Debates surrounding the pandemic continue to rely on false narratives about Haredim.
People congregate outside of the Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue on Oct. 19, 2020, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. A wedding planned for a grandchild of Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, a grand rabbi of the Satmar sect, was ordered to be shut down after New York City authorities were alerted that the event could draw as many as 10,000 celebrants to Williamsburg during a COVID-19 outbreak in the community.SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES
Dr. Anthony Fauci became famous early on in the pandemic for his dedication to lockdowns and masking. For many, this made him a hero—and anyone who questioned or defied these measures a villain. Perhaps no one in the country became greater COVID pariahs than religious Jews. “Just drove through Hasidic Williamsburg. Saw at least 250 people, and not a *single* person was wearing a mask,” New York Times reporter Eliza Shapiro tweeted in outrage in May 2020.
But rhetoric about COVID has changed. Officials who once advocated for harsh restrictions are quietly seeking to distance themselves from their earlier positions. It’s clear why Fauci, along with former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten would like to revise the record. The policies they supported are no longer popular. There’s mounting evidence that restrictions like mask-wearing and school closures did little to reduce the spread of COVID—but that these policies did cause enormous harm, including the worsening adolescent mental health crisis. But before we allow such officials to simply move on, it’s worth revisiting how the casual slandering of religious Jews became an accepted part of COVID discourse—especially since some of the decisions Haredim were vilified for have come to seem arguably wiser than those advocated by public health authorities.
Both Fauci and Weingarten now downplay their moral clarity during the pandemic. Fauci claims he never called for lockdowns, he only issued guidance. Weingarten—who once aggressively lobbied, and even sued to ensure that public schools stayed closed, while calling demands for schools to reopen “reckless,” “callous,” and “cruel”—recently testified before Congress that she had always wanted to open schools: “(We) spent every day from February on trying to get schools open.” (The string of community note fact checks that her Twitter account has accumulated demonstrates just how absurd this claim is.)
The emerging consensus on COVID is that more targeted and nuanced policies, such as those some European countries adopted, would not only have been significantly better for the economy, but also for public health—physical and mental. Of course, it’s easy to see the right thing in hindsight. What’s hardest to swallow is not that our public officials made mistakes about how to handle an intensely difficult and confusing situation, but that they so viciously demonized those who saw things differently.
In August of 2022, Fauci singled out Haredim as poster children for the loss of herd immunity: “when vaccinations get below that number you start to see outbreaks like we saw some time ago in the NYC area with Hasidic Jewish people who were not getting vaccinated.” (This, despite the fact that measles vaccination rates in the Hasidic community were shown to be 96% and other, non-Jewish, communities experienced measles outbreaks too.)
In November 2021, a Department of Health official confirmed in testimony to Attorney General Letitia James that Gov. Coumo’s COVID cluster zones had targeted Orthodox neighborhoods, even though other neighborhoods in the city met exactly the same COVID positivity metrics.
Haredim were routinely described as ignorant and clannish, and as engaging in mob behavior. Haredi religious beliefs and values were mocked as unimportant. In April of 2020, de Blasio issued a special “message to the Jewish community” threatening that “the time for warnings has passed” and indicated that he would be dispatching the police to “arrest those who gather in large groups.” Jews were the only one of the city’s many ethnic groups whom de Blasio singled out for public condemnation. And yet, just a few months later, he defended the large public gatherings taking place during the BLM protests in the summer of 2020. “When you see a nation, an entire nation, simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”
An opinion piece in The New York Daily News blamed ultra-Orthodox Jews who “defiantly [refuse] to follow social distancing regulations” for burdening the health care system at a time when “the sick were flooding already strained health-care facilities.” The explanation? “The ultra-Orthodox do not always share their fellow citizens’ visions for civil society … tolerance, cooperation and pluralism take a back seat to Jewish exceptionalism.”
It’s true that over the course of the pandemic many Haredi Jewish communities resisted some—and occasionally most—public health guidelines for containing COVID. While Haredi communities were extremely quick to shut down schools and synagogues at the very outset of the pandemic—there was no public celebration of Passover almost anywhere in the world in 2020—they were also much quicker to reopen than the country at large. By summer of 2020 many Haredi populations had returned to something close to their pre-COVID normal.
