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Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn stage protest against New York’s new COVID rules

By Shira Hanau

(JTA) – Protests by Orthodox Jews against New York’s crackdown on gatherings in their neighborhoods turned tense and at times violent Tuesday night, Oct. 6, as throngs of young men demonstrated in the streets of Borough Park.

The late-night protest in a heavily Orthodox area of Brooklyn took aim at new restrictions that would close schools, limit attendance at synagogues services and close nonessential businesses in areas with upticks in COVID-19. 

The protestors set fire to a pile of masks, at one point surrounded a city bus that was moving through the area and at another ran a reporter out of the area.

In a particularly violent episode, one man – the brother of Mordy Getz, a well-known Orthodox businessman who was outspoken about the need for masks and social distancing earlier in the pandemic – was beaten so severely by protesters after he took a video of the scene that he was taken to the hospital. Onlookers could be heard calling him a “moser,” one who informs on fellow Jews to the authorities and who some Jewish legal authorities say can be killed as a result, an insult applied to his brother back in April, as he was placed on a stretcher to be taken to the hospital.

The protests laid bare the frustration felt by local Orthodox Jews who are now at the center of the first widespread resurgence of COVID in New York since the spring. Many in the community believe that city and state officials are unfairly targeting Orthodox Jews, who are already vulnerable to antisemitism, in their pandemic response. Local elected officials and community leaders on Tuesday, Oct. 6, vowed to resist the latest rules, through litigation and civil disobedience.

“We will not close,” radio host and local celebrity Heshy Tischler proclaimed to cheers from the assembled crowds. Later, he told protestors, “You are my soldiers. We are at war.”

Dov Hikind, the former state Assemblyman who is a leader in the community, said the form the protests took were regrettable.

“I’m ashamed of what happened,” Hikind said. “To raise your hand and touch another person, Jew or non-Jew, to injure someone and have them end up in the hospital, what a tragedy. … If there would have been a protest last night organized by community leaders and elected officials where everyone was wearing a mask, then of course there’s no problem. … There’s nothing wrong with expressing yourself.”

The protests came in response to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement Tuesday afternoon of new restrictions on a large swath of Brooklyn that is experiencing an uptick in COVID cases. His announcement followed a similar one by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who on Sunday, Oct. 4, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot when Orthodox Jews do not use cell phones or computers, said he would move to close schools on Wednesday, pending the governor’s approval. The governor then announced Monday that he would close the schools Tuesday. (Most Orthodox schools are in fact closed this week for Sukkot.)

In a statement Tuesday evening, local Orthodox lawmakers accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of “a duplicitous bait-and-switch.”

“The governor informed Jewish community leaders in a conference call that synagogues in ‘red zones’ would be permitted to operate at 50%, and he requested community cooperation (which he was assured would happen,” they wrote, referencing a call Cuomo held with Orthodox leaders Tuesday before he announced the new restrictions. 

“Outrageously, just hours later, Governor Cuomo announced a draconian return to restrictions that would shutter thousands of New York businesses and limit houses of worship to a maximum capacity of 10 (no matter the maximum capacity of the building).”

A statement from Agudath Israel, an organization representing haredi Orthodox communities, also expressed frustration with the lack of notice given about the restrictions in a call earlier in the day and suggested the new rules might be unconstitutional.

“Governor Cuomo’s surprise mass closure announcement today, and limit of 10 individuals per house of worship in ‘red zones,’ is appalling to all people of religion and good faith,” they said.

They seemed to be considering the possibility of challenging the governor’s new restrictions in court. “Agudath Israel intends to explore all appropriate measures to undo this deeply offensive action,” they said. A federal judge issued an injunction blocking New York State from imposing stricter standards on indoor gatherings at religious services than those imposed on other gathering places, citing religious liberty concerns. Agudath Israel filed an amicus brief in that case.

The protesters in Borough Park were joined Tuesday night by Tischler and their City Council representative, Kalman Yeger, who encouraged the crowd to stand up for religious freedom.

“We are not going to be deprived of the right that we have in America, like everybody else in America, the right to observe our religion,” he said in a video posted to Twitter by local news outlet BoroPark24.

