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Joint meals, mass prayers: Scattered reports of Haredim defying rules on Sukkot

New reports surfaced over the weekend of virus restrictions being ignored in ultra-Orthodox communities at the start of the Sukkot holiday, with only limited police enforcement.

“Thousands make their way to the Hassidic synagogues for mass holiday prayers to be held as usual. In case you’re wondering, not a single police officer is in sight,” Haredi journalist Yisrael Frey tweeted on Friday.

The social media post was accompanied by photos of ultra-Orthodox men and children dressed in festive clothes. There was no location given for the pictures, which did not themselves show large gatherings.

In response to the tweet, Meretz party leader MK Nitzan Horowitz said that “anyone who allows this — with encouragement or by turning a blind eye, and prevents enforcement — is the true hater of the ultra-Orthodox.”

A reporter for the Ynet news site said police entered three celebratory meals held against the rules in the Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim on Friday night, but left without doing anything.

The journalist said in a tweet that police officers spoke with local leaders, but then returned to their positions outside the neighborhood. There was no comment from police on the matter.

Additionally, Channel 12 news reported that police carried out an operation in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on Friday afternoon, in which more than 20 synagogues were shut down.

The report said dozens of fines were issued to worshipers in the city, as well as to businesses operating in contravention of regulations and people not wearing masks in public.

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent days, with widespread reports showing a significant number are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the High Holiday season, including by continuing to host mass gatherings.

The ultra-Orthodox are far from the only ones to break the convoluted rules of Israel’s rather loose second lockdown, but have largely been responsible for the more egregious gatherings in recent weeks, and are currently the single most affected population in the country.

Haredim account for a disproportionate number of Israel’s disastrous infection rate — some 40 percent of new cases, according to figures released Thursday. The ultra-Orthodox make up some 12% of Israel’s population.

Numerous large sukkahs, temporary structures used by Jews during the Sukkot holiday, capable of holding hundreds of people, have been constructed in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood.

Ministers have approved fines of NIS 500 ($145) for anyone caught in a sukkah that is not their own. Israelis are also forbidden from hosting non-nuclear family members in their homes during the holiday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated to ultra-Orthodox leaders ahead of the holiday that their community would not receive special treatment in his government’s crackdown against violators of coronavirus rules.

“There will not be relief [from restrictions],” Netanyahu said in a conference call with Haredi lawmakers along with the mayors of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Modi’in Illit, Rechasim, Beitar Illit and Elad, all communities with majority Haredi populations.

Meanwhile, the Ynet news site reported on Friday that over 1,500 yeshiva students of the Gur Hasidic sect have tested positive for COVID-19 after spending the High Holidays together in the bloc’s main study hall in Jerusalem.

Those 1,500 students made up 70 percent of a group that spent the holiday period together in order to be closer to the sect’s leading rabbi, Yaakov Aryeh Alter.

On Thursday, President Reuven Rivlin made an “emergency” visit to a top ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Shalom Cohen, urging him to encourage his followers to obey COVID-19 restrictions as Haredi communities continue to be among the hardest hit by the virus in Israel.

Rivlin’s visit to Cohen came as a number of prominent rabbis said they supported calls to obey coronavirus regulations amid the growing crisis.

On Thursday, Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern issued a ruling calling on the public to adhere to Health Ministry instructions and refrain from holding mass gatherings over the Sukkot holiday. Stern called on Jerusalem residents to act with consideration for their neighbors’ safety.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the leaders of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of followers, on Wednesday also issued a call to favor outdoor prayer.

Kanievsky himself tested positive for the virus on Friday,

The diagnosis came just two days after the Haaretz daily reported Kanievsky violated quarantine, hosting visitors at his home in Bnei Brak following Yom Kippur, despite being required to self-isolate due to his exposure to a confirmed coronavirus carrier — his driver.

The crisis in the ultra-Orthodox communities is a major concern for health officials, who ascribe the high over-representation of ultra-Orthodox Jews among new infections in Israel to holiday gatherings, crowding in yeshiva educational institutions, and dense living conditions.

Header: Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in the central city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Source: TOI