On Tuesday, a rare gathering took place in the streets of Brooklyn as local Orthodox Jews attended a funeral for a revered rabbi, despite rules to socially distance. Hundreds of mourners crowded the streets, and photos of the gathering were posted on social media. The optics were so out of the ordinary that it grabbed the attention of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who even went to see it for himself, to “ensure the crowd was dispersed,” he tweeted that night.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” he said in another tweet. “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”
De Blasio did not mention that the NYPD had approved and helped coordinate the funeral. In response to the mayor, the synagogue that held the funeral released a statement apologizing to the Jewish community at large, and explaining that it had a plan in place to keep mourners six feet apart, but the plan was not adhered to.
The mayor’s tweets garnered a lot of attention, causing the words “Jewish” and “Hasidic” to trend on Twitter Wednesday morning. Responses were varied: some called his tweets anti-Semitic, some took issue with his choice to address the broad “Jewish community.” Over 100 Jewish leaders and organizations signed a letter condemning his comments. Others used them as reason to disparage the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
The latter is exactly the kind of attention that many in the Orthodox community have been afraid of as the COVID-19 crisis escalates. De Blasio’s comments come at a difficult time for the community. One of New York state’s first known COVID-19 outbreaks began within an Orthodox community in New Rochelle, just north of NYC. Since then, Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights, each home to large ultra-Orthodox populations, have been hit particularly hard by the virus. Within a month of the outbreak, reports began pointing to these communities as places with higher rates of the virus compared to other NYC neighborhoods. Alongside widely dispersed images of Hasidic community gatherings on social media and in newspapers, these reports have led to an increase in anti-Semitic incidents targeting Orthodox communities, including a police officer suggesting on Facebook that dropping a bomb on the community would help slow the spread of the virus.
In response, members of the community are fighting “to recast the narrative of coronavirus around their community,” as The Forward, a newspaper for the Jewish community, put it, by making themselves as useful to the crisis as possible, donating their own plasma to COVID-19 research.
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In Maryland in early March, Shmuel Shoham, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins, who is Jewish but not Orthodox, had been following the news when he got an idea. As a community hit hard by the virus, he figured that many of New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jews could have the antibodies that are being tested as a way to fight the disease. As researchers look into whether or not antibodies from people who’ve already had COVID-19 could help others fight the virus if injected, they’re in need of coronavirus antibodies to test.
So Shoham called on a longtime acquaintance, Chaim Lebovits, a shoemaker and community leader in the Orthodox community, to see if Lebovits could encourage a few people in his community to get their blood checked for COVID-19 antibodies.
“I thought that he'd make a few phone calls, get a few people together,” Shoham said,
“but he must have realized that that was not going to be enough, because he then really organized and energized other people in that community to [donate].”
Lebovits said that since early March, at least 3,500 Orthodox Jews in the New York area have donated their plasma to COVID-19 research to help scientists put an end to the pandemic. Their blood has been donated to labs across the Northeast in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland.
The religious structures and community ties that are integral to the Jewish Orthodox community were key to Lebovits’ success in organizing the donations. After he alerted rabbis across the community of the need for plasma donation, they told members of their respective communities that all who were eligible to donate were obligated to do so based on the Jewish law that the preservation of life is paramount. The call to donate was as motivated by religion as humanitarianism, Lebovits said.
Shohan points out that gatherings by a minority of the Orthodox population, like the funeral De Blasio broke up, are concerning, but they are not solely to blame for the spread of COVID-19 in the community. The fact that many ultra-Orthodox Jewish people in New York live in large, multigenerational households, where self-isolation is difficult if not impossible, is also a big factor. “It's very easy for me to stay social distancing with four people using one bathroom,” he said. “But how about if you have 18 people? If one person is sick, then a lot of people are going to be sick.”
For Lebovits, it’s too soon to even think about how the plasma donations will or won’t help biases against the Orthodox community. “It has probably helped, but the only time I will have to sit down and reflect on that will be when I know that every patient in the United States whose doctor feels that [these antibodies] could potentially help them, gets them.” he said. “Until that point, I can’t afford to focus on anything other than getting the most donors to the most blood banks.”
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