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The deaths in my family came fast and early. My first cousin, a 39-year-old Hasidic mother of three, contracted the virus and did not wake up on the morning of April 3, 2020, less than a month into lockdown. The gut punch of her death presaged the painful road ahead. We had grown up next door to each other on Satmar Drive, named for our sect, in the exclusively Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel (now Town of Palm Tree) in Orange County, New York. She would entertain me and my sisters for hours with hilarious stories on our adjacent porches in the town house that our grandfather bought for four of his 13 children. The day she died, my Hasidic brother-in-law, 49 and a father of seven, had improved enough that doctors suggested he might be extubated. The next day, he took his last breath alone in an NYC hospital.
My brother-in-law’s funeral attracted a small crowd, mostly family members and townspeople. I did not attend, but my husband—locked in his car—described the scene to me as “shocking.” People huddled together, unaware of or indifferent to the tentacles of the contagion. Early in the pandemic, a stubborn resistance to restrictions took hold in many parts of the Haredi Jewish community. Photos of packed indoor weddings—in direct violation of Governor Cuomo’s executive orders limiting gatherings circulated on Twitter spurring outcries from state officials and residents alike. Filled-to-capacity synagogues of unmasked crowds and schools that followed few, if any, guidelines carried on as usual.
No Haredi family or neighborhood remained unaffected as the virus raged, sickening thousands and killing hundreds. Bodies piled up in refrigerated morgues, and employees of a Jewish chapel in Borough Park, Brooklyn, begged for help to transport the dead (they were “overstacked with bodies,” Menachem Bloom, who works at the funeral home, wrote).
My husband and I left Kiryas Joel and our Hasidic lifestyle over a decade ago, but we maintain strong ties to our families, whom we love dearly. For months last year, fearing the loss of more people close to me, I desperately clawed at any logical explanation for my former community’s resistance to basic, commonsense precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Why have they balked at embracing our new normal even as the virus ravaged their community? Many families like ours buried multiple members in a short span during the first and second waves—yet, it seemed, a collective amnesia or fatal denialism persisted. I tried to untangle the various theories through research and interviews, only to discover complex, multifactorial, and mostly elusive answers.
The insular Haredi community views outsiders with suspicion. Never trust a goy (gentile), we were taught. Mistrust—of secular authorities—always existed to a degree, but the pandemic underscored its detrimental effects. An old, painful history of persecution led to suspicions and defiance of authority. One cannot examine contemporary Haredim generally, and Hasidim specifically, without acknowledging transgenerational trauma—and how it manifests, in particular, as a cultural distrust of encroaching authority. Persecution is universally central to Jewish collective memory, dating back to the Hellenistic era when the core tenets of Judaism were outlawed; for most Hasidim, the Holocaust is still pulsating through their veins. As the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, trauma and the threat of persecution hung over my childhood—the specter of Mengele present if not always acknowledged.
All my neighbors, friends, and townspeople descended from Holocaust survivors. The select few grandparents who had immigrated to America prior to World War II were titled, affectionately, maluchem, literally angels—for their Judaism had survived the enticements of America’s profanity. While I was not consciously aware that the tremendous suffering of my grandparents dictated my everyday life, the Holocaust loomed large in the many children (bred to rebuild) and added stringencies (to appease God, who might strike us again). And while our freedoms in America felt secure, we had constructed our lives upon a precarious foundation; we were told to be trepidatious, never to get too comfortable.
“We are not Americans,” Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, the grand rabbi of one half of Satmar, the largest Hasidic sect in America, said in a speech late last year. “We need to understand that we are in exile. We live here, but we are not Americans.”
The American Jewish community is not a monolith. Three recognized denominations—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—provide only a partial picture of its diversity. Of the three denominations, only 9 percent identify as Orthodox. About 62 percent of Orthodox Jews identify as Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. Haredi Jews are not a monolith, either. In America, the two groups are Hasidic and Litvish/Yeshivish. They both have distinct modes of dress, large numbers of children, and shun modernity. The distinctive features of Haredi Jews vary. But for the purposes of this essay, the sects and divisions are distinctions without a difference, because a shared pattern of coronavirus response and resistance to guidelines and other measures has emerged among most Haredi communities in the New York area and other parts of the world, especially in Israel. I set out to understand why.
