COVID-19 Is Decimating Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Communities. It’s Up to Religious Leaders to Protect Their Followers.

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By every measure, Israel’s war against the coronavirus pandemic has been a miserable failure; it’s a stark turn after what appeared to be an initial success during a strict lockdown earlier this year. Last month, it was the first country in the world to go into a second general lockdown, just four months after the first one ended. In recent weeks, it has had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the world. Crisis management has been beset by confusion and petty politics, for which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves most of the blame.

But there’s another factor behind Israel’s stunning failure: While Israelis have generally abided by the lockdown rules, the ultra-Orthodox Jews known as Haredim who make up about 10-12 percent of the population have generally not, due their unique and jealously guarded lifestyle. The result is that they have accounted for as much as 40 percent of new daily confirmed cases.

The phenomenon is not unique to Israel: In the New York City metropolitan area, another region with a large population of ultra-Orthodox Jews, communities have also been hit hard by the coronavirus. In one, Kiryas Joel, about an hour north of the city, the average rate of positive test results recently was 28 percent, compared with 1 percent statewide.

In both Israel and New York, the question of how to address the problem has gotten enmeshed in politics. Never well-liked by Israel’s secular majority because of their refusal to serve in the army and their control over personal issues, such as marriage, Haredim have become a whipping boy in the mainstream media, which regales viewers with videos of mass gatherings in defiance of the rules and confrontations with the police.

In turn, Haredi leaders and apologists say they are being unfairly singled out. In New York, many claim they are being targeted due to anti-Semitism. More reasonably, they say that keeping the coronavirus under control is more difficult for them than for other populations.

To a degree, they have a point. Haredi Jews in Israel and to a lesser degree in the United States live in crowded conditions and have less access to information, not to mention fewer intellectual tools for fully understanding the pandemic by virtue of an education devoted almost exclusively to the study of religious texts. However, unlike any other impoverished, undereducated minority, the Haredim have consciously chosen this way of life by adhering to an ideology that looks upon the modern world as a threat. It undercuts the argument that they are blameless victims of a virus.

The crowding is one manifestation of a much bigger problem. In Israel—and increasingly in the United States—the ultra-Orthodox community is impoverished and uneducated in the skills that prepare them for life in the modern world. Over the last decades, the Haredi ideal has been to be a “society of learners,” where men pursue a life of religious study to the exclusion of everything else well into adulthood. In their role as sole family breadwinner, women get somewhat better schooling. But with a limited education and an average fertility rate of seven children per woman in Israel, their ability to sustain their families is severely limited.

However, their vulnerability has another, more troubling dimension that would be in their control if they chose. Much of ultra-Orthodox life revolves around being in public—long hours spent in schools and study halls, regular daily prayers in synagogues, and mass events like weddings and funerals for rabbinic leaders that can draw thousands or even hundreds of thousands.

The Haredi world has been loath to give any of this up even though these activities act as virus hothouses. Even as the intensity of their religious observance makes them especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the ultra-Orthodox share the same attitude of distrust and resistance to the dictates of nonbelieving world as fundamentalist Christians.

The threat of death and disease should be a powerful countervailing force, but Haredi leaders live in perpetual fear of their followers’ religious observance slacking off and even of them leaving the community. If the momentum of prayer, study, and mass gatherings is halted for even a few weeks, no one can predict what the consequences would be. One study estimates that 15 percent of young Israeli Haredim leave the community.

Some Haredi leaders have urged the followers to be more cautious, but many more see these activities not only as critical to their way of life but also as an act of defiance against the outside world. Outsiders, be they the secular Israeli establishment or the New York City Department of Health, which has clashed with the ultra-Orthodox over circumcision and measles, are viewed as hellbent on disrupting the age-old patterns of Jewish life.

Given the insularity of the community, it’s not hard for Haredim to frame the pandemic as a political or religious dispute of us versus them, rather than as a public health challenge of everyone versus the virus. Strangely, this attitude has morphed into sentiment in favor of U.S. President Donald Trump in the ultra-Orthodox world that has grown even stronger as they see him opposing COVID-19 restrictions.

The coronavirus will eventually dissipate, but the conditions that made ultra-Orthodox communities so vulnerable to it will remain.

The American ultra-Orthodox world has increasingly mimicked the Israeli society of learners. In Israel, a life of learning is enabled by a government that subsidizes them. It doesn’t subsidize them enough to lift them out of poverty, but it does keep the community afloat.

In the United States, it’s more difficult because separation of church and state is strictly observed and access to government aid is severely constrained. Even so, poverty among the Hasidic stream of the ultra-Orthodoxy in the greater New York area was estimated a decade ago at more than 40 percent (the cutoff being annual household income of under $50,000). Today, it is almost certainly higher.

Like their Israeli counterparts, American ultra-Orthodox schools are depriving the young of the basic skills needed for the job market, an issue that came to the fore two years ago when New York state tried to enforce core curriculum standards on their schools. One study estimated that the youngest Haredi boys get about six hours a week of instruction of basic English and math, and even that paltry education comes to an end after they reach age 13.

This poses a threat to the long-term sustainability of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle in the United States that the community will have to grapple with. In Israel, the Haredi society of learners is imposing a dangerous weight on the economy. The high level of poverty—about 52 percent for the ultra-Orthodox versus 21 percent nationwide in 2018 based on annual income of around $33,000 for a family of four—is a financial burden on the government. By denying its young a general education, Haredi society traps its members in a binary choice of perpetual religious study or low-paid work that contributes little to the overall economy or household income.

The problem will grow more severe in the years ahead, because high ultra-Orthodox birthrates are forecast by the government to increase their share of the population to one-third by 2065. By then, the high-tech knowledge economy Israel has today will have long faded away for lack of human capital to sustain it. More Haredim are working today than a few years ago but at jobs at the bottom of the skill and pay ladder.

The ultra-Orthodox have been able to keep change at bay because they hold the balance of political power in Israel’s fractured parliamentary system. In September, Israel’s coronavirus czar had proposed imposing curfews on the most severely infected communities, nearly all of them Haredi or Israeli Arab. The ultra-Orthodox political leadership issued thinly veiled threats not to support Netanyahu at election time, and he quickly backed down. The result is that the entire country is now in lockdown.

Change will not come as long as Netanyahu remains in office and may not come when he leaves so long as ultra-Orthodox parties hold the key to political power. Perhaps a grassroots rebellion against the Haredi burden will emerge, but recent history doesn’t offer much hope.

Efforts to require Haredi men to be drafted flare up often but fade quickly. In Israel’s last election cycle, for instance, the former Netanyahu ally-turned-rival Avigdor Lieberman was able to briefly pose as a potential political kingmaker by capitalizing on the “equal burden” controversy, but by the time the last of three elections was over, the issue had taken a back seat to the coronavirus. No one has talked about the Haredi draft for months.

Israel’s only hope is that change will arise from inside the Haredi world. In a closed, tightly bound community, change won’t come easily, but the toll of sickness and death may be the catalyst.

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