How a Virus Surge Among Orthodox Jews Became a Crisis for New York

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NEW YORK — All summer, life had been returning to normal in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn. On Eastern Parkway and along 13th Avenue, throngs of men in black hats and coats once again visited synagogues three times a day. Children went off to camp. Weddings filled large banquet halls.Hardly anyone wore a mask.Then in mid-August, the city's disease data detection program — called SaTScan — began to blare a warning about a rise of coronavirus cases in Borough Park. In response, the city's new health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, held an urgent conference call with Orthodox Jewish news outlets to warn of rising transmission and to express concern that public health advice was not being diligently followed in these communities.But the call grew contentious when Chokshi was peppered with questions about why Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration had not shown the same level of concern about the mass gatherings of protesters during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations."What justification can we tell readers — why do they have to be careful when the mayor carves out exceptions based on his own personal politics?" one reporter asked Chokshi.In the weeks that followed, the tensions between the authorities and Orthodox Jewish communities would worsen, escalating into the biggest health challenge for the city since the spring. What began as a small uptick in a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn now threatens to hasten the arrival of a second wave that could cause new hardships for millions of New Yorkers and stall the recovery of the weakened economy.For decades, tightly knit Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects have thrived in the city and the surrounding suburbs while warding off many aspects of the modern world. Now, they are facing unwelcome scrutiny over whether the virus is spreading because some people in these insular communities are reluctant to embrace public health practices and have become susceptible to misinformation, including from President Donald Trump.On Tuesday, seeking to curb the virus in these neighborhoods, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the first major retrenchment in the city's recovery from a pandemic that has killed more than 20,000 residents. Cuomo imposed a shutdown of schools and nonessential business in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, as well as in sections of Rockland and Orange counties that also have sizable populations of Orthodox Jewish residents.Cuomo also pointedly adopted tough new regulations on houses of worship, making it clear that he was especially concerned about Orthodox Jewish worshippers crowding into synagogues. For at least the next two weeks, houses of worship in these neighborhoods can host no more than 10 people at a time, he said."The Torah speaks about how certain religious obligations can be excused, if you are going to save a life," he said. "This is about saving a life."The governor's order touched off a fierce backlash in Orthodox neighborhoods, including protests on Tuesday night in Borough Park and an attack on a well-known Jewish journalist on Wednesday night.Interviews with community leaders, public health experts and city and state officials show that some Orthodox leaders did belatedly recognize the dangers of the virus spreading. For example, in September, more than 120 Hasidic leaders and yeshiva principals logged on to an emergency conference call hours before the Sabbath. Notably, city officials were not invited.Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein — a former aide to Mayor de Blasio who represents Borough Park and was the first Hasidic state lawmaker elected from Brooklyn — implored administrators to urge parents of yeshiva students to take public health measures seriously."The government is asking us to take steps that people might find inconvenient, but the alternative will be much worse for everyone," Eichenstein said he told them.A few days later, de Blasio himself gathered dozens of Orthodox Jewish leaders for a video call where he also asked them to promote social distancing and other public health measures.The two meetings achieved some results. More people in the community began to wear masks. But it may have been too late.In recent weeks, neighborhoods with large numbers of Orthodox Jewish residents have consistently been posting positivity rates of more than 3%, and as high as 8%. Several other areas with Orthodox populations have had rates between 2% and 3%. Hospitals in Brooklyn have begun bracing for an influx of patients from these areas.The overall daily positivity rate in the city has recently been between 1% and 2%. If the surge in these neighborhoods spreads and the citywide rate averages 3% or higher for a seven-day period, that would force an immediate shutdown of the entire public school system, as well as a citywide ban on indoor dining — a big blow to the city's recovery.There are at least 500,000 Orthodox Jews in the New York area, by some estimates. Many live in Brooklyn, home to well over a dozen Hasidic Jewish sects, each one with its own religious leaders, institutions and schools.Many Orthodox Jewish residents of the city are not Hasidic, but the public health authorities said the sharp increase in the virus caseload affected broad swaths of these communities, too.The Orthodox communities in New York City, Rockland and Orange counties have all experienced sharp increases in cases: The positivity rate over the past week in the Town of Palm Tree in Orange, a Satmar Hasidic enclave, is 18%.Many of these communities were hit hard by the virus in the spring, leaving some to believe, mistakenly, that they had attained herd immunity.Hasidic neighborhoods may be