How Coronavirus is Upending Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Traditions
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews are estimated to have died in Brooklyn. Here's how the pandemic is changing their longstanding rituals.
With millions of Americans stuck inside because of social distancing guidelines, a recent analysis found the way they're using the internet is changing. New York Times finance and technology reporter Nathaniel Popper joined CBSN to break down how coronavirus is impacting our screen time. Investment banker Peter Solomon discusses the impact the coronavirus is having on the retail and service industries. Aired on 4/30/2020. Israeli security forces patrolled the streets of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim Tuesday, April 7, a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a complete lockdown before the upcoming Passover holiday to control the country's coronavirus outbreak.
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As workers become sick, meat processing factories are being shut down. And with cafes and restaurants closed, dairy products are going to waste.
Al Jazeera's Patty Culhane reports from Washington, DC.
“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.”