Over the last few weeks, our community’s mood has gone from frustrated to outraged – and it’s easy to understand why. Instead of speaking to community leaders after a spike in coronavirus cases in neighborhoods with a significant Orthodox Jewish population, Mayor Bill de Blasio instead threatened to shut down shuls and yeshivos.
Not to be outdone by de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo criticized us by publicly displaying pictures of mass gatherings of Orthodox Jews. Never mind that one of them was 14 years old. We all look the same and are all interchangeable, apparently. (Imagine if Cuomo had made that mistake with regard to a different minority.)
And then there was Cuomo’s betrayal. Before Cuomo agreed to de Blasio’s shutdown, he held a conference call with various leading Orthodox rabbis, leaders, and activists, imploring them to urge their constituents to follow coronavirus rules.
“The current rule is no more than 50 percent [capacity] in any indoor gathering,” the governor said. “If we don’t follow that law and the infection rate gets worse, then we’re going to have to go back to close down, and nobody wants to do that. But I need your help in getting the rate down, and the rate will come down if we follow the rules on the mask and the social distancing and the 50 percent.”
However, just a few hours later, Cuomo said only 10 people could gather in a synagogue at any one time. Jewish leaders said they felt “stabbed in the back.”
Are shutdowns always evil? No, not when they’re based on scientific data. But schools have been shown to be a non-factor in spreading Covid-19. Shutting yeshivos down, therefore, does almost nothing to protect people from the virus.
And locking down individual neighborhoods in a city, aside from bankrupting stores, actually increases the chance of the virus spreading. Instead of people shopping in multiple locations, residents of “hot spots” leave their neighborhoods and travel to safer areas where they shop in now much more crowded stores.
Restricting every shul to a maximum of 10 people – no matter how large the shul – is also inane. Why should a synagogue with a capacity for 3,000 people be subjected to the same 10-person limit as a shtiebel that only has space for 15 people?
The answer is that the governor is well aware that for a shul to function, it needs a minyan. The number 10 isn’t arbitrary; it’s a cover for the governor to claim he’s still allowing us to practice our religion. In reality, though, a shul with 300 members can’t possibly operate if it’s forced to hold prayers in shifts of 10.
Amazingly, seven counties that don’t have an Orthodox Jewish population to speak of have a higher virus positivity rate than those that have been locked down. That’s just another indicator that de Blasio and Cuomo have unfairly singled us out.
We didn’t protest last year when we were beaten daily in the streets of Brooklyn, gunned down in Jersey City, and stabbed in Monsey. But being barred from our shuls and yeshivos is a different story. That’s where we draw the line.
The first time we had to stay away from our holy sanctuaries was a tragedy – but we understood. We understand no longer. The government is ignoring scientific data – the World Health Organization now opposes lockdowns – and is barring us from our houses of worship for punitive reasons. We won’t accept that.