November 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Some ultra-Orthodox Jews in parts of New York City say they won’t abide by an order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) designed to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Tension erupted in Brooklyn last month after Cuomo announced that private schools, houses of worship and businesses would have to re-implement restrictions after outbreaks of coronavirus in several neighborhoods, including Borough Park.  

Angered over the restrictions, which were announced shortly before major Jewish holidays, crowds of ultra-Orthodox took to the streets, some dancing and waving Trump flags and some setting fire to face masks. The New York Times reported that a video widely shared on social media sites “showed hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men, most of them without masks, gathering after midnight and setting fires and burning masks along 13th Avenue in the Borough Park neighborhood.”  

Two people were assaulted during the melee. One of them was Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for a Jewish news outlet, who was surrounded and kicked by a group of men including Harold “Heshy” Tischler, a local resident who has been leading the protests and who has labeled the recent uptick in infections a hoax.

 “I was just brutally assaulted, hit in the head, and kicked at by an angry crowd of hundreds of community members of the Boro Park protest,” Kornbluh later wrote on Twitter. He said he would seek criminal charges against his assailants. Tischler was later arrested for inciting a riot and unlawful imprisonment.

While ultra-Orthodox leaders insisted their communities were being singled out, Cuomo told reporters that too many people in the Hasidic enclaves have ignored previous orders curbing large gatherings. The Times reported that Cuomo cited photos of large numbers of ultra-Orthodox crowding into synagogues without face masks.  

“To the extent there are communities that are upset, that’s because they haven’t been following the original rules,” Cuomo said. “That’s why the infection spread, because they weren’t following the rules, and the rules weren’t being enforced.”  

Cuomo said local officials were partly to blame.  

“The rules weren’t being enforced because the community didn’t want to follow them,” he said. “I understand that, but that’s why we are where we are. Make no mistake.”  

Under the new rules, businesses deemed nonessential will be shuttered, as will most schools. Houses of worship will be limited to 10-25 people, depending on the neighborhood.  

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he has instructed police to enforce the order, and several fines have been issued.

Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders have complained they were not consulted beforehand, but their objections were not shared by many other Jewish leaders. On Oct. 7, the New York Jewish Agenda released a statement signed by more than 450 rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders from a range of Jewish traditions, including more than 160 from New York, who called for sensible measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“We are rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders representing every movement of Judaism, who stand in support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for using data-driven, geographically-based efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19,” read the statement. “We condemn the lack of compliance with public health directives and recent violent reactions from some individuals within the Orthodox Jewish community to enforcement of those mandates.”

Elsewhere the statement said, “We are also deeply disturbed by what we have witnessed in the form of mask burnings and large, unsafe, and even violent protests against sensible precautions and regulations. We are embarrassed and disappointed that after thousands of years of clear tradition, and common sense, this letter needs to be written.”

On Oct. 8, two lawsuits were filed against Cuomo’s orders. One is sponsored by an Orthodox Jewish group and the other by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. A day later, a federal judge denied a request for an emergency order that would have allowed the houses of worship to open.

“How can we ignore the compelling state interest in protecting the health and life of all New Yorkers?” U.S. District Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto wrote in her ruling. She added that the restrictions are necessary to stop “the most significant health crisis in living memory.”