Back in February of 2020, I traveled to Miami with my Hasidic mother and four sisters to celebrate our mother’s 70th birthday. At the airport, my sister pointed to a man and a woman in baby blue face masks. “What is it called? Coronavirus?” she asked. “Feh.” We both laughed. The virus had not been granted entry into the U.S. And even if it had, we believed—as Americans do—that we could cage it or send it back where it came from.
Two weeks after we returned from Miami, I visited Kiryas Joel for Purim—one of the most boisterous and social holidays on the Hebrew calendar. The theme is merriment; for the virus, Purim was a party.
My parents’ modest seven-room home swelled with progeny, teenage boys pounding parquet, dancing in circles around the dining room table to raise money for their yeshiva or other community organizations. I bumped elbows with my sisters and nieces and inhaled my mother’s sweet and tangy stuffed cabbage, fluffy kneidlach, crispy challah, and apricot hamantaschen. As he passed the women gathering out in the hallway to watch the men dance, my brother-in-law overheard me say that coronavirus is not a joke. He paused and scoffed. “Eh, it’s a hoax.” The next day, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
My husband fell sick soon after Purim, as did many of my siblings and their children. I beseeched my parents to lock themselves into their home, but they met my shrill alarms with skepticism. My mother does not own a smartphone or computer, has never been on the internet, and has no access to the information many in the secular world have at their fingertips. Passover lurked around the corner, and no one—but especially Haredi women for whom preparations for this eight-day holiday takes months—wanted to believe that these Seder nights would be different from all previous Seder nights. “Don’t say that,” my mother simply stated when I told her she might have to uninvite the married children and grandchildren. Eventually, she did, hosting a lonely Seder for two for the first time in her over 50-year marriage.
While my husband isolated in our room, I did not sleep. I spent my nights thumbing through Twitter and the Yiddish website iVelt.com, a forum for Hasidic Jews to discuss politics—both local and national—and random musings. (Come in for a glass of schnapps and a good word is its tagline.) On the site, a sub-thread titled “Burech Dayan Emes” (blessed is the true judge—a Jewish refrain when someone dies) contained names of the deceased. On some days, the names filled several pages.
In a public speech on March 16, 2020, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, brother of Zalman Leib and rabbi of Kiryas Joel and the other half of Satmar, had declared that he would not comply with Governor Cuomo’s orders to shut yeshivas and schools. “We have to explain to government officials that they don’t understand what a Yiddish (Jewish) home means,” he said in Yiddish. “In non-Jewish families, they have two to three children, and a home with rooms for television, movies, entertainment… they don’t understand what a Jewish family is about… tight spaces, no goy-ish entertainment. If we send kids home from school, there won’t be room in the house, and they’ll have to go outside to play—so we’re not accomplishing anything!”
“If rabbis don’t want to stand up when there is a health crisis, they should allow others to step in.”
His argument against lockdown was not without merit. Haredi life is highly communal. Families—on average, significantly larger than the typical American family—often live in multigenerational households. What is a mother of ten supposed to do with all her children at home when they are not equipped to log on to Zoom classes? (In most Hasidic communities, internet is verboten for nonbusiness use.) Shuls (synagogues) and yeshivas are the spine of Haredi life and strict observance. Men pray in shul three times a day and spend many more hours there, socializing and praying on Shabbos and holidays, when observant Jews are forbidden to drive cars and use technology. Simchas—that is, bar mitzvahs, weddings, a new baby, etc.—are integral to community togetherness and religious life, as are funerals.
Strict religious observance and public health guidance are often at odds. It is worth noting that Haredim generally accept modern science when, say, someone is diagnosed with cancer. This community’s benevolence and tight-knit structure is evident in its unmatched, robust medical safety net: excellent non-profit organizations that help the sick seek the finest medical care, organizations that provide meals for hospitalized patients and their families, free trips to and from hospitals, medical advocacy, and fundraising for the ill. But Haredim—unlike many of the rest of Orthodox Jewry—will overwhelmingly choose belief in tradition and the Torah over scientism.
