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April 7, 2020 8:01 am

Rabbis Who Shunned Corona Orders Must Be Held Accountable

avatar by Kenneth H. Ryesky


Israeli soldiers prepare to deliver food to residents in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, amid the coronavirus pandemic, April 5, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen.

Bnei Brak has the dubious distinction of being Israel’s “Corona Capital” amidst the COVID-19 epidemic. The Israeli police and army now limit entry and exit at the city’s  perimeter, and patrol its streets to enforce order.

Bnei Brak’s dense population, which includes many large families living in small apartments, is vulnerable to any epidemic. The city’s tardy and irresponsible responses to the current COVID-19 plague have tragically brought the city to its current predicament.

Social distancing rules were promulgated to address the COVID-19 crisis; these rules included closing synagogues, schools, and other venues where large numbers of people congregate in close proximity to one another.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the acknowledged leader of certain insular groups, promptly ordered his followers to disregard those rules. After much pressure in the face of rising morbidity and mortality, Rabbi Kanievsky diametrically reversed his pronouncement and directed his followers to comply with the social distancing rules; in the interim, there were numerous large gatherings and a disproportionate rise of COVID-19 infections (and deaths) in Bnei Brak.

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Given insular groups’ cultural contempt toward natural science and outsiders, Rabbi Kanievsky initially underestimated the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, and prioritized the continued operation of the yeshivas and synagogues over the virus’s ravages.

The rabbi’s constituency largely frowns upon interactions with the outside world; it has taboos against Internet access, televisions, radios, and newspapers other than those approved by their rabbinical leadership. Bnei Brak and other insular communities accordingly did not see the news reports, let alone the graphic images, of people dying in China and Italy, and even now remain confused as they sort out the poor decisions of their once-trusted leaders.

Some insular communities that did promptly comply with the social distancing rules while proactively addressing the physical and social needs of their members are already showing success in dealing with COVID-19.

Gatekeepers control the daily flow of Rabbi Kanievsky’s followers who seek his personal advice and guidance, as he preoccupies himself with thinking deep thoughts about holy matters. The disconnect from the outside world of the rabbi, his followers, and the insular communities at first synergistically prevented the rabbi from receiving or accepting sufficiently complete and accurate information; he initially viewed the closure orders as an existential threat to his social group, and significant damage had been inflicted by the time he realized just how lethal the situation was.

By then, even schoolchildren in Bnei Brak and other insular communities had become rife with contempt for the very police who sought to protect them.

Exacerbating the situation was Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, himself a leader and member of the insular communities — whose background qualifications for his position of Health Minister derive more from politics than healthcare knowledge; having tested positive for COVID-19, he has finally procured Internet service at his residence so he can work online in real time.

Allegations are now flying that Litzman may have violated his own Health Ministry’s social distancing rules and/or “favored” his own insular constituency by delaying the rules’ application upon them; how this plays out politically remains to be seen.

Blame and excuse are plentiful for the mishandling of the COVID-19 situation in the insular communities. Rabbi Kanievsky’s yeomen of the guard failed bring all relevant information to his attention, and the rabbi himself failed to further question why the Jewish leadership of a Jewish country would close down yeshivas and synagogues. Litzman, who should have known that the rabbis of the insular communities would need a special talking-to from an insider such as himself, could have made a few telephone calls early on. The insular rabbinical leadership’s dysfunctions have weakened public awe and esteem towards them; their authority now stands open to question from within and without their constituencies.

Though a sincere acknowledgment of responsibility and apology from Rabbi Kanievsky (he himself, and not one of his ministering angels) would not undo the infections and deaths rooted in the blunder of his initial directive to ignore the emergency social distancing restrictions, it certainly would go quite far towards halting something even more contagious and lethal than the COVID-19 virus: The undercurrent of distrust, divisiveness, and animosity that currently lurks among the Israeli populace.

Kenneth H. Ryesky is an attorney and writer currently based in Israel. He taught for more than 20 years at Queens College CUNY and at Yeshiva University.

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