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Targeting places of faith?

In New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities, the question of fair enforcement of coronavirus lockdowns hangs in the air

Targeting places of faith?

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community speak with New York Police Department officers on a street corner Oct. 7 in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

A New York moment: 

Last year I reported on the measles outbreak in New York. Measles is much more contagious than the coronavirus, but a high level of vaccination stops community spread.

The outbreak of the measles virus came in communities with lower levels of vaccination: some Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, some Christian homeschool co-ops, and liberal, hippie pockets of the vaccine-skeptical. But media attention centered on the Hasidic communities where measles was spreading.

At that time there was a good relationship between local Orthodox Jewish leaders and the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio during the outbreak kept in close touch with rabbis, and the rabbis worked with the city health department to urge vaccination for the healthy and isolation for those who were already sick. 

That relationship strained in 2020. Early in the pandemic, in response to a large Brooklyn funeral for a rabbi who died from the coronavirus, de Blasio dashed out a series of tweets decrying the “Jewish community” for spreading the virus.

So this month, when de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a sudden lockdown in largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, some residents felt targeted again. 

According to a recording of a call between Cuomo and Jewish leaders a few hours before the governor’s announcement of the new restrictions, Cuomo had promised them officials would only limit occupancy for houses of worship by 50 percent. Hours later Cuomo instead announced that houses of worship in the “red zones” would be limited to 10 people total. That fanned more outrage. 

Cuomo’s administration said it was still in conversations with epidemiologists about red zone restrictions when the governor had the phone call with Jewish leaders. But de Blasio now says he regrets how he handled the sudden lockdown, even though he didn’t have final say on the restrictions.

"I certainly got very frustrated at times when I saw large groups of people still out without masks,” he said. “But I think more dialogue would have been better. So I certainly want to express my regret that I didn’t figure out how to do that better.”

Two federal lawsuits, arguing Cuomo had targeted religious groups unfairly, have foundered in federal court so far. The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn filed a federal lawsuit against the restrictions, as well as Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group. 

They argued it was unfair to limit houses of worship to 10 people when essential businesses had no capacity limitations. The Brooklyn diocese’s lawsuit said the restrictions amounted to “targeting of religious practice for unwarranted, disparate treatment,” even though its churches had been operating for months “without any COVID-related incidents whatsoever.” The diocese supported caps on attendance, but said “the governor’s new restrictions go way too far, infringe way too much, and have no legitimate basis.” 

But federal courts have generally given government leaders a long leash in their efforts to contain the coronavirus.

“The government is afforded wide latitude in managing the spread of deadly diseases under the Supreme Court’s precedent,” wrote a federal judge in Brooklyn in an initial ruling against the Catholic diocese. 

What would make a difference in those cases is if the city or state enforced the lockdown unfairly, by targeting religious gatherings but not other gatherings. But so far the New York City Sheriff’s office (a small department of 150 that suddenly had to become the COVID-19 regulation enforcer) has enforced the new restrictions against a variety of offenders, including houses of worship, restaurants, and an illegal rave party.

The lockdown comes at a terrible time for local Catholic schools, which so far haven’t had any COVID-19 outbreaks. The shutdown of schools is “what’s most upsetting to us,” said Ed Mechmann, a lawyer and head of the child protection programs for the Archdiocese of New York.

“Brooklyn and we have spent millions of dollars getting our schools into COVID compliance, we’ve had virtually no cases, and now we have no idea when our schools will be open again or if parents will continue to send their kids,” he said in an email. “Plus having to lay off hundreds of employees since there’s no more PPP (thanks, Washington). Our schools are already financially vulnerable, and this is a very dangerous threat to their continued existence.”

Becket Law recently filed another lawsuit on behalf of two Jewish students whose Jewish schools were closed in the red zones despite having no cases. Five days after Becket’s filing, Cuomo removed the red zone restrictions on that particular neighborhood in Far Rockaway, Queens.

Meanwhile, the same Orthodox Jewish groups that fought the measles last year are also trying to stop COVID-19 flare-ups. The Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, which includes nurses working in New York hospitals, held a recent Zoom call to answer community questions about COVID-19, like how to travel safely during Sukkot. As positive case numbers start to come back down in the hot-spot neighborhoods, the question of fair enforcement still hangs in the air. 

This week I learned: 

More about Jacob Kornbluh, the Jewish journalist attacked in his own Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn during protests over Cuomo’s lockdown order. He talked on WNYC about being caught between Orthodox resentment of the lockdown and outsiders’ resentment toward the Orthodox.

“There’s this distrust of the government,” Kornbluh said. “The community has to believe the government is not declaring war on religion. They are not out to get us because they hate us. They actually want to deal with the problem. The fact is, if you look at their long-held record, both Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo have a long-standing relationship with the community. They’ve even gotten criticism from their own party for their standing with the Jewish community on certain issues and their stance on Israel.”

He continued: “I believe that if government understands that there are certain restrictions you cannot impose on the community, especially in the midst of a holiday ... the community will understand that there has to be a collective effort to actually bring down the infection rate.” 

Culture I am consuming: 

Deep Work by Cal Newport. Although the book is oriented toward the goal of professional success, it has helpful guidance for achieving focused work in a distracting world.