25 Oct, 2020
JERUSALEM WEATHER

A Hasidic health leader has lamented covid disobedience in his community, saying that it’s exacerbating anti-Semitism.

The organization behind the initiative

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, runs the ZAKA organization, who oversees the collection of carcasses of victims of the novel coronavirus. But he worries that his warnings fall on deaf ears.

 

ZAKA, an international rescue and humanitarian aid organization, has also helped approximately 1,800 Orthodox Jews living in the Diaspora whose lives were taken by covid and fulfilled their dying wish – to be buried in Israel. He also retrieves the bodies of Israelis who have passed away.

Frustration stemming from disobedience

But he is also frustrated by the notion that no matter what he says or does, members of his ultra-orthodox community still don’t adhere to the guidelines given by the health authorities. 

This despite the fact that he often talks to them about the body bags, Israel’s soaring covid stats (which he discusses in Yiddish), or even personal tales of victims who have died. None of this he fears, has managed to convince some members of his tight-knit community that seem to be indignant in their flouting of the health regulations and guidelines. 

Reports of mass gatherings despite the guidelines 

Meshi-Zahav noted that even as the Jewish high holiday season comes to an end, numerous reports have surfaced that mass gatherings occurred within Israel’s Haredi community despite covid restrictions.

 

These include celebrations for Saturday’s Shmini Atzeret festival, which took place even though data shows that ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who make up approximately 12 percent of the population, are catching covid at a disproportionate ratio compared to other sectors of Israeli society. Many of these Haredim are arriving in the hospitals at a higher rate than other patients. Other members of the community are being treated by ventilators in their home, without health officials even knowing about it.

Causing hatred without even realizing it

“I explain to people that others are looking at them, and saying that we’re in this situation because of Haredim, and that the 12 percent is infecting the 80-plus percent, and that ‘you’ are ‘stealing’ the breathing machines,” Meshi-Zahav said. “And I say that this hatred is terrible, but what people see is the continuation of singing, dancing, public prayers, and simchas [celebrations] — as well as continuation of protests.”

 

He said some members of the ultra-Orthodox community are downplaying the risks of the virus, despite his warnings of its deadly effect on Jewish communities in Israel and abroad. “Seeing the bodies arrive and counting them, sometimes 15, 16, 17 in a day, you understand the impact this virus is having on Jewish communities,” he noted. “But even this doesn’t help change attitudes.”

Now is the time for leaders to step up

Meshi believes that the problem isn’t necessarily the people themselves but rather the community’s leaders who could take the pandemic more seriously.

 

He acknowledged that there are large segments of the Ultra-Orthodox community where coronavirus regulations are carefully adhered to, and that there are rabbis who promote this. He emphasized that disproportionately high positive rates among the Ultra-orthodox don’t necessarily reflect defiance alone, but also circumstances that are out of their control, like big families and cramped living quarters.

How one bad apple ruins the bunch

But Meshi worries that although only a minority are flouting the rules, it can be a bad apple that ruins the bunch saying: “People don’t understand we’re all in the same boat. It’s like the story of the people who drill a hole under their seat in a boat, saying it’ll only affect them, but of course, it affects everyone.”

 

But his concern isn’t limited to the Jewish State. In New York’s Ultra-orthodox community, where covid rates have also been disproportionately high, have shown some obvious signs of disdain for the restrictions. This includes protests against covid lockdowns.

Playing into the hands of anti-Semites

Meshi believes that the parallel phenomenon in both Israel and the United States is actually playing into the hands of anti-Semites. “If Jews are saying the things I mentioned about each other, of course others will say them,” he explains. “They will take the symbol of a man in Jewish dress, and connect it to the coronavirus.”

 

“The situation now can add fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism, because people will have the impression that to be Jewish means that you’re spreading the virus. If we’re saying it, why shouldn’t they say it?” 

Desecrating Hashem’s name

Meshi-Zahav said that the Israeli government’s goal should be to be “smart, not right,” and better empathize with the civilian’s perspective instead of enforcing the rules in a seemingly one-sided manner. 

 

The end result he fears, is a stain on God’s reputation as Gentiles and even secular Jews often look to the Ultra-orthodox community as God’s representation in the world.“What this causes is the worst kind of hillul Hashem [desecration of God’s name], while on the other hand people need to understand the values of the community, and that it’s not acting out of disrespect to others.”

 

He said that the government should have done a better job of communicating with the Ultra-orthodox community. He also noted that during the first wave, ZAKA sent vehicles and ambulances with loudspeakers, driven by volunteers, to educate community members of the virus’s risks, in both Hebrew and Yiddish as a supplement to the government that was failing to get the message out.