Defying the law, a leading ultra-Orthodox legislator told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the community would not agree to close down schools that opened illegally on Sunday, including in high-infection areas, endangering recent advances in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement, United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni said he had “made clear” to Netanyahu a demand by a leading rabbi that ultra-Orthodox children be allowed back at school — despite fears that the education system may be a major contributor to the spread of the virus.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a top rabbi in the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, on Saturday instructed schools to reopen in defiance of government decisions, leading hundreds of schools to illicitly open their doors Sunday. Kanievsky, who himself is infected with the coronavirus, called for adherence to social distancing measures and a limited number of pupils per classroom.
“We do not believe an error will come from the greatest of his generation,” Gafni said in reference to Kanievsky.
“We are examining the possibility of charting out an agreed-upon solution to reduce the number of children in classrooms and studies in large, roomy spaces… while keeping to Health Ministry guidelines.”
There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu, who on Saturday had pleaded with the ultra-Orthodox not to reopen schools.
Many of the ultra-Orthodox schools that reopened on Sunday were in virus hotspots, which currently include Bnei Brak south of Jabotinsky Street, Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Elad, the northern town of Rechasim, and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna, and Kiryat Mattersdorf.
Earlier, Health Ministry Yuli Edelstein warned of “heavy fines” for schools that open in violation of lockdown measures and potential revocation of their licenses.
Preschools, kindergarten, and daycares were allowed to reopen Sunday, after a weeks-long closure, but all other educational institutions must remain shuttered.
“There is no authorization [to reopen]. No one gave authorization,” Edelstein said during a press conference at Ariel University in the West Bank. “Whoever does this is expected [to receive] heavy fines, maybe even the revocation of their license and the revocation of funding for the institution.”
He added: “We need to remember a simple rule. Whoever does something that is not all right endangers himself, but he does not need to be an example to others.”
Edelstein said he had reached out to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit about possibly withholding funds from schools that violate the restrictions.
The health minister added that he was very aware that a single NIS 5,000 ($1,480) fine for a school that opens against the rules — the current rate — is inconsequential to large educational institutions, “and so I expect the police to continue issuing fines if the institutions do not close.”
Sunday saw 301 new “cases”diagnosed by 7 p.m., continuing the trend of a significant drop in virus cases in recent days.
The total case count stood at 303,109, of which 32,805 were active cases.
The death toll stood at 2,209, an increase of 11 throughout the day.
Of the 1,199 hospitalized, 669 were in serious condition while 213 were in moderate condition.
Kids and teenagers, boys and girls, Hasidic and Lithuanian all were seen going back to their yeshivas in Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit and high-infection areas in Jerusalem. Channel 12 estimated that some 40,000 boys went to school in breach of the rules.