Samuel Katz, an immunologist and postdoctoral research fellow at NIAID, a division of the National Institutes of Health, fielded phone calls from relatives throughout the pandemic. He is one of a select few from his Hasidic community with the venerable title of doctor. He speaks quickly—his eloquence spilling out in rapid-fire urgency. Hasidim, he theorized to me, believe the secular world to be wholly uncomplicated. His relatives who had never studied any biology expected to understand complex immunological and scientific methodologies in one phone call. (Secular education in the Haredi world is lacking, but especially for Hasidic boys, who receive little to no secular education, further hampering their ability to digest science.) “We were taught that the most complicated thing is to study the Torah. The idea of a complicated world outside Torah does not register,” he told me.
The Haredi community also operates on group-think. A Yiddish phrase captures the essence of peer pressure—common refrains I was raised with: vus yener tit (what the other person does) and vus yener zugt (what the other person says) are the modus operandi of these highly collectivist communities. Being “normal”—not standing out—is an important social tenet. One does what neighbors and friends do, and when internal leadership—their own rabbis—floundered and actively defied restrictions or otherwise refused to lead responsibly at the onset of the pandemic, the community followed suit.
On March 17, 2020, several leaders from the Haredi community in New York and New Jersey gathered on a conference call with the White House. Avi Berkowitz, an Orthodox Jew himself and an assistant to President Trump, walked leaders through the various guidelines and implored them to take the raging virus seriously.
That same evening, Aaron Teitelbaum ordered all synagogues, yeshivas, and schools shuttered. (He subsequently tested positive for the virus, as did his wife, who would become very sick for a while.) In Borough Park and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, more than 100 residents tested positive for the virus that day. In Williamsburg, the largest epicenter of Satmar Hasidim in New York, the FDNY broke up a wedding of Teitelbaum’s Hasidim, attended by hundreds of guests.
The deaths in March were swift and unrelenting. By the end of the month, the number of deaths in the greater Haredi Jewish community of New York and the surrounding areas had reached close to 100. All this time, clandestine prayer groups of more than ten and in tight quarters had popped up; businesses that had been ordered closed posted notices in Yiddish with speakeasy-style instructions about entry.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Cuomo awkwardly tangoed to curb the number of new cases and deaths. On April 28, 2020, at the tail end of the deadliest days of the first wave (overall, more than 500 deaths were tallied in New York City on that day), thousands of mourners gathered for a rabbi’s funeral in Williamsburg. The deaths themselves were a source of risk. To Hasidim, funerals are religious events. Townspeople mourn with family members and, according to Jewish tradition, bury the dead the day they die. Community spokespeople said they had come up with a plan to have many streets closed so mourners could follow social distancing rules. Masks were handed out as well. But the crowd swelled, and soon enough, de Blasio arrived to oversee the dispersal personally. He then lashed out on Twitter, saying: “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is simple: The time for warnings has passed.” De Blasio was pilloried for his language. The Anti-Defamation League and other influential Jewish organizations called it a dangerous generalization and scapegoating that could invite anti-Semitism. Not to mention that earlier on that balmy spring day, hundreds of New Yorkers had flocked to the streets and city parks to watch a military flyover by the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds. The optics of calling out one community while giving a wild pass to another added a stone to the Haredi community’s conviction that they were being singled out and targeted for their religion.
Leadership—Haredi and secular—fumbled with inconsistent messaging. Loopholes to the laws abounded. Confusion ensued. No one knew what to believe because national leadership was splintered, with Trump dispensing unscientific advice and publicly questioning protocols, the CDC being silenced, Dr. Fauci standing his precarious ground, and local leaders trying to make sense of it all. As a result, doctors were put into an absolutely impossible position of having to present a unified front and dispense clear advice at a time when we knew so little about the actual mechanics of this virus. Inevitably there were missteps, including early insistence that masks were not necessary and an overemphasis on cleaning and sterilizing surfaces. But while secular laypeople could mostly keep up with the rapidly changing advice, Haredim were further alienated by misinformation, lack of widespread access to the Internet, and defiant rabbinical leadership.
On a Friday afternoon in October of last year, during the second wave of the pandemic, I spoke to a Hasidic physician who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. For Haredi healthcare workers, the stress of countering misinformation, conspiracy theories, and overall mistrust in medicine felt especially acute. The few I spoke to were reluctant to go on the record for fear of reprisal, choosing their words carefully.
