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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)

Metro Minute

Targeting places of faith?

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

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. 

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AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

A New York City Police Department officer work a crime scene. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Metro Minute

Death on the streets and on the screen

Murder and cancer deaths are real. So is resurrection

A New York moment: Late last week I was on a corner in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where a man had just been shot and killed. Someone had washed the man’s trail of blood off the sidewalk. The family wept, while neighbors came by to light candles and offer condolences to the man’s mother. She sat stricken on a beat-up office chair on the sidewalk next to the candles. Police sat in a patrol car on the corner, keeping a distance. One man came by, bent over with anger and grief, and muttered, “Someone will have to answer for this.” 

Neighborhood pastors and others urged the man to think about how a revenge shooting, in addition to being wrong, might hit a bystander, like a child. The spike in New York City’s shootings, which mirrors other cities around the country (including Republican-run ones like Tulsa, Okla.), appears to be partly gang-driven. Shootings beget retaliatory shootings. 

I thought about the man’s comment over the weekend, as the news came in about another death, that of actor Chadwick Boseman, who embodied the royal dignity of King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther. Boseman died from colon cancer at age 43. The man killed in Brooklyn was 41. 

Someone has to answer for the deaths of a man who died too young from colon cancer and a man who died violently, whatever his backstory was, because death is wrong. At the site of the Brooklyn shooting, local pastor Charles Galbreath said: “We’re here to declare that this is not normal … that we all have worth and value … that our young people are kings and queens.” He prayed for young people to know “who they are and Whose they are.” 

Regardless of the circumstances of the homicide—police said it was gang-related—it brought pain even to people unconnected with this man. I was walking the block with other Brooklyn mothers who had lost sons to gun violence. After they bear-hugged the mother of this most recent victim, one of them, Pamela Hight, was so overwhelmed she walked away and had to stop in the street and bend over to catch her breath. 

“Why, every time I hug a mother, I feel the pain?” said Hight, who lost two sons to violence. “That’s a feeling you don’t want to feel.” Without knowing the details of this man or his story, the moms could feel the wrongness of it.

After Boseman’s death, people widely shared a video on social media of him on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where Black Panther fans talked about what the superhero meant to them, and then Boseman would step out from behind a curtain to surprise them and give them a hug. I think part of the power of that video, after Boseman’s death, is the hint of resurrection there. People thought they were just talking to a poster, and then: Look! The real, live King T’Challa is right there, stepping from behind a curtain. 

Only Jesus provides us both with someone who will “answer for” deaths, violent or otherwise, and with resurrection life. The dark things of the world are not all they appear to be. So as we weep and long for better things, we also can know that Christ will surprise us with justice, and he will surprise us with resurrection. And those in Christ will one day step through that curtain, surprised by joy. 

This week I learned: The New York Police Department has 37 full-time scuba divers who conduct rescues and search for evidence and bodies in the waters surrounding New York City. Apartment-bound New Yorkers, including myself, can sometimes forget that they live on an island.  

Culture I am consuming: Lenox Hill, a new documentary series from Netflix about a hospital in Manhattan. Having done reporting in hospitals and having visited this hospital recently, I found it to be a very realistic portrayal of the daily chaos and drama that doctors live through. There’s some cursing, but otherwise, it’s a series I would highly recommend, with a rare fly-on-the-wall look inside operating rooms, emergency rooms, and patients’ bedsides.

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Jamison Galt (right) leads a church service before the coronavirus. (Handout)

Metro Minute

How to run a funeral in a pandemic

A Brooklyn pastor says trying to help grieving congregants in the middle of the pandemic is an excruciating experience

A New York moment: 

Jamison Galt is the pastor of Resurrection Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, and in late March he heard a parishioner’s dad had COVID-19. He and the church member, Jeremy Caliz, prayed and went over all the potential scenarios. Galt was frustrated that he couldn’t go to the hospital or to Caliz’s house to support him.

“The whole experience is kind of anti-good news,” he said. “At first it was: I have to distance myself from my neighbor out of fear of them. And then the next thing is: The creation is not good, I can’t touch these good things, because it might have [the] virus on them. I might myself be a weapon, my body has become weaponized.”

Caliz’s father died in early April (see my story about it). 

Information on funerals and dealing with death during the pandemic was “not info anyone had prepared,” said Galt. New York is only allowing in-person funerals of fewer than 10 people at a graveside, and the various systems for handling remains were so backed up that Caliz couldn’t arrange a burial in the near future. Caliz and Galt planned a virtual funeral.

“Going through this entire crisis in New York City as a pastor has been excruciating—as it has been for everybody—but excruciating in the manner in which you’re unable to do anything that you’re trained to do,” said Galt. “I ask myself every morning, what does love require, and what am I actually able to do today?”

Galt had to learn to use Google Meet for the funeral. Normally after a death he would sit with someone and cry, not saying much. But as a pastor in the pandemic, all he has are phone calls. So he has to talk.

Galt led the funeral service from an empty apartment above his own, since his wife was working and their four kids were running around. At least twice during the service, audience members accidentally took over the screen on Zoom by sharing their own screens.

“You’re working up the preacher-ly energy, and it’s like, ‘So and so has taken over your screen,’” he said. Tech problems were a small factor in the difficulty that not being able to “come together and grieve properly” presented.

Another pandemic challenge for Galt: a church birth. Some Resurrection parishioners had long struggled with infertility, and after years of prayer they had a baby during the height of the pandemic. Galt couldn’t go to the hospital or see them. They Facetimed him to tell him that they named the baby after him.

This week I learned: 

After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced drive-in theaters could operate statewide, one diner in Queens turned its parking lot into a drive-in theater. Its initial showings sold out, and it appears this is now the hottest ticket in town. 

A court case you might not know about:

A federal judge ordered the New York Democratic Party to un-cancel the state’s Democratic primary set for June 23. The judge said the party’s cancellation of the primary was “unconstitutional,” even with coronavirus concerns.

Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a New York resident, brought the lawsuit, which former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined as well. Though Joe Biden is the sole primary candidate, the vote could have apportioned delegates to other candidates that would influence the party platform. 

Culture I am consuming:

A Hidden Life, another masterpiece from writer/director Terrence Malick, which tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian who refused to swear loyalty to Adolf Hitler in World War II. 

I didn’t realize until seeing the film that the title comes from one of my favorite quotes from my favorite novel, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Eliot concludes the book: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 

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