Neighborhoods in Brooklyn with large Hasidic populations have some of New York City’s highest levels of positive Covid-19 test results.
Credit...Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

‘Plague on a Biblical Scale’: Hasidic Families Hit Hard by Virus

In the New York area, the epidemic has killed influential religious leaders and torn through large, tight-knit families.

One of the first people Shulim Leifer knew who died of the coronavirus was his great-uncle. Then his grandmother fell ill, as did two of his cousins. The man who lived next door to his childhood home died on a Tuesday, and by Friday the neighbor on the other side was dead as well.

Each neighbor was given a small funeral, with a handful of mourners standing six feet apart on their front lawns in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park.

“There is not a single Hasidic family that has been untouched,” said Mr. Leifer, 34. “It is a plague on a biblical scale.”

The coronavirus has hit the Hasidic Jewish community in the New York area with devastating force, killing influential religious leaders and tearing through large, tight-knit families at a rate that community leaders and some public health data suggest may exceed that of other ethnic or religious groups.

The city does not track deaths by religion, but community leaders and Hasidic news media report that hundreds of people in the New York area may have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

ImageMore than 6,000 people in Borough Park, Brooklyn, have tested positive for the virus.
Credit...Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

Borough Park is a leafy neighborhood of low-rise buildings and small businesses like the kosher bakeries and Judaica shops on Raoul Wallenberg Way that cater to the local Hasidic population. More than 6,000 people there have tested positive for the virus, with one of the neighborhood’s ZIP codes being the city’s fifth most heavily affected, according to data released by the city.

Other neighborhoods with large Hasidic populations, like South Williamsburg and Crown Heights, have some of the city’s highest levels of positive Covid-19 test results, the data show.

Hasidic groups say they prepared for the pandemic — for example, making decisions on the closure of schools and events — by taking their cues from the state and federal authorities, whose response to the crisis has been at times halting and inconsistent.

But community leaders say Hasidic enclaves in New York were also left vulnerable to the coronavirus by a range of social factors, including high levels of poverty, a reliance on religious leaders who were in some cases slow to act and the insular nature of Hasidic society, which harbors a distrust of secular authorities that is born of a troubled history.

That distrust has manifested itself in ways that have risked spreading the virus and have drawn the attention of law enforcement, which in recent weeks has been called to disperse crowds at events like weddings and funerals in Hasidic areas of Brooklyn, upstate New York and New Jersey.

That, in turn, has led to concerns over anti-Semitism in places like Rockland County, which has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the nation and was also the site of an anti-Semitic attack in December that killed one Hasidic Jew and injured four others.

Credit...Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

Celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which fell on March 10 this year, were canceled by many Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox synagogues. But many Hasidic groups observed the festival, drawing people to gatherings where they may have been exposed to the virus.

“Not only the Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews but a lot of Jews responded to the idea of not going to the synagogue or gathering in a public place with a feeling of outrage, because it brought to mind times when religious persecution closed down synagogues,” said Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College.

That sense of defiance has been evident in neighborhoods like Borough Park and South Williamsburg, where some businesses and religious bathhouses have displayed signs written in Yiddish — a language not widely spoken outside the Hasidic community — informing patrons of hours and prices or instructing them to use an entrance not visible from the street.

Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

“The problem there was confusion of persecution that comes from a human being and a plague, a virus,” Dr. Heschel said. “But there was a sense that we are not going to be subjected to this kind of treatment, we are going to fulfill our lives as Jews in a rich way and we are going to go to the synagogue. It is a sort of defiance and affirmation of Jewish identity, combined.”

Dr. Heschel’s cousin, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who led the Novominsker Hasidic dynasty as well as Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella ultra-Orthodox organization, died earlier this month of Covid-19.

He had urged Hasidic Jews to abide by public health guidelines and was perhaps the most high-profile Jewish leader in the world to die of the coronavirus. But others have died as well, most of whom have been deprived of the sort of large funeral that would typically honor a religious figure.

