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Israel’s lockdown defied by ultra-Orthodox

The Chief Rabbis of the Israeli city of Bnei Brak have issued a joint statement permitting residents to observe the approaching Simchat Torah holiday within synagogues – in direct contravention of the nationwide anti-coronavirus lockdown.

Israel is in the midst of a major, second lockdown to curb the pandemic, including the imposition of severe prohibition against gatherings and the opening of houses of prayer.

Rabbis Shevach Tzvi Rosenblatt, Chaim Yitzchak Isaac Landau and Masoud Ben Shimon, who represent the main ultra-Orthodox Ashkenaz-Lithuanian, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Hasidic sectors in Bnei Brak, wrote that worship would be permitted within synagogues and their courtyards, while noting only that outdoor services are preferable.

Bnei Brak is listed as the tenth most densely-populated city in the world, with some 204,639 residents as of last year. A resident was today issued a ₪ 10,000 shequel fine($2,960) for not wearing a face mask in a grocery store, after a police check revealed he was a registered coronavirus carrier who should have been in strict isolation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically called on the public in ultra-Orthodox Jewish public to comply with Health Ministry virus instructions. While speaking to the Haredi (another term for ultra-Orthodox) Kol Barama radio station yesterday, the Israeli leader said, “I ask of everyone who is listening, protect yourselves — no dancing on Simchat Torah.”

Simchat Torah, meaning “rejoicing with the Torah,” is a festive celebration held on the 22 the month of Tishrei, according to the Hebrew calendar. It will be observed from sundown tonight until sunset tomorrow. The holiday marks the end of the year’s reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new annual cycle. After portions of Deuteronomy and Genesis are read in synagogues, traditionally Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and paraded around a synagogue by singing and dancing parishioners.

According to the latest data from the Education Ministry published yesterday, 51.8% of all Israeli school children diagnosed with the coronavirus contracted it at in ultra-Orthodox institutions. The finding is stunning in that religious pupils account for only 19.39% of the nation’s entire student body, while just 0.63% of non-Haredi students have been infected.

Last week the Director of Israel’s Coronavirus task force, Prof. Ronnie Gamzu, warned that 40% of all new COVID-19 cases in Israel have originated in the Haredi community.

Many in the ultra-Orthodox sector have clashed with police over the restrictions, and officers have been involved in outreach programs aimed at educating the inhabitants of the importance of observing health regulations and preventing further spread of the potentially-fatal disease. Nevertheless, reports have surfaced in which enforcement has been lax.

Local media published recordings of a conversation in the ultra-Orthodox town of Modi’in Illit between Police Superintendent Tzahi Halfon and a representative of the hardline Jerusalemite Faction, in which the Police Chief, agreed to ignore violations by advising congregants to temporarily vacate synagogues during inspections. “When a citizen calls I have to send a patrol car. Now, what am I trying to tell you? Whenever a patrol car arrives and you don’t want to listen to the policeman? it’s okay, I did not ask for it. I’m just asking – when a policeman comes, you go out,” he was heard saying, adding, “the moment they disperse, we don’t mess with that synagogue. Read between the lines of what I’m telling you.”

The conversation reportedly took place on Sunday, just before a violent confrontation in Modi’in Illit between police forces and worshippers who had illegally gathered at a synagogue.

There have been a total of 286,646 COVID-19 cases in Israel, which has a population of nine million. 15 new fatalities from the disease were reported since yesterday, for a total death toll of 1,879.