As Coronavirus Cases Rise, Members of Some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Communities Continue to Congregate

19 Mar

by Justin Elliott and Agnel Philip

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

In spite of public health directives limiting public gatherings and a spike in coronavirus cases, some members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn were continuing to congregate in large groups Wednesday afternoon.

Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood closed on Tuesday night for the first time ever. That news was followed by a final prayer service in which worshippers stood shoulder to shoulder, according to Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

But on Wednesday afternoon, a large group of men — numbering perhaps over 100 — had simply moved their prayers from inside the building to outside of it, crowding together.

“Those are the people that normally pray indoors,” said a woman walking by, warily looking at the scene. “I think it’s too close — don’t cough on me.”

“Local rabbis have urged people to stay home,” Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for Chabad, told ProPublica. “Sometimes you have some who don’t appreciate the severity of what this virus could do. Leaders in the community are trying really hard to ensure everyone stays safe.”

More than 100 people have recently tested positive for the coronavirus in two other heavily ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, Borough Park and Williamsburg, according to The New York Times. As of Wednesday, 1,871 people in New York City had tested positive, according to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

This week, New York state banned crowds above 50 and President Donald Trump advised that no more than 10 people should gather in the same place. The White House also hosted a conference call on Tuesday in which officials told Hasidic leaders to limit gatherings.

Seligson said that Chabad leaders had alerted local police that the synagogue was closed.

Men outside the Beth Hamedrash Shaarei Yosher Institute yeshiva in Borough Park on Wednesday afternoon as Fire Department and sheriff’s officials conducted a “safety check” inside.
(Agnel Philip/ProPublica)

A police official told ProPublica that the department has seen “virtually complete compliance” around the city with the crowd limit rules. In the case of the ultra-Orthodox community, “police precincts are working closely in collaboration with religious leaders to ensure that residents are informed of the directives,” the official said. Police officers are being reminded of the new rules at the beginning of their shifts, and they have discretion when it comes to enforcement.

The Fire Department also reportedly broke up a large Hasidic wedding in Williamsburg on Tuesday. Spokespeople for the department and mayor’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

In Borough Park midafternoon Wednesday, Fire Department and sheriff officials were inside the Beth Hamedrash Shaarei Yosher Institute yeshiva. At least a dozen men walked in and out of the building and stood nearby; a Fire Department official on the scene said the visit was a “safety check,” and the department wasn’t closing the yeshiva down.

Messages left at the institute weren’t immediately returned.

Katie Zavadski and Joanna Kelly contributed reporting.