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As Symptoms Spread, Hasidic Leaders Sound the Alarm: ‘A Fire Is Burning’

Photo: Reuven Blau /THE CITY

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Early Tuesday morning, roughly 70 people gathered in a Brooklyn synagogue for a morning shachris prayer service.

“I banged on the bima [prayer stand] and made them stop,” recalled Tzvi Zucker, a member of Brooklyn’s volunteer Shomrim police who was enlisted by leaders of Congregation Hisachdis Yirieim Veretzky to help enforce a new 25-person limit per service.

Zucker said he also recently stopped congregants from sharing a cake: “People started to eat it with their hands,” he said. “I had the entire thing thrown out.”

While some big synagogues have closed their doors, the Midwood shul, colloquially known as “Landau’s minyan factory,” has implemented restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus, even with services running 18 hours a day.

Elsewhere in Brooklyn, officials are struggling to maintain appropriate social distance in the borough’s Hasidic neighborhoods, which encompass different sects but face some common challenges amid the virus crisis.

A Community ‘in Peril’

“It’s a vulnerable community because of the centrality of large social gatherings,” said Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), chair of the City Council’s Health Committee. “It’s what makes it a beautiful community in so many ways, but at times like this, it places them in peril.”

Levine spoke amid some recent reports of large gatherings in Hasidic communities at a time when the state has banned events with more than 50 people and most New York City schools and religious institutions have temporarily shuttered.

Congregation Hisachdis Yirieim Veretzky in Midwood, Brooklyn, has put up two tents for outdoor services, March 17, 2020. Photo: Reuven Blau /THE CITY

At an event hall on Ross Street in Williamsburg, the FDNY responded to a call about a large wedding underway and broke up the event Tuesday afternoon. Photos of the guests outside the venue made the rounds on social media.

“The gathering was contrary to the social distancing directives that are in place now,” said Jim Long, an FDNY spokesperson. “We inspected and found cause for action and we asked for the event to be ended.”

In Borough Park, home to multiple Hasidic groups, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported more than 100 people have tested positive for coronavirus at one local urgent care clinic, Asisa.

‘People Have to Wake Up’

In Crown Heights, all yeshivas in the Lubavitch Jewish community have been shuttered since noon on Friday, and an edict from an area rabbonim, or rabbinical court, handed down Tuesday told all those over 65 to stay at home.

“A fire is burning in our community,” the letter read. “It is absolutely forbidden for anyone over the age of 65 or with underlying health conditions to attend shul, mikvah, weddings or any other public places.”

But many synagogues, or shuls, have continued services this week. The neighborhood’s main synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway remained open through Tuesday afternoon — with a “bustling crowd,” as COLlive, a local news site, reported.

But by Wednesday afternoon its doors had been chained shut, CrownHeights.info reported.

The synagogue’s administrator Zalman Lipskier said the closure came at 3 a.m. Wednesday morning. Staff shut the doors, he said, because he has been sick in bed for three days.

“The rabbis put out a letter to close the shul, we close the shul,” he told THE CITY. “You do what you gotta do, that’s it. There’s nothing to say about it.”

Crown Heights resident Andrea Karshan said she and others had been calling for the closure of all synagogues “for weeks.”

“People are going to be dead because they didn’t close 770,” she told THE CITY by phone earlier from her home where she is self-quarantining with a rough cough and fever.

A man walks along Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, March 17, 2020.
A man walks along Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, March 17, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Multiple sources in the neighborhood said Lubavitch people now hospitalized were attending services at the Eastern Parkway synagogue as recently as Saturday.

A Crown Heights man, Rabbi Zalman Goldstein, who reported that his father is in critical condition at a local hospital, sent out an audio message sounding the alarm through a post on WhatsApp from a local Lubavitch news site, CrownHeights.info.

“In my family, right at the beginning, they thought we should keep it private. It’s the biggest mistake,” he said. “We’re letting the shuls stay open? People have to wake up!”

“[You can say,] ‘Ah, it’s too late, everybody’s already exposed,’” he continued in the recorded message. “Let’s say everybody, 95%, are exposed, but we can still save one or two people. Shouldn’t we do that?”

Goldstein could not be reached by THE CITY.

An About-Face

There is no way to know how many people have the virus in the Lubavitch community. But several locals who spoke with THE CITY say the numbers of suspected cases grow every day among people they know.

Karshan suspects gatherings for Purim, the holiday which took place on March 9 and 10, contributed to the apparent spread. A report from amNewYork Metro of a Purim party at 770 Eastern Parkway for the holiday showed young and old packed in together.

“We can’t be afraid to be together as a Jewish community. This is the source of our strength to be together,” partygoer Shmuli Bronstein told the paper. “If we get this virus, maybe we just get sick God willing. But if we die, it’s God’s will.”

Yosef Hershkop, who manages four medical clinics in Borough Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Queens, says he’s seen an uptick in visits at all of his locations since last week. He said he is getting calls all the time from people who are worried they have COVID-19 symptoms.

Though there’s a lot to be concerned about, he’s encouraged by an about-face he’s seen in the community.

“In the last 48 hours, there’s been a huge change for the better,” he said Tuesday. “Suddenly, even the most nonchalant people are like, ‘Oh my God, this is serious.’”

A lack of testing, like elsewhere in the city and country, is making detection very difficult, Hershkop said. For now, he’s telling patients over the phone: “Stay home.”

The Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, March 17, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Levine agrees that things have begun to “move in the right direction” for the city’s Orthodox community — helped by the report of the 100 positive tests in Borough Park, “some alarm from the Health Department and a few of us working the phones feverishly,” he said late Tuesday.

The changes in the community are appearing online, as in a video of men praying together, separately, on outdoor porches and balconies. Jewish children in isolation at home are already learning from online classes from local yeshivas, one father told THE CITY.

A Quest to Save Lives

At Landau’s, the shul has set up two large white tents on the sidewalk outside for people to avoid overcrowding while keeping the required 10-person prayer quorum, known as a minyan.

Zucker funneled the hundreds of people arriving for the three daily services into the three main rooms inside the Avenue L synagogue and to the tents. The number of people attending services there was up in part because many other Midwood shuls, and yeshivas with prayer services of their own, have closed, Zucker said.

Meanwhile, a large sign on the front door discouraged elderly people and anyone even slightly sick from entering.

“This is about saving lives,” he said, noting the services from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day would go on until government officials demanded they stop.

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