But Haredim were not alone in this regard. For example, residents of many majority African American and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York similarly masked at low rates. The difference was that journalists sought to understand this response rather than condemn it. The New York Times, writing about COVID in Israel, explained Haredi responses to COVID in light of that communities’ “deep distrust of state authority, ignorance of the health risks … and a zealous devotion to a way of life centered on communal activity.” In contrast, the Times described similar responses within immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and in African American communities throughout the U.S. in terms of “entrenched inequalities in resources, health and access to care.” As several commentators noted at the time, most of the press refused to explore Haredi decision-making on its own terms, or to understand why Haredim made the decisions they did. Everyone “knew” that Haredim were simply flouting the law.
But this “knowledge” wasn’t real. We actually have very little clear or systematic data about how and why Haredim responded to COVID—or how the virus responded in turn. There are strong reasons to believe the Hasidic COVID death rate was exactly the same as the rest of New York, despite the community suffering a massive surge of deaths in the very initial wave that kicked off the pandemic.
This is a shame, because there’s probably an interesting story to be told here. Many Haredim eschewed CDC guidance at the height of the pandemic and after, but they didn’t eschew all guidance. Most Haredi communities adopted their own internal guidelines in consultation with doctors and epidemiologists that community members trusted. Moreover, this guidance wasn’t monolithic. From Lakewood, New Jersey, to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Haredim adopted a whole host of different rules and practices—from outdoor synagogues and social-distanced classrooms, to targeted masking and isolating of the vulnerable, to schools and synagogues operating without any restrictions at all. Many Haredi municipalities worked closely with doctors and public health officials to craft policies that were both safe and culturally and religiously sensitive. Others dismissed government mandates as antisemitic targeting and ignored them entirely.
Here’s an example of a nuanced account of one response to COVID: During the winter of 2020-21, I complained to the head of school at a Hasidic elementary school in Brooklyn that his community wasn’t masking. (Despite my skepticism as to masking’s efficacy, I generally think we should all follow the law except in the most extreme of circumstances.)
But he told me they had good reason: Before COVID was known to be endemic, his Hasidic group shut down all their schools, well before the government had even asked them to. But in late May 2020, his Hasidic group had tested everyone for antibodies and found that 70% of the men in the community were already positive—from community spread that took place before the state- and city-imposed lockdowns and mask mandates. At this point they decided that keeping schools closed would have no effect on further spread of the virus, and reopened them. While we don’t have any independent corroboration of his claim, it is worth considering that an excellent survey of the Hasidic community conducted in April 2021 also indicated a self-reported 70% antibody figure.
The same 2021 survey also indicated that the vast majority of Hasidim who were vaccine hesitant, were reluctant because they were very young and had already had COVID. Many of those who had COVID chose to receive only one dose (which was in fact the policy in Israel for much of the pandemic).
Haredi responses to COVID produced a natural experiment whose results have not been analyzed fully. Clouded by the rhetoric around Haredi irresponsibility, nobody has bothered to find out, for example, whether there actually was dramatic COVID spread in Haredi schools or synagogues after the first intense wave of COVID at the very outset of the pandemic. Nor has anyone tried to measure the impact of different practices within American Haredi communities—something that might have provided valuable data to the country at large. Whereas in Israel both academics and the media took the trouble to consider a range of complex explanations for Haredi behaviors during COVID, in the U.S., The New York Times and others instead continued to run sensationalist stories framing Hasidim as a threat to public health.
But this lack of curiosity had a more pernicious outcome, too. The net result of the constant drumbeat of Haredi malfeasance was to associate Haredim with disease, normalize prejudice toward them, and encourage bigotry to proliferate cheerfully, without being recognized for what it is. There’s a direct line between Shapiro’s 2020 tweet from Williamsburg and an outpouring of shockingly anti-Haredi articles that she and other reporters at the Times and other major newspapers have published since.
In December 2022, for instance, The Washington Post illustrated an article about measles outbreak among a Somali community in Ohio with no pictures of members of the Somali community in question, but of Hasidim in New York. And just last week, the Times ran an article about nonsensical “environmental concerns” surrounding the construction of a Jewish cemetery in Rockland County, New York, which launders an updated version of medieval well-poisoning accusations made by the borderline neo-Nazi hate group Rise Up Ocean County.
As a policy matter moving forward, the Haredi example is important. The more we let different communities find their own way, the greater our opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Had we treated Haredi communities with a bit of understanding and tolerance, instead of lazily writing them off as anti-science COVID deniers, we could have gathered important data about what worked and what didn’t in managing an unprecedented global pandemic.
Moshe Krakowski is a Professor of Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University, where he also directs Azrieli’s doctoral program. He studies American Haredi education and culture, focusing on the relationship between communal worldview, identity, and education. He also works on curriculum, cognition, and inquiry learning in Jewish educational settings.