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‘I envy you’: Hasidic rabbi tries to sweet-talk cops dispersing his gathering

A Hasidic leader who hosted a large celebration for the Sukkot holiday was caught on camera trying to dissuade police who arrived to break up the gathering by showering them with blessings, praise, and a certain amount of guilt.

The incident happened on Saturday night in Kiryat Gat, where cops discovered a Kretchnif Hasidic dynasty synagogue event that was reportedly attended by dozens of people, in violation of a strict coronavirus lockdown that prohibits indoor public gatherings, and also greatly restricts outdoor events, including prayer.

An officer who entered the premises to explain that the gathering must be dispersed came up against the movement’s rabbinic leader, Channel 12 reported Sunday as it aired blurred police footage of the encounter.

Before the policeman could begin, the rabbi, who was not named in the report, began heaping blessings on the officer, saying, “God protect you from all evil [and] from all trouble, distress, affliction and disease.”

The policeman was heard politely saying “amen” to the invocations.

“You are doing your work so faithfully, and I envy you,” the rabbi continued.

As the policeman tried to bring the conversation on to the topic of lockdown violations, the rabbi said, “Slowly slowly, one thing at a time.”

The rabbi then mused as to how difficult it must be for the policeman to enter sukkahs on Sukkot and tell people to stop making merry.

“It is hard,” the cop agreed, “but what can you do, you need to understand. So I am asking you, sir, to disperse the gathering.”

“You do your job faithfully,” the rabbi repeated.

Eventually, police were able to convince the rabbi to call an end to the evening’s proceedings and send his congregants home, the report said. However, the following day, a police patrol that passed the location discovered another mass gathering in the same place.

The event was eventually dispersed. According to Channel 12, if there is a third such incident, the synagogue will be closed.

It was not clear why a fine was not issued for the violation in keeping with lockdown rules.

Police on Sunday issued a statement about the event after a photo of police speaking with the rabbi was shared on social media along with a claim that the cops had merely gone in to get a blessing from the spiritual leader.

“In a follow-up to the picture shared on social media in which it was said that police commanders in Kiryat Gat went in to get a blessing from the rabbi after they saw that the event was held according to regulations, we clarify that is a clear distortion of reality and the picture was taken out of context.”

Police said they were initially drawn to the synagogue after receiving reports on noise come from inside and that officers went there to disperse the gathering.

When a second gathering was found on Sunday morning at the same place, “a hearing was held, the gathering dispersed and tickets were issued to the violators,” police said.

“The police call on the public to obey the instructions, as not upholding them disrupts the national effort in the fight against the outbreak of the virus and its spread in Israel,” the statement said.

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent days, with reports showing that “a significant number are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the Sukkot holiday, including by continuing to host mass gatherings”.

As police have stepped up enforcement, there has been increasing anger in the ultra-Orthodox community and accusations of disproportionate force, including against children.

On Sunday there were violent clashes between police and ultra-Orthodox people in Jerusalem and in Bnei Brak, where 13 people were arrested as officers broke up mass gatherings. Besides violating the restrictions on gatherings in enclosed spaces, police said “most worshipers were not wearing masks or adhering to social distancing rules”. After cops began handing out fines, the worshipers “began resisting and disturbing public order,” according to police.

The ultra-Orthodox community has seen high coronavirus infection rates, with an assessment last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is 2.5 times that of the national average.

The country’s COVID-19 czar Ronni Gamzu said last week that 40% of recent cases were in the ultra-Orthodox community, which constitutes some 12% of the population.

Ministers have approved fines of NIS 500 ($145) for anyone caught with other people not from their household in another person’s sukkah, a temporary structure used by many Jews during the week-long holiday of Sukkot which began on Friday night. Israelis are also forbidden from hosting non-nuclear family members in their homes during the holiday, and from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes.

Header: Police face ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during a protest against the enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations, in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, October 4, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Source: TOI