The New York Times

The New York Times 17 Apr 2020

How Coronavirus is Upending Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Traditions

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Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews are estimated to have died in Brooklyn. Here's how the pandemic is changing their longstanding rituals.


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“I never imagined I would see this in my lifetime:
so many bodies from a short period of time.”
These are scenes from a recent burial at a Jewish cemetery
in New York.
The deceased died of Covid-19.
The virus has hit New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish
communities particularly hard.
“It’s not in Iran and it’s not in Syria,
and it’s not what you ever see on YouTube
from different countries, where
you see bodies lined up.
This is New York.”
Doctors and funeral directors told us
they estimate hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews
have died in Brooklyn alone.
This video from late March shows bodies lined up
inside a funeral chapel in Borough Park, a neighborhood
with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Brooklyn.
Avraham Berkowitz is a Hasidic rabbi,
who lives in nearby Crown Heights.
He recently attended the funeral of a family member
from his car.
“They told the families they were not allowed to come.
They had to stay.
Only a few people, and be at a distance.
So tragic.”
He’s recorded at least 39 fatalities
in his neighborhood alone.
“Life has completely stopped in the last few weeks
in Crown Heights.
Sirens and ambulances — heart-wrenching.”
The coronavirus is posing unique challenges
to these close-knit communities.
“We belong to a community that thrives
on physical proximity and constant interaction
at weddings, at bar mitzvahs, three times a day
at the prayer, we go to the same kosher restaurants,
the same grocery stores.
Our kids go to the same schools.
We all meet each other, know each other,
and it’s one interactive circle.”
Now, longstanding traditions are
being upended by social distancing guidelines,
and are having to be rethought on the fly.
People are holding virtual bar mitzvahs,
and attending drive-by weddings —
as well as funerals.
Rabbis and community leaders are telling people
to stay home.
“Follow what God says, and you stay at home.”
“We are fighting an invisible enemy.”
They’re urging followers to heed authorities’ calls
to practice social distancing, especially
among prayer groups.
The hospitals that serve these communities
have also had to adapt quickly
because of the recent surge in patients.
Dr. Sarah Rosanel is a cardiologist
at Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park.
Maimonides has banned almost all visitors, including
family members unless death is imminent,
which can make it hard for families
to reach their loved ones in time to recite
customary prayers.
Stories of people dying alone without proper rights
drove community members to come up
with another solution.
“We get a lot of complaints that the hospitals wouldn’t
let any family members in.
How can we say final prayers if the people
are dying alone?”
Mayer Berger is the Director of Operations
of the Jewish burial society, Chesed Shel Emes.
He helped create a hotline with
prerecorded Jewish prayers, meant for the final moments
before death.
“People can have a patient rep in a hospital calling
the hotline, and put the prayers on
speaker right next to the people who passed away.”
Traditionally bodies are buried within a day of death,
but this has proved challenging for Chesed Shel Emes
because their caseload has quadrupled
over the past few weeks.
“When I’m seeing young people leaving behind seven orphans,
this is the hardest part, just thinking about all
the families who are being left behind.”
And the families left behind are now
forced to grieve alone, during periods of mourning
known as shivas.
“The whole beauty of the Jewish tradition or religion is
after any person passes, you’re
with your immediate family for seven days,
and hundreds and hundreds of people from the community
come and visit you and comfort you and bring you food.
Suddenly that whole therapy, that whole ritual,
that whole religious power of comfort, that is gone.
They’re locked alone with a video camera.
I had to do Zoom shiva calls.”
The ongoing crisis has moved Rabbi Berkowitz
to wage a personal campaign, running medical supplies
to health care workers.
“How are you?
Do you need masks?
Do you need —”
“We could always use masks.”
“OK.
I reached out to every major hospital,
New York Presbyterian, Methodist, Mount Sinai,
every single hospital.
If I wasn’t helping front-line health care workers get
the supplies they need, I would be a complete wreck.
Members of the Hasidic community
or the Orthodox Jewish community we’re shuttering the synagogues
to save lives.
But this virus doesn’t know race.
It doesn’t know religion.
It doesn’t know color.
It doesn’t know borders.
And if we’re not going to unite in force,
it’s going to take us all.”

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