Photo credit: studio evasion/Shutterstock.com
On the morning of October 7, I discovered that Marine Park, the neighborhood in deepest Brooklyn where I live, is in the red zone of neighborhoods experiencing alarming increases in the number of positive COVID-19 tests.
While the rest of New York state has a positive test rate of 1.2%, the twenty hot spots under new restrictions, including us, have a rate of 5.5%. We will be experiencing a new lockdown, one expected to last two weeks, with indoor dining banned; gyms closed; limitations on the size of gatherings; and students forced to return to remote learning.
I can’t say I’m surprised. Like the other parts of Brooklyn and Queens and upstate that will be experiencing renewed shutdowns, Marine Park has a large Orthodox Jewish community. Living in the neighborhood, it’s easy to see that compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing has been virtually non-existent. Though we’ve been spared the bonfires and beatings inflicted by the ultra-Orthodox in Borough Park, the contempt for public-health regulations is obvious everywhere.
Over the past six and a half months, bicycling through the neighborhood on Saturdays, when all the stores are shut and people are on their way to or from Shabbos services, I don’t see masks anywhere. There are three yeshivas within a quarter of a mile of my house, and no one around them is masked. Groups of unmasked men and women congregate on street corners, failing to observe social distancing.
There’s a small Sephardic synagogue around the corner from my home, and I sit on my porch and watch people pass on their way to services every night. Sometimes, out of curiosity I follow them to see if maybe they’re putting on masks when they approach the shul, but no. In fact, when the initial lockdown was imposed in March and all religious gatherings were banned, the glass doors to the synagogue were papered over and I watched as people went into the seemingly closed house of worship.
This latter situation is repeated all over the neighborhood, which is peppered with shtibels, small synagogues located in what look like houses. Masks aren’t worn, and though limitations have been placed on the number of worshipers, it is obvious that these small synagogues routinely flout the rules.
The brazenness of the Orthodox refusal has been maddening to witness, as has the city’s failure to address it. Confronting them elicits blank stares at best.
On the night of Tuesday, October 6, a popular Orthodox radio personality, a man who has encouraged the worst aspects of the community’s conduct, including preventing the Commissioner of Health from addressing the public, called out to the crowd in Borough Park that was burning masks and chanting “Jewish Lives Matter” that “You’re my army! We’re at war!” His microphone had been turned over to him by a police supervisor.
There is a popular bagel place forty-five steps from my door, one that caters largely to the many yeshivas and shuls in the area. A friend, whom I hadn’t seen in six months, came for a socially distanced visit, and we went for bagels. A young yeshiva student was waiting ahead of us who wasn’t wearing a mask. My friend, who is in a high-risk category, told him that he shouldn’t be in the store without a mask. When he rolled his eyes in response I joined in, and he asked me why he needed to have one on. He then snickered and covered his mouth with his yarmulke, asking if that was good enough.
This neighborhood is served by the B and Q trains, and the Friday before Yom Kippur three Lubavitchers got onto the train to distribute Sabbath candles and to encourage men to put on tefillin. Two of them were unmasked.
My wife asked them how they would dare ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur when they were putting everyone on the train at risk by their conduct. They ignored her.
I, far less kind than my wife, told them that I didn’t care if they died, but that they had better either put masks on or get off the train. Failing that, I warned them, I would throw them off.
The rest of the passengers now joined us and I told them that now they know why they’re so hated, and that if they wanted to see a pogrom they should continue to ignore us. A Russian woman gestured for them to approach her. They took out their candles, and she waved them away, handing them masks — which they sheepishly put on.
These stories could be repeated endlessly in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn.
You can walk down a street in Cobble Hill or Park Slope and never see a maskless person. You can walk on Kings Highway or Avenue M or Avenue J, the main shopping streets in this end of the borough, and see the smallest of minorities observing the law. You can enter stores, stores that serve food, and see the same thing.
The old Hebrew National frankfurter commercial used to brag that “We answer to a higher source.” In southern Brooklyn, that seems to mean ignoring scientific evidence and municipal laws.
Those earthly sources of contagion play their part in the fiasco that we are now living through.
As services were breaking on Sukkos last week, hundreds of the unmasked congregated outside a local synagogue. A police officer was standing there, apparently on anti-terrorist watch. My wife asked him why he was doing nothing about all these violations. “It’s not my job,” was his answer, which another policeman had also replied in a similar situation last week in Borough Park.
Indeed, the NYPD’s passivity and refusal to wear masks throughout Brooklyn, which has seen them stand by as people are beaten by a mob in Borough Park or as hundreds blocked streets in Crown Heights, has emboldened the religious Jews. When a police spokesman was asked why the police didn’t break up the crowds blocking Eastern Parkway, near Lubavich headquarters, he answered that there was nothing wrong, since they were at “less than 50% of capacity.” Not of a building, but of a street!
It doesn’t require much imagination to picture what would have happened in either case had the demonstrators had black skin instead of black hats.
None of this has been helped by the Cuomo–de Blasio feud and the mixed signals it’s resulted in. But the governor’s insistence that shutting down entire zip codes would be too broad a way of handling things hits the nail on the head. 11234 is a large zip code, covering a substantial swathe of southern Brooklyn, and imposing shutdowns on the whole area would have been unjust. The section of it east of Flatbush Avenue has a large black population, and mask-wearing and the infection rate have been less of an issue there; the western part, with its Orthodox community, has been the source of the rise in infection rates.
Awful as the new shutdown will be for the neighborhood, many people realize that the main culprits are neither de Blasio nor Cuomo: it was brought on by a particular segment of the residents. The inevitable accusations of anti-Semitism by local politicians and the Orthodox community do nothing to hide this reality.
Statistics confirm the problem. The results are uniform throughout New York state, with high infection rates in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox enclaves outside the city, and are even replicated in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox, who represent 13% of the population, represent 40% of the cases.
Rabbis are complaining that no one consulted with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox leadership about the rules, that insufficient community outreach occurred. Why special concessions to one community should be made during a public-health crisis goes unexplained.
Though they tend to view themselves as a world apart, and politicians, anxious for their support, treat them as such, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox are part of the general society and must live by the same rules as the rest of us.
No excuses should be allowed or accepted; no special treatment or consideration accorded. Nothing can excuse the misconduct that has led to the renewed shutdowns.
A writer and translator, Mitch Abidor’s latest book is Down with the Law: Anarchist Individualist Writings from Early Twentieth-Century France.