“My raison d’être is science,” the physician told me as he rushed to get home from the hospital in time for Shabbos. “I felt attacked by those [in my community] who challenged the science of the virus and bought into conspiracy theories. I became defensive—and it’s hard to convince people to do the right thing when you’re defensive.”
The large NYC hospital where he works was a war zone during the peak. “Nurses had to gown-up before entering a patient’s room, and because we were in low supply, they had to consolidate the number of times they entered,” he said. “They would stand at the door and try to decipher the monitor beeps,” he told me, his voice breaking. He watched many stoic workers collapse under the enormous emotional burden.
A Hasidic man who died in an NYC hospital in April purportedly left a Yiddish note that read something like this: “If you find this note and I died, it’s because I starved to death, not from the virus.” The story spread through word-of-mouth and WhatsApp, the community’s preferred social media platform. (I heard this story first from one of my sisters.)
When many in the physician’s community called doctors murderers, he took it personally. “They tell me that doctors are killing people,” he said incredulously.
For many Haredi Jews—especially women—being prohibited from participating in the social gatherings essential to their lives is like being denied oxygen.
The pandemic has made many who previously subscribed to scientism suspend their confidence in the medical community, mostly because the internet has made questionable, contextless, or outright false information accessible to everyone. In the Haredi community, information often trickles down via word of mouth and WhatsApp statuses. Conspiracy theories and pseudoscience amplified by Trump and fueled by Trumpism gained a stronghold, spreading rapidly. (A large number of Haredi Jews self-identify as Trump supporters and are avid listeners to conservative talk radio. The percentage of Orthodox Jews who identify as Republican has increased from 57 percent in 2013 to 75 percent in 2020, according to a recently released report from the Pew Research Center. Before the election, a caravan of Haredim led a pro-Trump rally from Monsey, New York, to Brooklyn, waving window-mounted “Trump 2020” and American flags.)
Medical mistrust is not a new phenomenon, said Devon Greyson, a public health communications expert at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “We have great documentation of fears and doubts of the smallpox vaccine. In some ways, this is frustrating, and in other ways it is reassuring because we have progressed over the past 200 years despite this.” The more terrifying trend is the convergence of anti-public-health and right-wing ideologies. “QAnon networks have merged in large force with anti-public-health and anti-vaccinations networks and have given them much broader audiences than they had before,” they said. “This is something we didn’t see just six years ago.”
The insularity and suspicion of external authority in Haredi communities means that dissent within is not only frowned upon, but also routinely quashed. Beginning in late March of last year, as COVID cases, hospitalizations, and death rates increased, friends in my hometown and other Haredi communities pleaded for help. They noted the negligence—mothers crowding in children’s clothing stores, schools, and synagogues operating out of back rooms and basements, and weddings taking place in ballrooms, where the lights had been dimmed to fool authorities. All around them, people were getting sick, and hundreds died. For them, publicizing these transgressions would risk their livelihoods, their children’s school admission, and their overall standing. They refused to go on record for this reason: dissenting views are not only discouraged; they have dire consequences.
Jacob Kornbluh is a Hasidic reporter for the Forward, one of the largest American Jewish news media organizations. Since the start of the pandemic, Kornbluh had tweeted photos of Haredim flouting social distancing and other guidelines. He covered the de Blasio and Cuomo debacles and reported for Jewish Insider on the rising tensions between Haredim and government—and for that, he became a prime target for members of his own community. He was dubbed a moser, an informant to secular authorities, a snitch. A moser is the ultimate character assassination for a Haredi Jew. Some biblical texts go as far as to suggest a moser merits the death penalty. Given the thousands-year history of Jewish persecution at the hands of secular authorities, leveling this charge is serious and dangerous.
During the second wave, starting in September 2020, Haredim in Borough Park protested the redzoning and threats by Governor Cuomo to limit gatherings and shut down community institutions. Led by a rabble-rousing fringe figure, Heshy Tischler, these protests still attracted mobs. When Kornbluh showed up, Tischler egged on the crowd. In a video, Kornbluh, cornered against a brick wall, pleaded with the mostly unmasked mob not to spit in his face.
