Jerusalem during the Corona pandemic

Men praying on roofs in Jerusalem (Photo: Tuvia Pollack)

Jerusalem has the highest number of coronavirus cases in all of Israel. At the time of posting, April 16, Israel had 12,591 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus will more than 2,418 of those from Jerusalem. That is about 18 percent of all cases.

At the same time, the second city was Bnei Brak with 2,150 cases, and the third city, Tel Aviv, was far below with only 483 cases. These numbers are steadily growing higher every day.

One of the reasons for this is that the statistics are made municipality by municipality, and Jerusalem is by far the largest city in Israel. Tel Aviv may seem like a larger city, but the municipality of Tel Aviv itself is not very large. It’s just in the middle of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Tel Aviv itself is Israel’s second largest city with 450,000 inhabitants, while Jerusalem has almost 1 million. Adjusted for size, Jerusalem only has 25 cases per 10,000 inhabitants. By that measure, Bnei Brak is by far the worst plagued city, with 105 cases per 10,000. This is why Bnei Brak has been in closure for weeks.

But this is not the only reason Jerusalem is that high. Even adjusted for size, Jerusalem has 25 cases per 10,000. It is much higher than Tel Aviv with 10, or Haifa with five. Why is that? Most analysists blame one specific segment of the population – the Haredim, also known as the ultra-Orthodox. This would also explain why the Haredi city of Bnei Brak is topping the chart. The high numbers in Jerusalem are largely from neighborhoods with many Haredim.

When the corona regulations started, many Haredim did not follow the new rules. When the schools were ordered shut, most of their shuls and yeshivas kept going as usual. When large gatherings were prohibited and synagogues were ordered shut, many refused, stating religious or even anti-Semitic persecution as the reason for the shutdown. Police arriving to enforce the regulations were often met with stone-throwing.

Haredim are cut off from modern communications, much like the Amish. In many cases they were simply not aware of what was going on, and the regulations took them by surprise. They are already suspicious of the state as it is. They kept going with prayers in synagogues, arranged weddings and funerals. Recordings of weddings with hundreds of participants dancing were shown on the news, at a time when gathering of more than ten people was prohibited, which infuriated many.

They are not only endangering themselves, but anyone they come in contact with, newscasters said. And indeed, we see today a far higher mortality among them, and in their cities and neighborhoods.

The strange thing about this, is that the Haredim do have power in the government. They are Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies, and the Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, is himself Haredi from Jerusalem, of the United Torah party. It was later revealed that he too, allegedly defied the regulations that he himself had made, and prayed in synagogues with larger crowds than allowed. He also contracted the coronavirus and had to go into quarantine.

Litzman and the other Haredi politicians in the government adamantly claim that the attacks against the police are only small extremist fringe groups, and that most Haredim do follow the regulations now. They are more exposed to the disease because they received the information later than everyone else, that’s all there is.

However they may claim this, the fact remains that their cities and their neighborhoods are the areas where we see most cases of the virus. Even Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, one of Israel’s former chief rabbi, passed away a few days ago from the coronavirus.

The state has tried lately to inform them better through their rabbis, through cars with megaphones announcing the information in both Hebrew and Yiddish in their neighborhoods and in their newspapers. Bnei Brak and specific neighborhoods in Jerusalem have been put in isolation, and it seems to be working.

Still, we see violations here and there. On April 15, the police had to stop a circumcision ceremony with 200 attendees. They were met with resistance and egg throwing.

As I walk the streets of Jerusalem every day to work, I can’t help but noticing that there are a lot fewer people, many shops are closed, most people have a mask – but most Haredim are out walking with their family, no masks, no adherence to the rules.

I see a Muslim woman dressed from top to toe in black, face covered with a white mask which shines white among all the black. I hear church bells from the Old City which sounds eerie in the almost-empty streets, as if I am living through the Black Death or something. It has a spooky doomsday feeling. But then I see these Haredim walking around as normal. As if nothing. It’s infuriating. They can easily bring the disease with them to anyone.

This is when I need to remind myself that I only see those who violate. I don’t see the ones who stay home. I need to recognize that as a Messianic Jew I am easily biased against them as many of them are anti-missionaries. I need to remember that these are people who love the God of Israel, and they need his salvation just as much as anyone else does.

In some cases they are being irresponsible, but in many cases they are not to blame. They heard about the virus later than everyone else. It is harder for them to stay indoors with 16 children in a three-room apartment. Zoom meetings and online alternatives are often not an option for them. I can’t let a few hateful extremists shape my view of the Haredim. If we all weep with Italy for being so plagued with the coronavirus, we should also weep with the Haredim for being so plagued by it. We need to pray for them.

Some of these Haredim have even come up with a good and legal alternative for community synagogue prayers. Sure, it is also dangerous, but at least they are only endangering themselves and not others when they pray on the rooftops.