Tischler also appeared later Tuesday night in Crown Heights, another heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood where there are no new restrictions but where de Blasio has identified a slight uptick in COVID test positivity rates. Tischler appeared at a Simchat Beit Hashoevah, a gathering on the holiday of Sukkot that is marked by singing and dancing, and addressed the crowd.

“We have a court order, we won, our schools and shuls are open, we will not close,” he said, seemingly referring to a court injunction over the summer issued by a federal judge that blocked New York State from imposing stricter rules on religious gatherings than in other indoor venues.

“And here’s the deal, I’m filing a new court order, I’m holding Cuomo and the idiot de Blasio in contempt,” he said. “We will civil disobedience…our amendments, our first amendments, our rights, we will not close our shuls Simchas Torah!”

Other videos circulated of protesters chanting, “Jewish lives matter.”

At one point, protesters set fire to a pile of masks in the middle of a street.

And one photographer trying to capture the scene in Borough Park was videoed being chased and possibly assaulted by a crowd of Hasidic Jews.

Cuomo and de Blasio react – without naming Jewish community

Following a night of unrest in Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods over coronavirus restrictions, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio urged unity but vowed to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing regulations.

Speaking in separate and overlapping press conferences Wednesday morning, Oct. 7 Cuomo, New York’s governor, and de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, both avoided singling out the Jewish community or even using the word “Jewish.”

De Blasio has been criticized in the past for singling out New York Jews who violated regulations, and yesterday, Orthodox leaders accused Cuomo of misleading them regarding the scope of the new regulations. Cuomo also faced backlash on Monday for showing a 14-year-old picture of an Orthodox Jewish event while criticizing recent mass religious gatherings.

“This is about all New Yorkers, and when you look at the communities in Brooklyn and Queens, it’s lots of different kinds of people,” de Blasio said when asked about Orthodox Jews. “We’re talking about two of the most diverse places on earth – Brooklyn and Queens. So within these areas are many kinds of people. We want to protect everyone. This is based on data and science.

The positive test rate in Borough Park on Tuesday was 10.6%, more than 10 times the overall rate of the state. Rising infection rates in those neighborhoods, officials fear, could trigger a second wave of the virus in New York City, which had, until these up-ticks, kept rates low after experiencing a severe outbreak in the spring.

Cuomo blamed the uptick on a lack of enforcement of social distancing regulations by local officials – an implied swipe at de Blasio, with whom Cuomo has a famously acrimonious relationship. New York City and state put out different versions of new restrictions earlier this week in an attempt to curb a second wave of the virus.

“The reason we’re in this situation now is because the enforcement wasn’t done,” Cuomo said. “We had the rules. It wasn’t enforced in these areas. It wasn’t enforced in these areas because it’s hard to enforce in these areas, because they don’t want to do it.”

He added, “And now we see the infection rate go up and now we see more people go into hospitals from these communities.”

While “red zone” neighborhoods like Borough Park, where case rates are highest, will face  strict restrictions. Neighborhoods in “orange” and “yellow” zones face fewer restrictions. The neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Williamsburg, which also have large Hasidic populations, are not included in the color-coded zones, but de Blasio said the city is concerned about their rising infection rates.

De Blasio said the city has 1,200 employees canvassing neighborhoods to notify residents in the zones about the new restrictions, which are set to last at least 14 days, and enforce them. Mass gatherings that congregate in violation of the regulations can lead to fines of $15,000 per day, while fines for not wearing a mask or adhering to social distancing requirements can be as high as $1,000 per day.

De Blasio said that though no arrests were made at the protests Tuesday night, police will not tolerate violence or property damage. He also said that the city will take enforcement of the new regulations seriously.

“We’re going to be enforcing across the board,” he said. “If people refuse to wear masks there will be penalties. Across the board, this is what we’re going to have to do. I understand the frustrations that people are feeling, because no one wants to see us have to go back towards the restrictions that we had in the spring, but unfortunately they are necessary.”

Main Photo: Orthodox residents of Borough Park burned masks and blocked city buses Tuesday night to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that he would impose new restrictions on areas with upticks in COVID. (Screenshots from WhatsApp)

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