The following Sunday, as the Jewish holiday of Sukkot ended, protesters descended on Kornbluh’s building, shouting epithets and threatening to charge up the five floors to his apartment.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Kornbluh told me. “But my kids had to hear Hasidic people chant on loudspeakers that their father is a Nazi and moser.” Wednesday afternoon last October, he stressed that he is not an advocate or activist. In his milieu, reporting the news is misconstrued as collaboration with the enemy. “They conflate the role of a reporter with personal opinions of an individual,” he said. “If I am reporting or tweeting about de Blasio, [they think] I am collaborating with him.”
In a measured tone, he continued, “People expect to be guided. Who is directing people on a daily basis?”
Haredim look to their spiritual leaders, rabbis, and other community heads for guidance. Often, a person will request an audience with his rabbi to consult on medical and familial dilemmas. Hasidic rabbis especially guide their followers in spiritual, communal, and practical ways. Each sect follows its own rabbi, whose position is determined by a patrilineal system in which the eldest son (usually, but not always) assumes leadership after the rabbi’s death.
One of the fault lines that has emerged during this crisis is a lack of centralized leadership in Haredi communities. The leading umbrella organization for Haredi Jews in America, Agudath Israel of America, does not represent or have any jurisdiction over many Hasidic sects that do not align with their views on Israel and beyond. Satmar, for example, is ideologically opposed to Agudath, but for political and strategic purposes, they are allies; no self-respecting Satmar Hasid will listen to guidance from Agudath leadership. The organization has been accused of catastrophic mishandling of the measles outbreak in Haredi communities in 2019—focusing on PR instead of stemming the actual outbreak—and weak leadership during the current coronavirus pandemic. (Their first announcement of guidance to Haredi communities offered “suggestions” to synagogues and religious institutions instead of the unequivocal stance to follow guidelines and save lives that other mainstream Orthodox leadership maintained.)
Rabbis of larger Hasidic sects have an outsize influence on their followers. Every word they utter, every piece of advice, every new edict, are words of God. In 2012, over 50,000 Haredim filled the bleachers at CitiField for an anti-internet gathering arranged by rabbis and community leaders.
While reluctant to pin blame on any one person or entity, Kornbluh adamantly proclaimed that the governor and mayor mishandled the situation. “When I saw my relatives, friends, and community members die, I felt nobody was stepping up and bringing awareness—and also challenging government,” he told me as he adjusted his yarmulke. When he seemed most animated, his face came within inches of the camera. “If the objective is to save lives, then the mayor and governor have every obligation to work with the community and their unique needs. Sometimes you have to speak to a person in their language.”
Both the Hasidic physician and Kornbluh took a circumspect approach to blaming rabbis, but Dr. Katz did not spare them his scathing critique. “If rabbis don’t want to stand up when there is a health crisis, they should allow others to step in,” he said. “One photo of a rabbi praying alone would have accomplished so much.”
In truth, even if a rabbi implores his devotees to pray alone, the rupture to the lifestyle might be too much for many to swallow. For most Haredi men, praying with a minyan—a quorum of ten or more—is not only a religious requirement, but a pact they have not broken since their bar mitzvahs. A Haredi person’s life is prescribed by Jewish practices.
Why did the Haredi community largely ignore this? I asked myself, still struggling to make sense of what I already knew. At what point does the denial become unethical or even criminal?
For many Haredi Jews—especially women—being prohibited from participating in the social gatherings essential to their lives is like being denied oxygen.
“The solution cannot be worse than the original problem” is a maxim I have heard in secular circles, too. Throughout the pandemic, resistance to mask-wearing and social distancing crept into virtual and real-life communities across the world. But Jews live by the dictum in Deuteronomy: Venishmartem meod lenafshoseichem (You must be very careful about your lives).
The Torah mandate of pikuach nefesh (the precepts of taking care of one’s health and breaking Jewish law when one’s life is in danger) is paramount in Jewish thought and observance.
By May 2020, the Haredi community believed they had achieved herd immunity based on the numbers of people who already had the virus. Weddings resumed. Schools opened in violation of the state’s guidelines. Restrictions were, for the most part, ignored.
I desperately sought answers to such apparently callous behavior. “Cult,” a friend who is still in the community—“in the closet,” as they call non-believers who remain—texted me. I repeated those words to myself and let them hollow me out. Cults are evil; my family is not.