“Normally there would be tens of thousands of people here,” said Malka Phillips as she stood on Eastern Parkway earlier this month to watch the socially distanced funeral procession for Rabbi Leibel Groner. “We’re losing an entire generation.”

Credit...Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

But not every event has been sparsely attended. Funerals and wedding in parts of Brooklyn and suburban towns have drawn widespread news media coverage.

A Hasidic funeral in Lakewood, N.J., turned “unruly and argumentative” once police officers arrived to disperse a crowd of more than 60 people earlier this month, Bradley D. Billhimer, the Ocean County prosecutor, said in a statement. His office charged 15 attendees with violating Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s executive order barring large gatherings.

Hasidic community leaders bristle at any discussion of such violations. They say they feel singled out by the news media, and several Hasidic people interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retaliation from others in the community.



Zoom Shivas and Prayer Hotlines: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Traditions Upended by Coronavirus

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews are estimated to have died in Brooklyn. Here’s how the pandemic is changing their longstanding rituals.

“I never imagined I would see this in my lifetime: so many bodies from a short period of time.” These are scenes from a recent burial at a Jewish cemetery in New York. The deceased died of Covid-19. The virus has hit New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities particularly hard. “It’s not in Iran and it’s not in Syria, and it’s not what you ever see on YouTube from different countries, where you see bodies lined up. This is New York.” Doctors and funeral directors told us they estimate hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews have died in Brooklyn alone. This video from late March shows bodies lined up inside a funeral chapel in Borough Park, a neighborhood with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Brooklyn. Avraham Berkowitz is a Hasidic rabbi, who lives in nearby Crown Heights. He recently attended the funeral of a family member from his car. “They told the families they were not allowed to come. They had to stay. Only a few people, and be at a distance. So tragic.” He’s recorded at least 39 fatalities in his neighborhood alone. “Life has completely stopped in the last few weeks in Crown Heights. Sirens and ambulances — heart-wrenching.” The coronavirus is posing unique challenges to these close-knit communities. “We belong to a community that thrives on physical proximity and constant interaction at weddings, at bar mitzvahs, three times a day at the prayer, we go to the same kosher restaurants, the same grocery stores. Our kids go to the same schools. We all meet each other, know each other, and it’s one interactive circle.” Now, longstanding traditions are being upended by social distancing guidelines, and are having to be rethought on the fly. People are holding virtual bar mitzvahs, and attending drive-by weddings — as well as funerals. Rabbis and community leaders are telling people to stay home. “Follow what God says, and you stay at home.” “We are fighting an invisible enemy.” They’re urging followers to heed authorities’ calls to practice social distancing, especially among prayer groups. The hospitals that serve these communities have also had to adapt quickly because of the recent surge in patients. Dr. Sarah Rosanel is a cardiologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park. Maimonides has banned almost all visitors, including family members unless death is imminent, which can make it hard for families to reach their loved ones in time to recite customary prayers. Stories of people dying alone without proper rights drove community members to come up with another solution. “We get a lot of complaints that the hospitals wouldn’t let any family members in. How can we say final prayers if the people are dying alone?” Mayer Berger is the Director of Operations of the Jewish burial society, Chesed Shel Emes. He helped create a hotline with prerecorded Jewish prayers, meant for the final moments before death. “People can have a patient rep in a hospital calling the hotline, and put the prayers on speaker right next to the people who passed away.” Traditionally bodies are buried within a day of death, but this has proved challenging for Chesed Shel Emes because their caseload has quadrupled over the past few weeks. “When I’m seeing young people leaving behind seven orphans, this is the hardest part, just thinking about all the families who are being left behind.” And the families left behind are now forced to grieve alone, during periods of mourning known as shivas. “The whole beauty of the Jewish tradition or religion is after any person passes, you’re with your immediate family for seven days, and hundreds and hundreds of people from the community come and visit you and comfort you and bring you food. Suddenly that whole therapy, that whole ritual, that whole religious power of comfort, that is gone. They’re locked alone with a video camera. I had to do Zoom shiva calls.” The ongoing crisis has moved Rabbi Berkowitz to wage a personal campaign, running medical supplies to health care workers. “How are you? Do you need masks? Do you need —” “We could always use masks.” “OK. I reached out to every major hospital, New York Presbyterian, Methodist, Mount Sinai, every single hospital. If I wasn’t helping front-line health care workers get the supplies they need, I would be a complete wreck. Members of the Hasidic community or the Orthodox Jewish community we’re shuttering the synagogues to save lives. But this virus doesn’t know race. It doesn’t know religion. It doesn’t know color. It doesn’t know borders. And if we’re not going to unite in force, it’s going to take us all.”

