CALL IT THE bonfire of the masks. That was the centrepiece of a large protest on October 6th by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn’s Borough Park to protest against new state restrictions on mass gatherings. Some chanted “Jewish Lives Matter”. A few hoisted Trump campaign signs. “We are at war,” said Heshy Tischler, a neighbourhood populist running for the city council who has been leading the agitation, the following night. He also allegedly set angry demonstrators on Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider, who was attempting to cover the protests. He was called both a “Nazi” and a “moyser”, a Yiddish word meaning informer.
This antipathy, which has of course gone viral on the internet, is mostly directed at Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor. Mr Cuomo has enforced a new lockdown plan to deal with the alarming rise in covid-19 infections in so-called micro-clusters of the city and state. Places in the “red zone” areas are home to 3% of the state’s population but account for 18% of all positive cases last week. These are mainly in Brooklyn, Queens and a few towns upstate, home to ultra-Orthodox communities, who say they are being unfairly targeted. Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, calls the restrictions a “necessary rewind”. Only essential businesses can stay open in red zones. Houses of worship are limited to 25% capacity or a maximum of ten people. Schools must switch to remote learning.
If Mr Cuomo seems overcautious, it is to avoid another outbreak and a return to the time when New York was America’s covid-19 capital. Since March, New York City has seen 246,000 infections, 58,000 hospitalisations and more than 25,000 deaths from covid-19. At the pandemic’s height in April, personal protective equipment became scarce. Nurses wore the same N-95 mask for as many as five consecutive shifts. Morgues overflowed. Sal Farenga, a Bronx undertaker, held 120 funerals, three times the norm. “There’s nothing more awful than zipping someone up in a body bag,” said Kelley Cabrera, a nurse, “and we had to do it over and over again.”
Much attention has been devoted to the disproportionate impact the virus has had on poor, black and Hispanic New Yorkers. The toll on Orthodox Jews in New York is less well-known. It has killed rabbis and swept through families, which tend to be large and live in cramped apartments.
Thousands of Hasidim who caught the virus donated their plasma for antibody treatment. Despite that, adherence to social distancing has remained patchy. Police had to break up a large funeral held for a rabbi in April. In June, some Hasidim used bolt cutters to open closed playgrounds. The city closed several yeshivas, Jewish schools, for flouting social-distancing rules. Conversations with many ultra-Orthodox Jews suggest a widespread but mistaken belief that they have herd immunity. Similar misinformation spread last year during a measles outbreak in a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn. Samuel Heilman, an expert on Orthodox Judaism at Queens College, points out that the Hasidim are a particularly insular sect with a strong mistrust of secular government. They are especially resistant to bans on gathering, given how communal most activities are. “The idea of praying alone,” he says, “they don’t really know how to do that.”
The risk is that unless the virus is contained in micro-clusters, it will build into a second wave. Another citywide shutdown would cripple the Big Apple, where unemployment is still at 16%. The city and state are already in fiscal distress.
Among elected officials, there is optimism about the new restrictions. Mr de Blasio said there has been “some levelling off” in communities afflicted by the recent spikes. Mr Tischler was charged with incitement to riot. Mr Cuomo reminded those opposing the restrictions of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish principle that the preservation of life overrides nearly every other religious rule. “The point here”, he said, “is to save a life and not endanger others.”■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Pikuach nefesh”