As COVID-19 cycled back around toward a resurgence in September 2020, my father-in-law, 73 and in perfect health prior to contracting the virus, died, leaving 15 grieving children and over 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He took his final breath on Simchat Torah—the penultimate day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot—a day of joyful celebration of the Torah. In his hometown of Kiryas Joel, thousands of men gathered in the main synagogue to pray and dance with Torah scrolls. Arm in arm, cheek to cheek, no masks—and the women on the balcony crowded around tiny round holes in the mechitza (partition) to catch a glimpse of their rabbi, fathers, husbands, sons.
Many fell ill after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but from what I could see, and from talking with family and friends, the hospitalization and death rates were not comparable to the first wave. Community members cited the anecdotal narrative that most in the community have antibodies. (In August 2020, Borough Park had a 46.8 percent positivity rate for COVID antibodies.)
Sustained herd immunity has only ever been achieved in the past via artificial inoculation. Often, when I tried to reason with my mother or siblings that we couldn’t know definitively whether a population had achieved herd immunity, they brushed it off. The deaths had dissipated, their neighbors and family members were no longer getting sick and dying at the same rate, and that was evidence enough that precautions were unnecessary.
Conspiracies gained traction again. Haredim who adhered to social distancing and wearing masks were stared at or mocked. Misinformation about the forthcoming vaccine began to spread, fueled by a small but growing group of staunch anti-vaxxers who are preyed upon by the anti-vax movement.
While my husband sat shiva, he texted me selfies of his masked face and plates piled high with food. Of the many siblings, their spouses, and townspeople coming to pay respects, he was the only one who consistently wore a mask.
On Friday, the final morning of shiva, my children and I visited.
“Why are you wearing a mask?” my sister-in-law asked. As if their father had died of natural causes—and their brother-in-law six months earlier, too. I grabbed a slice of marble cake from a styrofoam tray of home-made pastries, lowered my mask, and stuffed down the anger, reminding myself of my in-laws’ goodness.
On my phone, I pulled up a photo of my son at his bar mitzvah—all handsome and buck-toothed—shaking his grandfather’s weathered hand; Zeidy, as we will remember him, all scraggly beard and affectionate smile. My sisters-in-law held their hearts and said he could not stop talking about the bar mitzvah and how much he enjoyed it.
“See you in five weeks at my son’s wedding?” asked my sister-in-law who lost her husband, as we got up to leave.
“Make sure there is a vaccine ready,” I quipped. “Wait, you are not coming to my wedding?” she responded, incredulous. My sisters-in-law looked away or nodded while staring at my audacity. No one would be social distancing or wearing a mask at a wedding with more than 200 guests.
“There is still a pandemic,” I said, knowing my words were barely audible above the cacophony.
A month later, on an unseasonably balmy November afternoon, I attended my father-in-law’s tombstone unveiling in the cemetery of my hometown. I tiptoed with my family toward his grave, surrounded by columns of other near identical tombstones—men on one side, women on the other. I pinched my mask and noted the many graves inscribed with the current Hebrew year, 5781.
Huddled around his gravesite, men recited prayers; no one wore a mask.
Pain and grief sprung from the sniffles of family members and loud howls of the eulogizers. The blazing sun hit his tombstone at precisely the moment a rabbi cried into the mic, “We must repent—so many dead this year!” I shifted on the gravel and checked my rage.
In moments like those—standing amid my husband’s 14 siblings, their spouses, and many nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts—I felt enveloped by warmth, love, and confusion. Wholly exasperated, I let a few silent curses slip into my mask.
Why did the Haredi community largely ignore this? I asked myself, still struggling to make sense of what I already knew. At what point does the denial become unethical or even criminal?
Back in the car after the tombstone unveiling, I questioned my confusion, too. Perhaps, I reasoned, this community has hacked the virus. Perhaps, as many lockdown skeptics claimed—contrary to immunological facts—the virus would have run its course no matter our actions.
My mother called the day after my husband’s father died, and I assaulted her with apoplectic words. “He didn’t have to die; you didn’t have to get sick and fear for your life. All this reckless behavior!” She said, quietly, “Let’s not argue.” She—naturally—knows where to find the rug, how to lift it, and how to tuck grievances underneath so that the lumps are visible only to the aggrieved.