particularly susceptible to virus misinformation because people tend to avoid the internet, and few families own televisions. Many get their news from conservative talk radio, Yiddish publications with an often conservative bent or memes shared via WhatsApp.City and state elected officials have often had an uneasy relationship with Hasidic communities, wary of antagonizing them because they often vote as a bloc.At the same time, Trump is hugely popular — in some city election precincts with large Hasidic populations, he received more than 80% of the vote in 2016 — and his disdain for mask-wearing has influenced residents, leaders say.Many yeshivas do not teach science and other secular subjects at close to the same level as public schools — creating fertile ground for misinformation about herd immunity, critics say.As a hint of the difficulties that lay ahead for public health officials, large gatherings in Orthodox neighborhoods have continued in recent days. Mask wearing is sometimes sparse.In Borough Park over the summer, one man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he feared social ostracism, recalled that he stopped using a mask after his 8-year-old son came to him crying.The son's friends had said his father was under the sway of liberal "goyim," a term for non-Jews that often has a pejorative connotation.Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, one of the largest Hasidic groups in the world, accused city and state health officials of failing to reach out to the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.Health officials "should have leaned in on their relationships with people on the street level to understand what the challenges are and how they can support these communities," Seligson said.The city has argued that public health officials have spoken with neighborhood leaders for weeks and distributed tens of thousands of masks, made hundreds of thousands of robocalls and placed ads in Yiddish newspapers.When the coronavirus struck in March, de Blasio, long close to the Orthodox community, took a firmer approach than he had in the past over health matters.In a late-night Twitter outburst in April, which has remained a point of anguish for Hasidic leaders, the mayor described personally helping to break up a funeral for a rabbi who died of COVID-19. He warned the community that public health rules would be enforced. But in places like Borough Park, they were not.Orthodox Jewish leaders said they believed that the authorities had unfairly singled Jews out for criticism over gatherings but did not express similar alarm when Black Lives Matter protesters filled the streets in recent months.Cuomo's decision to announce the new lockdown in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, with an enforcement deadline that is one day before Simhat Torah, a holiday that celebrates the reading of the Torah, has only entrenched some Orthodox Jews' belief that officials treat religious events as unimportant or reckless."The community feels a double standard — this is the overwhelming consensus," said Yochonon Donn, a Hasidic journalist who was on the call with Chokshi, the city's health commissioner, in August. "Why are the free speech rights of protesters more important than the rights of people who want to pray?"A spokesman for the mayor, Bill Neidhardt, said public health, not politics, guided the city response."Our goal is to ensure all New Yorkers stay healthy," he said. "That is our lodestar, that's what guides us. It's not about demographics, or political background."He said that from a public health perspective there is a distinction between when "First Amendment rights are being expressed outdoors with masks on" — as was the case in many Black Lives Matter protests — and when they are being expressed "indoors, in large gatherings with little mask-wearing," as was the norm during some Orthodox synagogue services.Neidhardt said that he believed the city's outreach and education efforts had shown some success. But he said restrictions were needed to stop the renewed spread of the virus.Several factors appear to explain why these communities were vulnerable, health experts and Jewish leaders said.A history of religious persecution has made many Orthodox Jews deeply wary of outsiders. Large multigenerational families with many children are the norm, and those families often live in small apartments. They have a highly communal way of life whose daily rhythms are at odds with pandemic restrictions, with thrice-daily gatherings at synagogue a social and spiritual bedrock for men."A much more drastic shift in daily life is required for an Orthodox male to achieve the same reduced risk in disease prevention," said Ephraim Sherman, an Orthodox Jew who is a nurse practitioner who has cared for critically ill COVID-19 patients.In some areas, including Borough Park, many Orthodox Jews who have conservative views were more likely to take their cues about the virus from Trump than from de Blasio."When it comes to politics and the way people consume information, Borough Park could be in any red state in America," said David Greenfield, a Democrat who represented the area on the City Council until 2017.Naftuli Moster, an activist for more secular education in yeshivas who grew up Hasidic, blamed Hasidic leaders for failing to urge their followers to follow public health guidelines.Moster said the community's struggle with misinformation could not be separated from the paucity of scientific education in its yeshivas."This is a community in which tens of thousands of people have very little knowledge of science," said Moster, who was educated in a yeshiva. "I didn't learn what a cell or a molecule was — the idea that there was something smaller than what your eye can see — until I was 21 years old and in college."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company

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