|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] COVID and the Chasidim
|Opinion | Don’t call Hasidim anti-science. They kept COVID at bay all
By Frieda Vizel October 1, 2020
Hasidic Jews and COVID
Image by Getty Images
There’s been a rise in COVID cases among Hasidim, and the world is
pointing a finger. See?
Hasidim have been ignoring COVID precautions, they’ve been doing their
old (old) normal like nobody’s business, no masks or measuring tape or
shields or baths of hand-sanitizer, and now naysayers are saying
I-told-you-so with barely masked glee, pun intended: That’s what you get
for denying science; the Darwin Award.
But in their gotcha glee, they miss an important point: We are at the
end of September. What about the other months? Where was the rise in June?
I had a close Hasidic family wedding in the middle of the summer. Crowds
of wedding guests of all ages came in pretty dresses and with sweet,
full, open faces. The custom for women is to say “Mazel Tov,” shake
hands, and kiss on the cheek. I sat next to my Holocaust survivor
grandmother. Tens, maybe hundreds of women came up to her to offer their
congratulations. She danced with little girls wearing great puffy
dresses. I danced under-over and in the circle. I pressed into the
sweaty palms of forgotten classmates who now have half a dozen kids or
more. The music was loud enough to give you hearing loss, so we all bent
into each other’s faces to scream our catching-up.
It’s many weeks later and my grandmother is fine. Everyone is.
I’m not an epidemiologist, so I can’t explain why that wedding and
others that I saw in Williamsburg or reported on social media don’t seem
to have resulted in a spike in cases this summer, or why we’re having
one now. But I also have not seen any consistent reporting by scientists
attempting to analyze these trends — nor consistent attention from
government officials attempting to seriously engage leaders of Haredi
communities to find social-distancing measures that we can live with.
Instead, what I have seen — and what naysayers and the media missed — is
Hasidic communities doing their own COVID-19 experiments.
In March, they tried to lock down. My Hasidic Twitter feed was hectic
and depressing. Every name of a person lost to the plague increased the
pitch of the calls for action. Few had an appetite to resist a shutdown.
The Satmar Rebbe, Aaron Teitelbaum, was of the few who expressed
ambivalence, pointing out how difficult — and futile — social distancing
could prove to be in his community.
COVID spikes in NYC Orthodox neighborhoods, large weddings eyed as
“We are unlike the gentiles,” he wrote. “By them there are families with
two children or three children, with an apartment, with a room for the
television, with a room for videos, entertainment.” They can social
distance. We can’t. “They don’t understand at all what a Jewish family
is, that a family thank God with many children,” he went on. “It’s tight
in the home, there is hardly room, we set up beds wherever we can sleep.
All the gentile entertainments are not here, and if we send home from
the schools, there is no room in the home. They’ll go roam in the
streets where we’ll again interact. So the result is that the rules are
useless, it helps nothing!”
He was roundly criticized from within and without the community. The
Hasidim wanted action, not insight. All anyone cared about was “And so
and so too” and “How old” and “Who was he” and “Nebech!”
Many of my family members fell ill while locked down. My parents, who
are in their sixties, were forced to stay inside. Many went inside, as
difficult as it was. They distanced. They wore masks. They spent
Passover alone. They listened to the science.
My family recovered. Many, thankfully, did. Fewer new people got ill.
People breathed a sigh of relief.
And the truth Teitelbaum pointed out, that a lockdown is the anathema to
this community, began to reassert itself. How is a Hasidic family
supposed to get through a beautiful spring shut inside a three-bedroom
Brooklyn apartment with six kids and no visits to the many kids in
apartments on the other floors? What’s left to make lockdown survivable
when there is no Netflix and Zoom? Banana bread?
So out people went. One friend told me, “If you lock the doors then
people come through the windows.”
They went out — and did not get sick.
Viral videos of funerals and weddings were rapaciously shared on social
media. “How is this allowed?” They demanded. They called Hasidim
backwards, anti-science. But they should have asked, “What are their
outcomes?” You know — the scientific question.
These so called science people failed to note what the Hasidim had: that
they were their own control group. That going to weddings and funerals
did not result in a spike. This success should have been analyzed,
studied, compared, controlled for, tested. You know, to get the science.
But there was little interest in them while they were doing well. The
experts didn’t take notice.
But Hasidim did. Maybe not consciously, but people realize when their
experiences contradict expertise. If Hasidim came away feeling “meh”
about masks and such, then the onus was on the medical community to
explain why a summer went by without any problems.
Now in September, there is an uptick, so the experts are back. The
government doesn’t hesitate to pronounce non-compliance as the fault.
But we were non compliant all summer, Mr. Mayor, and no uptick. Where
were you then?
No one bothered to check. Instead, Mayor DeBlasio is threatening a local
lockdown because several Haredi communities have positive rates that are
five percent, compared to the City’s two percent. But how many Haredim
are sick with this positive rate? What was the positive rate all summer?
None of the scientists can tell us.
It’s a numbers game with no meaning. And the community is playing. They
issued a call to residents for a September 30 test drive: “we implore
those who feel 100 percent healthy and well to come and take a test and
save the situation.” What situation are they worried about? Not the
virus. The leaders are frank: “You can save the schools and synagogues
and Jewish incomes.”
It was response the government deserved. This kabuki theatre is not science.
Frieda Vizel grew up in the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel and left
the sect with her son. She is now a tour guide of Hasidic Williamsburg
walking tours. Her website is friedavizel.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own
and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward. Discover more
perspective in Opinion.
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