Agudath Israel of America was asleep at the wheel as Covid-19 swept the globe and made inroads in NYC.
In late February and early March, Lewis Garbuz, a single infected orthodox Jew at the Young Israel of New Rochelle infected hundreds of others through his active involvement in the shul. Garbuz was diagnosed with Covid-19 by March 2. By March 3, New Rochelle was quarantined by NYS Governor Cuomo.
On their own, Salanter Akiva Riverdale yeshiva (SAR) shut itself down the next day because one of the man’s family members attended. Within a day, Yeshiva University suspended all classes and begin the process of emptying their dorms. Thanks to these actions, while many others were infected, nobody in those circles died from Covid-19 and even Garbuz himself recovered.
By March 5th, visitors to Rav Chaim Kanievsky were no longer being allowed to shake or kiss his hand.
By March 8th, Erev Purim, Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan cancelled their purim parties, limiting events to Megillah reading and urging those not feeling well or at higher risk, not to attend.
By March 12th The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County issued its own orders which
curtailed Purim gatherings and implemented various social distancing measures. Thanks to all those efforts the toll on the modern orthodox world was largely in line with the overall metro NYC population.
Agudah waited for the Mayor and Governor to issue rulings on March 17 and 20. Agudah did very little to warn or educate their members about the risks, and looked the other way as flagrant violations of distancing and stay at home rules sprouted all over their neighborhoods. Sure enough, there was a terrible toll, something even Agudah admitted when it spoke of thousands of deaths in its community (see flyer below, issued by Agudah on 3 Sivan, 5780/May 26, 2020).
Agudah PR flacks like to insist that the unusual physical and interactional density of the Haredi world makes it especially vulnerable. Darn right, which is why it would have been even more important for the Haredi world to deploy the measures undertaken by other orthodox groups. Agudah should have learned the lesson of the NYC measles epidemic centered in metro NYC’s Haredi communities because a number of their yeshivot were disregarding the laws requiring them to confirm the vaccination status of students. Then too they howled about special density factors and saved their fire power for complaining about antisemitism. Within the frum world there was another less publicized shmooze. Many felt the epidemic was a massive chillul hashem because it showed dangerous disregard of reasonable public health laws which endangered others.
Agudah’s May 26th flyer (see image below) admits “We must be careful not to repeat our earlier mistakes.” I thought this would be a lead-in to some admission of errors of policy and public education. Fooled again. There is not a single admission of any error. Nor in all this time has Agudah used its massive PR machine to educate and encourage various measures to reduce risk. Instead their Twitter feeds and emails have been full of self congratulation about their chesed programs helping the isolated with food, participating in plasma donation programs, and various services to patients. They also reported on deliveries of food to all the staff at hospitals. Nice, but I bet the health workers would have been more appreciative of safety measures to reduce the patient load that cost the lives of so many hospital workers.
When Agudah speaks of not repeating earlier mistakes they are referring to talking in shul, letting phones ring, not having enough kavanah, etc. They then go into a set of prescriptions for shul attendance now that 10-person minyanim are allowed by law in NYS. And once again, Agudah completely fails to address reducing risk. They even increase it by urging slow prayer and learning in shuls. The epidemiological rule of thumb is that risk is increased the longer people are together in an enclosed space.
The other theme running through the declaration is encoded in the term gezeirah (decree) with its implication that shul closures were an evil gezeirah. Yet again they are making the government the enemy when in fact their closures might have even been delayed longer but for the actions of the government.
This sort of posturing is built into the politics and financial interests of Agudah. It has lost stature as a moral center in recent decades. But no one disputes it is a hell of lobbying group for getting money for the orthodox community. It regularly rallies its base by painting the government as the enemy when the government tries to enforce safety regs. This has been true about child sex abuse, MBP, the measles epidemic, minimal education requirements, and now, Covid-19.
Oh sure, they make appropriate passing noise about respecting and following the law. But insiders know that is PR nonsense. Having cultivated a stance of resistance, they have to keep playing the game even when it’s very dangerous. They are even more politically cornered because so many of their adherents are taking their views neither from halachah which is very assertive about being careful about health risks, nor from doctors and epidemiologists. Instead, they are catering to the narishkeit spouted by ignorant talk radio personalities who deny the magnitude of the problem and ridicule mask wearing, social distancing, and stay at home orders. One only has to look at the Twitter feeds of their most prominent followers to see little about torah or protective action, but tons of retweets from Covid minimilizers.
So here we are, with an opportunity to manage things better. But just as a reckless Purim was a prelude to a tragic Pesach, I fear a reckless Shavuos will make 17 Tammuz especially tragic this year.