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Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews are estimated to have died in Brooklyn. Here’s how the pandemic is changing their longstanding rituals.CreditCredit...Chesed Shel Emes

“There have been several very disappointing incidents that are very unfortunate, but the vast majority of people in these communities are staying home under very tough circumstances,” said Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, one of the largest Jewish religious organizations in the world. “When people violate the isolation guidelines within these communities, they become the focus of frustration and anger from others within the community.”

He said the community was vulnerable to the virus not because of isolated incidents of rule-breaking but instead because of the very things that make it vibrant: tight-knit families, a commitment to ritual and multigenerational households where the very young and very old live side by side.

“Everything that makes these communities so beautiful is likely a factor that puts them at risk in this situation,” Mr. Seligson said. “To really understand how the virus is spreading within these communities, one really needs to understand how these communities operate on a regular basis.”

Credit...Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Efforts to inform the community of public health guidelines may have been complicated by the strictures of Hasidic life, which emphasize the guidance of religious leaders and cast a wary eye at outside authorities, including health officials and the mainstream news media.

That dynamic also played out during a measles outbreak last year that hit the community hard and deepened its distrust of state and local authorities.

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, said he thought outreach to the Hasidic community could be improved.

“The reality is that some members of the Hasidic community and other religious communities do not look to mainstream outlets for information,” Mr. Adams said in a statement. “We have to reach out to these communities to reach them and others where they are, not where we want them to be.”

He said it was “counterproductive” to criticize members of the community for violating public health guidelines if the city was “unwilling to invest in outreach strategies that prioritize them in the first place.”

Credit...Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

But the city health department says it has invested in outreach. In late February, it launched a $27 million ad campaign on the dangers of the coronavirus that included material in 22 languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew, said Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman. He said the department also sent robocalls and distributed thousands of leaflets in both languages.

For Mr. Leifer, the problem started closer to home. He said he thought the community’s yeshiva education system, which emphasizes religious study, had left many in the community “uneducated and unprepared” for a widespread medical crisis.

Mr. Leifer said the “firewall” between Hasidic Jews and the outside world had served the community very well over the years. But a pandemic was different.

“The same characteristic that in normal times has been good for us is right now going to be our downfall,” he said. “Which is what we are seeing.”

The rules of Hasidic life have also made the prospect of giving up religious gatherings and staying at home daunting, said Meyer Labin, a Yiddish writer who said he knew many who had died of the virus, including several rabbis, the fathers of two friends and his eighth grade teacher.

Credit...Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

Mr. Labin said going to synagogue — which some might do three times a day — or attending a wedding was more than a religious event. These activities play a social role for people who have fewer ways to blow off steam than most New Yorkers, he said.

“That’s where we get our news and our information or our entertainment, everything is the community,” Mr. Labin said. “Our lives are completely, completely different than life for most other communities and people in that we don’t have a lot of other entertainment at home. For example, no Netflix or TV.”

From a Hasidic perspective, he said, the stay-at-home orders issued last month across the country did not seem like “that much of a sacrifice” for non-Hasidic people, he said.

“I don’t mean to minimize it, but like you lay back, watch Netflix, drink tea — now imagine a family that is not set up that way,” he said. “The way we live — small apartments, big families — our outlet is to go out and mingle and socialize, and now it’s very hard to put an abrupt stop to all of that.”

Kirsten Luce contributed reporting.