we would not see what we see now. For the challenges that we will face in the future, we need to remember that outreach to these two groups should be done with maximum effort.”

Following criticism last week, the Ministry of Health stepped up their outreach efforts to the haredi population. Over the past weekend, 200,000 copies of an informative pamphlet about “the Plague” were distributed in ultra-Orthodox communities.

This past weekend also marked the first since the government approved new directives that prohibit public prayer in closed buildings, effectively shuttering synagogues.

Last week, it was reported that 24 percent of the new coronavirus infections could be traced to synagogues. Yediot Ahronot reported on infections that stemmed from synagogues in the Nahalat Itzhak neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

About two weeks ago, Rabbi Eliezer Igra, a well-respected rabbinical court judge, lectured at two neighborhood synagogues, Shuvu Achim and Nahalal. Last Tuesday, the rabbi and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus. After the lectures, Rabbi Moshe Levy of Shuvu Achim and synagogue caretaker Amnon Danon were diagnosed with the virus.

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Dozens of worshipers from both synagogues have entered quarantine.

Danon, 80, is hospitalized in the coronavirus isolation ward at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv.

“Synagogues are a dangerous place because people walk around and touch each other,” he said. “It’s not good that they closed the synagogues, but there’s no other choice. This epidemic is a wake-up call from God. We need to learn to ‘love our neighbors as we love ourselves.’”