A massive funeral was held in Hasidic Williamsburg for Rabbi Chaim Mertz on April 28, 2020 in direct violation of NYS Governor Cuomo’s executive order for social distancing. Metro NYC’s Haredi community is already suffering from staggering high death rates from Covid-19. Living in large families in crowded housing, this sort of event will doubtlessly add more bodies to the death toll, particularly of their elderly, like 71-year-old Rabbi Chaim Mertz, who died of Covid-19.
This is part of a larger pattern where the Haredi community has repeatedly breached rules on public gatherings for weddings, prayer groups, school classes, ritual immersions for men, and ironically, for the funerals of elderly rabbis who died from Covid-19.
Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic. When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed. And what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.
My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.
But nothing was done to disperse the crowd. According to the NY Post, “A spokesperson for the NYPD said officers on scene did not ticket or arrest anybody.” In fact, the police knew about it in advance and accepted assurances that attendees would all wear face masks and maintain social distancing. But it is hard to actually accomplish that with large crowds which is precisely why there are restrictions on large gatherings. The existing infection rate is high in the Haredi world. By the end of the day, dozens were doubtlessly infected and brought it home to their large families.
Haredim howled in outrage over Jews being singled out and they got non orthodox Jewish organizations to join in. I suspect the non-orthodox were more concerned about secular Jews being lumped in with Hasidim as distancing violators. But the Hasidic outrage was certainly feigned by many of the Hasidic political leadership (the askanim) who know perfectly well they will have a hard time ever getting a mayor as obliging as Bill De Blasio. A player who knows the game well, former city councilman from Borough Park, David Greenfield, said as much in a Tweet.
What is going on is political theatre where De Blasio makes believe he enforces the law and Haredim make believe they comply. It reminds me of the Communist era joke in Russia: “The party makes believe it pays us and we make believe we work.” We are dealing with an old pattern preceding De Blasio and extending beyond NYC. Haredim have amassed voting power by often voting in a bloc. Deploying that bloc in otherwise low turnout primaries is especially valuable in overwhelmingly Democratic NY, where outcomes are often determined in the primaries.
Anyone in the know about NY Haredi politics knows the same has happened about preventing MBP circumcision which can lead to infant herpes, prosecuting child sex abuse, enforcing vaccinations for school attendance (until after major measles outbreaks threatened surrounding communities), and mandating minimum secular education.
Bill De Blasio grew up in this system, starting his political career as a City Councilman whose district included Borough Park, a predominantly Haredi neighborhood in Brooklyn. He is term limited as mayor after his second term ends in Jan, 2023. De Blasio is now angling to have his wife, Chirlane McCray, elected Brooklyn Borough President when term-limited Eric Adams leaves office. To do that he needs the Haredi vote in the Brooklyn primary.
The game continued yesterday over a Hasidic yeshiva operating in defiance of orders closing all schools in NYS. A neighbor reported it, cops showed up and sent the kids home. But there were no arrests or even citations. This could not be covered up with reporter cameras on the scene and news helicopters above. So BdB announced he would seek a cease and desist order. More whack-a-mole. As the New York Times reported, this was not the first incident:
Two days later [after the April Mertz funeral], the police issued five fire code violations and six summonses after officers found large groups of worshipers hiding in two Hasidic synagogues in Williamsburg, Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar and Congregation Darkei Tshivo of Dinov.
The doors at both synagogues were chained shut and black garbage bags covered the windows, the police said. There were more than 100 children spread between two rooms at one of the synagogues, a law enforcement official said.
These were not peripheral exceptions. Yetev Lev is the main Satmar faction in Williamsburg, and Satmar dominates Williamsburg (and backs BdB). It is well known in the community that there are many more such illegal minyanim (prayer groups). The game consists of locking the front door, posting an announcement that the synagogue is closed because of the ban on gatherings, and having folks enter through the back or side.
These gatherings are often known to the police but they know that their superiors with aspirations to promotions, take their clue from the mayer who does not want to crack down. So they only make a show when the media are hot on the trail. Even then, they show up, shut down the event, and issue warnings. Even if they do sometimes issue a few citations, the community knows they can count on the elected Brooklyn DA to go easy on prosecution just as he does on intra-Haredi child sex abuse.
The other part of the game consists of pronouncements by communal leaders disapproving of these gatherings and feigning surprise about a few rotten apples. That is hogwash. Everyone in these neighborhoods knows about these gatherings and many of those issuing denunciations to the secular media in fact are in involved in them as attendees or even organizers and leaders.
The end result of this game is a horrific Covid-19 death toll, external resentment of special treatment, and external resentment of the hospital burden this created at the peak of the crisis.