After months of media attention surrounding Hasidic resistance to social distancing guidelines, Brooklyn’s Hasidim fell under state-mandated lockdown orders that have sparked physical confrontations. Earlier this month, demonstrators in Borough Park shouted “Jewish Lives Matter” at a bonfire kindled with masks; the next night, a mob assaulted and spit on journalist Jacob Kornbluh, beating him to unconsciousness. The violence marks a turning point in long-building tensions between the Hasidim and the rest of the city, which have drastically escalated in intensity over the last few months.
Videos of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community gathering in large numbers and flouting public-health regulations have turned Hasids into screen villains. And now with major outbreaks of coronavirus in their neighborhoods, they face accusations of gross negligence. The divide between them and the rest of New York City grows, as does their reputation for insularity. But in an age when many are coming together to lift up other under-represented groups, some Hasidim feel their community is being neglected—and even prematurely written off.
Kirollos Agayby, a graduate student living in Borough Park and an outsider to Hasidism, could be one of the people most responsible for exposing a Covid compliance problem among the Hasidim. A video he posted to Twitter that went viral shows a sizable Hasidic gathering for Hachnosas Sefer Torah, an inaugural ceremony where a Torah scroll is installed in a synagogue. Agayby posted the video out of frustration: For the last 15 years he has lived in Borough Park, where there is a rapidly expanding Hasidic population. In that time, he hasn’t had any interaction with them: “They don’t talk to anybody.” And now, with Covid, he says, “They have never followed social distancing.” Agayby isn’t concerned for his own safety because he had the virus and came through it unscathed. But he worries about the implications on the larger community. “Put yourself at risk, but when you start putting others at risk there is a problem.” In the last few months, he says, he called the 66th Precinct on multiple occasions. Once, he claims, the police responded by saying, “We tried, but they don’t listen.” His next step was more effective; his tweet received thousands of views and inquiries from a mass of media outlets, including NBC, Reuters, and the New York Post.
On October 6, nine New York City “red zones,” including neighborhoods with substantial Orthodox Jewish populations, were ordered into lockdown by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Schools and non-essential businesses were closed, restaurants were restricted to takeout only, and mass gatherings were limited to 25 percent capacity. Agayby doesn’t believe the measures will change anything. “If you call 911 or 311, what is the chance that the police will come running?” he asks. “They have other priorities.” Mayor Bill de Blasio announced mandatory enforcement of masks, imposing fines up to $1,000 for those who do not abide. Earlier social-distancing guidelines saw action from NYPD with 40 arrests, notably scrutinized as 35 of those arrested were Black.
Not everyone shares Agayby’s view of the Hasidim as a monolithic band of scofflaws. Eli Wohl, a real estate agent moonlighting as a social activist for Brooklyn’s Hasidim, argues that the fervent critical coverage of his community only bolsters the perennial antisemitic narrative that, historically, has placed blame on Jewish communities during previous pandemics. While working in largely affluent Brooklyn Heights, Wohl saw crowds gather, socializing and playing tennis. Yet, nobody filmed them. “If you see a white person walking down the street and he doesn’t wear a mask, nobody is going to take a picture,” he says. “It’s not interesting.” When the same thing happens in a Hasidic neighborhood, he says, it immediately disseminates, dominating conversations of accountability. Wohl happened to be photographing the same event that Agayby captured on his video. He says he tried to dissuade reporters who showed interest in sharing the footage; he showed them photos of some attendees abiding by (some) safety protocols, and he warned them about the damage inflicted by disparaging Hasidic communities. He says he was able to talk NBC out of running it, but the video ultimately circulated on the internet, reaching thousands of people. The result, he says, was predictable: With distinctive styles of dress and strict religious beliefs, Hasidim are easily typecast, and Wohl believes videos like Agayby’s only contribute to the stereotyping of the Hasidic population.
Recent infection rates of 3 to 8 percent in Orthodox Jewish communities are notably higher than the 1 to 2 percent in the rest of the city. Despite the clear discrepancy, Wohl does not believe these numbers tell the whole story. He says that his mother, grandmother, and uncles have been quarantining since March. He is frustrated that the community is depicted as wholly ignorant. “I have a brother with a PhD from Yale,” he says. “We have different levels of profession and education and different outlooks.” Wohl’s personal work is dedicated to sharing the other perspective, photographing masked Orthodox children getting their temperatures checked as, before the lockdown, they entered schools.
Others are fighting this same battle, including Rabbi Avi Greenstein, the executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, who points to the voluntary organizations built to rush people to the hospital, fix flat tires of cars sidelined on the freeway, conduct safety patrols of the streets at night, and aid in food distribution. “This is not the picture you see of Hasidic Jews in New York City,” Greenstein says. “[The stigma is that] we all look alike, so we all act alike.”
Wohl and Greenstein go so far as to compare their community’s struggle to that of the Black community. “It’s just not cool to stick up for us,” Wohl says, “even though we are a minority and we don’t have the same opportunities that are available to a middle-class white family.” Greenstein believes the communitarian impulse behind the Black Lives Matter movement’s ideals—the food drives, the push to fund more social programs and reform policing—are similar to the manner in which the Hasidic community already functions. The high rates of coronavirus within Hasidic neighborhoods, he argues, require the same culturally sensitive response from the authorities that BLM is calling for. “You don’t just go into a community and institute changes and tell people what is best for them,” he says. “You set up an advisory committee with leaders of the community, and you start a dialogue with them, and you make a plan.”
Comparing the Hasidim to the Black community has its limits, of course. Most notably, the Hasidim by and large embrace Donald Trump; historically, Hasidic communities have been spots of red in a predominately blue state, with Trump receiving over 80 percent of the vote in some Hasidic neighborhoods like Borough Park. Trump became an appealing figure for the Hasidim because of how he promised more autonomy. For example, he supports the protections of conscience rights, which are controversial in that they allow medical institutions and workers to opt out of procedures like abortions and gender transitions. “The protection of religious freedom is central to the Trump administration’s foreign policy,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said, “and protecting this human right is an essential part of who we are as Americans.” This attitude appeals to the traditionalists among religious groups that had, for years, felt penned in by multiculturalism. When they looked to Washington, they saw a man who they felt had earned their trust, Greenstein says, and once this man treated the pandemic as a non-threat, they trusted the misinformation he spread, adopting his disregard to public health rules and recommendations. This, coupled with an assumption of herd immunity, causes the case count to rise and they receive more blame, further stretching the distance they feel from the rest of New York City. This distance, unfortunately, substantiates their connection with the Trump administration. It is a seemingly endless cycle.
The recent turn to violence by some Hasidim demonstrates the gravity of this disconnect. Greenstein believes there has not been a coherent dialogue with the city, leaving the Hasidic population uncertain and slow to catch up. “Following the guidelines is important, wearing masks is a good thing, social distancing is an important thing,” he says. “The community needs to do it and has not done it in a proper way.” The solution, however, should derive from a collaboration amongst elected officials and Hasidic leaders, he says. It should be sensitive to the longstanding divide this community has felt with the city. “Enforcement must be the very last option. The city’s role is to make sure the people stay safe. When we see an uptick, do we jump into targeting this community and institute emergency measures of enforcement, or do we stop to think about how it got to a point that this community is not taking it seriously?”