Recently, much controversy has arisen regarding Orthodox Jewish communities in NYC and the COVID-19 virus. Early in the pandemic, a media narrative emerged that Orthodox communities in Brooklyn neighborhoods were disproportionately violating social distancing measures. Many argued this was false, exaggerated, and/or betrayed an outsized media focus on these communities, leading to antisemitism. Recent data suggests that Orthodox neighborhoods do not have notably higher rates of infection or death. I spoke about this with Moses Kahan, a 45-year old Hasidic Jew from the Satmar community, who has been living in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, all his life.
How has your community been impacted by COVID-19?
During the surge, it felt like we were in the middle of a war, it was sad and heartbreaking. In a sense, everyone felt like ‘I’m going to get it the next day’. Some people were traumatized, but most kept their head cool.
For a while, it felt like the world stopped; the streets were empty, especially with the schools closed. It was a very strange feeling. Now, like the rest of NYC, they’re not entirely empty–you don’t see the elderly out of course, but there are some children playing.
The fact that some people still came together to daven (pray) and to sing, generally within guidelines, lifted the spirits, and was in a sense very beautiful. Even more beautiful than in shul at times. We saw that in Montreal and other places, non-Jewish people were very moved by seeing Hasidim singing and praying outside, it lifted them up, it’s a good thing.
Has your economic life been disrupted?
Yes. For example, my wife is a makeup artist. She’s basically unemployed right now. Makeup artists have really invasive work; they come right up close to the person. She had a mask on since late February, since before anyone was speaking about a mask or the virus or anything. Some people were ahead of the curve of the Government.
How are you keeping religious and communal life afloat?
For my Williamsburg community, people who felt able and up to it, did praying mostly outside and a few indoors within the government guidelines. The Rabbi cautioned the elderly not to participate but for the young, within the guidelines, the option was open for those interested to participate in group prayer and other religious services. This approach was based on the practices of Austrian Hungarian traditional Rabbis, chief among them the great Reb Moshe Sofar in the pandemic of 1832. This time around, there was a debate between the Rabbis all over, regarding whether one should go beyond government guidelines (which limited gatherings to 10 people maximum) and not participate in small group prayers at all. In my location, the options were open for the young and middle age to decide on their own, within government guidelines.
Passover was mostly only with immediate family. Especially people who have older parents stayed apart, because it’s no joke for the elderly. We spent more time with the children, so that’s a good thing. In the beginning I thought it would be more difficult with the children home all day, but it turns out, it’s nice. The children enjoy it too.
There has been controversy, surrounding Haredi and Hasidic communities in Brooklyn and COVID-19. Tell me about that.
Whenever an Orthodox person gets arrested for a crime, it’s always: “this Orthodox person got arrested”. They always mention the identity. Then, there’s painting us with broad strokes. I like to call it ‘unequal distribution of negativity’. There is a different standard of reporting the news for Orthodox Jews. This leads to violence and killings, and it’s been going on for a while.
Now it’s happening under COVID. First, they created a false fact that Orthodox Jews in NYC are more affected than the general population.
Then, they sold a narrative about why we are more affected. It wasn’t that we generally live in high-density locations, and have large families, with limited income, which are contributing factors, that the same media used to explain high rates in other communities. Instead it’s because of our bad behaviors–that we defy medical health and social distancing, which is basically a lie.
The bottom-line results of cases and fatalities were that, in some locations, we were higher than average in NYC; in some locations lower than average, and in ALL locations lower than many others. It was all dishonest reporting. We’ve tried to tell them all along that they’re mistaken but they didn’t care. Ironically, my high-density location of highly populated Haredi and Hasidic Williamsburg and the entire radius around, based on the numbers of the city and my conversation with the local chapel, is among the lowest in the city, including some half empty zip codes in Manhattan where people were able to leave NYC.
There’s a general narrative that religious people don’t respect science, whether it’s Jews, Muslims or Christians–because some scientific theories seem to contradict religion. Speaking personally, I don’t respect scientism–the religion of science, the faith in science [interviewer’s note- as the final word on all deep questions of human existence]. But of course, I respect scientific research and advancement; there is a Jewish blessing for wisdom and science. I respect science that is tested and relatively proven.
Oftentimes when you read an article pertaining to Orthodox Jews or a story that the person happens to be an Orthodox Jew, the reportage and narrative is unbelievable. This media bias has real effects. There are lots of threats on social media; the other day we had an attack in Williamsburg for this reason–a guy actually ripped the masks off the faces of Orthodox Jews and said: ‘You’re the reason we’re sick’. I know a person who got hurt in this attack.
As far as social distancing, now we know, now we see the pictures. Some in NY took this social distancing lightly; there were thousands of people in parks, playing golf, playing sports. Some took it lightly, and some of us also took it lightly, but most people in all communities followed the guidelines.
Do you see parallels between the antisemitic rhetoric your community faces, and the types of bigoted rhetoric directed against other groups?
Yes. This is always the case, that although most people are good, a few negative people in the dominant culture will be negative towards the minority culture, and will try to suppress the minority culture. This is always the case.
There is a school of thought among some people that since we are religious people and we are visible Jews, we need to act at a higher standard. But we are human, we are not superhuman, we have the faults of people like everyone else, as a collective. You will never appease the antisemites by trying to be better than anyone else. You can’t play by the rules of the unjust and the hypocrites. You have to do what’s right, to strive to be a better person, and also know that we are imperfect humans.
You can follow Moses Kahan on Twitter @moseskahana
Ben Lorber (@BenLorber8) researches, writes and organizes against white nationalism and antisemitism, and lives in Boston.