‘We relate to virus with scorn’: 50% of elderly Israelis with Covid from haredi community

Prayer services that did not follow the health guidelines during the High Holiday period are being blamed.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Although making up only a few percentage points of Israel’s population, fully half of those 65 and older who are ill with Covid-19 are from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector, the Health Ministry’s information headquarters for the haredi public announced Tuesday.

Considering the high degree of respect this sector has for the elderly, fulfilling as it does a specific biblical commandment, a Health Ministry statement said, “In contrast to the prevailing feeling that the adults are safeguarded to a greater degree… the statistics speak for themselves and should especially worry our public.”

The dramatic numbers are being blamed largely on High Holiday services of the last two weeks.

Although synagogues were supposed to be closed, with prayers taking place outside in groups of up to 20 people, Channel 11 News documented numerous instances of the guidelines being ignored over the Sukkot holiday in the large hasidic communities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

In the video clip, hundreds of the anti-Zionist Toldot Aharon sect are seen praying crowded together in an indoor venue during the last day of the Sukkot holiday. The Grand Rabbi of Belz, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, is also seen dancing with his followers – elderly and young alike – in their huge synagogue during the holiday.  No one is wearing masks in the video.

The news report quoted the elderly rabbi saying, “We will continue to relate to the virus as we have related to it until today – with complete scorn.”

“With God’s help,” he said, “we won’t be damaged by it.”

According to a Monday report in Haaretz, the rabbi himself has secretly survived the disease. He fell ill in August, the same month thousands of his hasidim attended the wedding of one of his grandsons. He was quietly treated at home by doctors being advised by the director and the CEO of Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

Another hasidic leader, the Pittsburgher Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, died of the virus on October 5 after battling it for two months. Despite the fact that their leader succumbed to the disease, some 5,000 followers attended his funeral against the health regulations.

The virus has not only affected the Hasidic sector. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the two acknowledged leaders of the Lithuanian stream of ultra-Orthodoxy, is currently battling the disease. The 92-year-old sage collapsed briefly at a celebration during the intermediate days of Sukkot last week.

The tug and pull between keeping their religious way of life intact during a pandemic that demands distancing and quarantine is an ongoing one. The coronavirus cabinet is set to discuss the issue of opening the educational system on Tuesday, and both the hassidic and non-hasidic leaders want their youth to return to their Torah studies.

The holiday vacation period ended Sunday, but the rabbis ordered the schools to stay closed for now, hoping to come to an arrangement with the government.

Israel Hayom reported that a possible deal could include the rabbis’ agreement to close “red” cities – those with high numbers of Covid-19 cases, many of which have large haredi communities – in exchange for allowing the children and youth to go back to class.

The ministry reported on Tuesday 51,250 active cases in the country, with 801 serious cases and 242 critically ill on ventilators. Just over 2,020 Israelis have died thus far during the pandemic.