In New York’s Sickest County, Hasidic Jews Feel The Extra Scrutiny

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 05: Orthodox Jewish men move a wooden casket from a hearse at a funeral home in the Borough Park neighborhood which has seen an upsurge of (COVID-19) patients during the pandemic on April 05, 202... NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 05: Orthodox Jewish men move a wooden casket from a hearse at a funeral home in the Borough Park neighborhood which has seen an upsurge of (COVID-19) patients during the pandemic on April 05, 2020 in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City. Hospitals in New York City, which has been especially hard hit by the coronavirus, are facing shortages of beds, ventilators and protective equipment for medical staff. Currently, over 122,000 New Yorkers have tested positive for coronavirus. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) MORE LESS

Josef Nuemann spent his 72nd birthday in a coma

On March 29, the great grandfather finally succumbed to injuries he’d sustained three months earlier, when a machete-wielding man attacked him and others during a Hanukkah party in the small, heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey, New York. 

In Monsey and neighboring Spring Valley, which are known for their thriving community of Hasidic Jews, the news added to an ongoing tragedy. The towns are at the epicenter of Rockland County’s coronavirus outbreak. And the county, with 6,400 cases as of Wednesday, is sicker per capita than anywhere in New York.

“There are too many losses, it’s unreal,” said Devora Presser, who lives two blocks from the rabbi’s home where the attack occurred. “It seems like one after the next.” 

“There came a point when I told my family, I’m going to take a detox from the news,” she added. “Whatever I’m meant to hear, I’ll hear.”

News photographs from Nuemann’s burial the next day showed dozens of mourners, most not wearing masks, and some closely crowded together as they shoveled dirt onto his casket. 

The burial was one of several events in recent weeks, in Rockland County and elsewhere around New York, that were documented extensively in Facebook groups that serve as forums for county news, gossip and, often, religious intolerance.

Political and religious leaders in the orthodox Jewish community have presented a unified voice for weeks: Stay home.

When the famed Brooklyn Rabbi Yaakov Perlow died Tuesday due to complications from COVID-19, his children made clear that Perlow’s burial would be closed to the public — mourners were invited to pray via conference call.

And, instead of a massive bonfire for leavened bread, as is often held at the onset of the Spring Passover holiday, observant Jews in Rockland and elsewhere are symbolically flushing the breadcrumbs down the toilet. 

But those suspicious of the religious community’s footprint in Rockland have painted with a broad brush. Pete Bradley, a former councilman in neighboring Clarkestown, posted a picture of Nuemann’s burial, saying attendees had “decided to pile on top of one another” rather than social distancing. 

“These communities have forever proven themselves untrustworthy when it comes to following American laws,” he wrote on Facebook. “They should be confined for their safety as well as the rest of the Rockland County public!”

On Tuesday, a part-time police officer in nearby Tuxedo, New York left the force after writing on Facebook, referring to the heavily orthodox village Kiryas Joel: “Drop a daisy cutter right on KJ!”

At an autoshop in the area, a Hasidic man was denied service when he showed up for an appointment. Online afterward, the shop justified its decision by posting an article about a local rabbi who’d been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Ed Day, the Rockland county executive, has for days called for a “containment zone” in the town of Ramapo — which contains Monsey and Spring Valley within its borders — akin to the one that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted early on in New Rochelle. (A spokesperson for Cuomo told The Journal News on Sunday that such an area would actually be less restrictive than the current statewide rules.)

But the Hasidic community has a fraught relationship with the Republican county executive: In 2017, a now-infamous campaign ad from the Rockland County Republican Party slammed “overdevelopment” from the Hasidic Jewish community and referred to the Hasidic County Legislator Aron Wieder’s supporters as a “Ramapo Bloc” that was “plotting a takeover” of the county. 

“IF THEY WIN. WE LOSE,” the ad blared. “TAKE BACK CONTROL.” 

Day called for the ad to be taken down after a storm of criticism. But he said at the time that “the content of the video is factual.”

Now, orthodox Jews in Day’s proposed containment zone see scapegoating for the COVID-19 crisis gripping the county.

“If Ed Day’s intention was the safety and well-being of the county, he would have been more obsessed with golfing than he is with funerals,” said Yossi Gestetner, the outspoken co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council and a resident of the area. (Golf courses are still open in New York.)

And yet, even Gestetner, and several other Hasidic Jews who spoke to TPM In recent days, acknowledged a small fraction of the orthodox community that continue to attend in-person religious services, burials and other events in close quarters despite the risk of spreading the coronavirus. 

Purim, the festive early March holiday marked by gift giving and public partying, is seen by many in the area as a likely cause for the spike in cases that followed.

“It is true that the way some of these sects are, they’re so close-knit they don’t have TV, they don’t have radio, they don’t read newspapers,” said Steve Gold, co-president of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County. 

“Here and there you find a levayah [burial service] that’s overdone,” said Rabbi Moshe Schwab, the principal of Yeshiva Degel HaTorah, adding: “Unfortunately, you have some stupid people also. We have some foolish people in our community, as well.” 

Devora Presser’s mother, Lonna Ralbag, recalled a saying from her father, a rabbi and medical doctor: “The Torah is perfect, but people are not.”

“People are going to do what they want to do, they’re going to talk it into themselves,” she said. “They’re not following Torah, they’re interpreting it themselves.” 

But the vast majority of Jewish families in Rockland County, observant and not, have listened to health authorities, doing the previously unthinkable and skipping in-person services. 

Praying at home is vastly different than in a group, Schwab observed. 

“Half of our prayers are missing,” he said. “It’s not the same flavor.”

But a pandemic has inspired new traditions, as well: Presser and Ralbag described the scene in their neighborhood, where a local rabbi has begun praying from his porch on Friday nights. Those within earshot eventually join in. 

“You hear one man, then another then another,” Ralbag said. “The sound carries, because it’s not one person.”

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