It has been more than a year since my cousin and brother-in-law died, and many months since my father-in-law passed. We are slothing toward normalcy, out of the most collectively challenging and painful year of many of our lifetimes. At the time this issue went to press, in New York, 49.4 percent of adults are fully vaccinated; close to 60.4 percent have received their first doses.
But in my Hasidic hometown, where the pandemic has seemingly long been over, people are in no rush to get vaccinated. While many have indeed had the virus, experts warn that immunity from COVID could wane—and there is no definitive data for how long the virus confers immunity, if at all. “I had COVID.” “No one is telling anyone to go get vaccinated.” These phrases are what I have heard from family members. The same vulnerability to disinformation and mistrust of secular authorities and the medical community that persisted throughout the pandemic has now found a home in skepticism about the COVID vaccine.
Vaccine hesitancy already existed in Haredi communities, a problem irritating beneath the surface. In 2019, I reported on a meeting in Monsey, New York, one town over from where I live, hosted by a group of concerned Orthodox nurses now known as EMES Initiative. (Emes is Hebrew for “truth.”) The measles outbreak in the New York Haredi community was raging; the anti-vaxxers were ungovernable. Tables manned by experts (epidemiologists, virologists, pediatricians, and others) had been set up with stacks of data proving that vaccines are safe and effective. The experts patiently and discerningly answered all attendees’ questions. Moving around the tables were several women—clearly not Haredi—who, someone whispered in my ear, were from the national anti-vax movement. During the panel discussion, attendees, mostly mothers, were given a chance to ask questions. The proof for counterarguments that many presented were YouTube videos, word-of-mouth claims, and misinformation amplified by an unwavering group of anti-vaxxers, including several well-known rabbis.
What I realized then, and see it playing out now, is that a misinformed populace is not always an unintelligent one; Haredim who are gullible to anti-vax propaganda are simply unable to discern between scientific, empirically proven fact, and information being fed by so-called medical “expert” hacks and disproven “science” about the dangers of vaccines. Unfortunately, Haredi medical organizations, doctors, rabbis, and community leaders are often slow to respond, so disinformation, spreading via WhatsApp, often wraps its fingers around the masses.
As of April, the COVID vaccine rates in large Haredi communities like Borough Park are very low, even considering that Haredi communities have the lowest median age in the United States and children are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. The questions that plagued me last year are still unanswered. Recent data, compiled by intrepid editors of a Yiddish magazine called Der Veker, shows that deaths in the Hasidic community were three to four times higher than the New York state average—in a community with an impressively low median age. Numbers out of Israel’s Haredi population are similarly staggering. How many deaths could have been avoided by following the guidelines? Will there be a reckoning, a cheshbon hanefesh?
The pandemic offered a reprieve from obligations to attend affairs in which I often felt like an outsider, but I still miss many of my siblings, and especially my mother. Like many people around the world, I’ve worried incessantly about my parents and the older members of my family. During the first wave, I called her daily, something I had not done since I left Hasidism and rejected her lifestyle. My insistence that the community is failing to protect their own often punctuated our conversations, and greatly upset my mother. My questions contained a boldness; my voice assumed a new register. In trying to maintain familial relationships over the past decade, I have kept my thoughts and opinions to myself, for the most part. Why ruffle well-groomed feathers? Instead, I would use my pen to talk about the things that frustrated me most, the reasons I had left, angering many in my family along the way. So when I challenged my mother on the phone, desperately trying to get her to understand the risks of unmasked weddings, schools, and shuls, I surprised her—and myself.
My husband, 16-year-old son, and I are fully vaccinated; my 14-year-old daughter, partially. We have skipped many weddings and bar mitzvahs this past year, and as we are getting ready to rejoin the family for a few upcoming weddings, I wonder what will have changed. I don’t know where I go from here and how to find reconciliation in my personal and familial life. I worry that this condemnation—an airing of my former community’s dirty laundry—will ruin whatever relationships I have worked to strengthen. But I also worry that I will never be able to unsee this past pandemic year: how my own family and their community sat in denial while people were dying.
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