It must be a bad dream – the spectacle of police in New York City and Lakewood, N.J., breaking up Orthodox Jewish funerals.
What was a mitzvah a few months ago has morphed into a curse. So have refreshing oneself on the beach and sharing the joy of a rousing wedding party.
An estimated 450,000 Jews live in Brooklyn with another 1 million-plus residing in the other NYC boroughs and suburban counties surrounding Brooklyn. In excess of half-million Jews live along the 70-mile stretch linking the three most populous Florida counties – Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Then there are the 6.5 million Jews in Israel.
The governor of Florida waited until last week to take substantive action. On Monday, March 30, he ordered a stay-at-home order for the three largest counties and followed that up two days later with a similar order for the entire state. Until Sunday, segments of Orthodox Jews persisted in attending funerals in large gatherings.
The coincidence of these practices – at least, I assume it was coincidence – contributed to endangering the general population and with it a massive number of American and Israeli Jews.
With more than 100 coronavirus deaths occurring in the third most populous state, photos of crowded beaches and megachurches emerged on social media two weekends ago, inciting national outrage pointed at Florida, according to The New York Times. DeSantis subsequently issued the stay-at-home orders, which do not close the public beaches. Florida’s economy depends largely on its 125 million annual tourists, including young spring breakers. “Obviously in Florida, the tourism is totally shot right now,” the governor said, as quoted in The Times.
The paper also quoted this disingenuous assessment from Dr. Lawrence Antonucci, president and chief executive of the Lee Health hospital system in Fort Myers: “This should help tremendously in slowing the spread of Covid-19 in Florida.”
How? Anyone left in Florida who has not been infected? Without a stay-at-home order issued beforehand, do we really have a way to know?
The three-county region is not only home to the vast majority of Jewish Floridians but a heavy proportion of elderly Jews who are especially vulnerable to fatalities. The Times reports that more than half the state’s infections have been found in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, combined population 5.6 million, about one-fourth of the state’s population of 21 million.
This past Sunday, New York’s Finest busted at least two funerals in Brooklyn and their counterparts in Lakewood arrested 14 mourners at a funeral. In Brooklyn’s Borough Park, videos showed police driving up to dozens of mourners with sirens blaring during a procession held for Rabbi Meir Rokeach, 78, who reportedly died of COVID-19 the night before, The New York Post reported. Most mourners ignored a warning – “This is not six feet” – from a police officer wearing a protective face mask speaking through a loudspeaker. Throughout this outbreak, scientists and political leaders are calling on the public to remain six feet from one another.
Days earlier, a Hasidic Jewish funeral was held in Midwood. In March, members of the city’s Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish community hosted weddings with hundreds of guests, openly violating social distancing orders, according to the Post.
Midwood and Borough Park are among four Brooklyn neighborhoods – the others being Crown Heights and Williamsburg – with especially high rates of positive COVID-19 tests, the city’s Department of Health reported, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency. The rate in Borough Park registered positive at 67 percent of tests, the highest rate in Brooklyn and the sixth-highest of any Zip code in NYC. For the other three communities, all heavily Orthodox, Crown Heights had 63.4 percent in positive tests; Williamsburg, 62.5 percent; and Midwood, 60.3 percent. The average positive test throughout the city is 53 percent.
Lakewood police arrested 14 mourners at a gathering of 60-70 people on Wednesday, April 1, when the crowd became “unruly and argumentative,” Jersey Shore Online reported.
“The governor (Philip Murphy) has banned all public gatherings,” said Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer. “Ignoring the governor’s order places lives at risk – not just the lives of everyday citizens, but the lives of our brave men and women in law enforcement who are required to respond in order to break up these unlawful gatherings.”
Lakewood, home to 70,000 Jews, forms a geographic center point for two shoreline counties with a combined population of 1.2 million. It is located in the north-central portion of Ocean County and is adjacent to Monmouth County to the north where an estimated 70,000-plus Jews live.
At Bnei B’rak last week, the number of confirmed cases more than doubled last week to 571, The Times reports. The Haredim comprise 40 to 60 percent of coronavirus patients at four major Israeli hospitals. Videos and photographs have shown up depicting dancing at weddings or shopping on busy streets, angering Israelis who have abided by stay-at-home orders. Some have called them murderers.
“If they help to infect others, the result will be that many old people will die,” said Dr. Moti Ravid, the director general of Bnei B’rak’s only hospital. The city’s mayor, Avraham Rubenstein, retorted, “Do you know what it is to close synagogues?”
Back here, Lakewood paramedic Simcha Shain explained to a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter that Orthodox enclaves like his hometown are communal by nature with large families whose children play together. Synagogues offering three daily prayer sessions contain up to 1,000 congregants.
“The message wasn’t really out there then. It just takes time to trickle down,” he said. They avoid television and the internet to begin with, and now families with eight and 10 children are staying at home without those devices. Does that stop them from reading newspapers that report on the coronavirus? When they shop for groceries, they can probably find a half-dozen or more metropolitan and local newspapers on the stands. Not to mention Jewish newspapers that are reporting on the coronavirus’ impact on the Jewish community.
It is enviable that these communities are so close-knit. I certainly want synagogue services to be available. Need I say it? I’ll toss it out: These are adults. They should know better that we must adjust to protect our health. Most if not all could die. What are our synagogues worth without congregants?
Republished from San Diego Jewish World