In October, Blima Marcus, a nurse practitioner and ultra-Orthodox resident of Borough Park, Brooklyn, received a call from a close friend. The woman’s teenage son was showing COVID-19 symptoms—a headache, fever, and decreased appetite—after being exposed to a positive case of the virus at a local synagogue where he prayed daily.
“She wanted to know if she should get him tested,” said Marcus, 35, who works in palliative care at an oncology center but also serves in the unofficial role of medical consultant within her Orthodox Jewish community. The teenager had been continuing his regular activities, including attending synagogue. “I advised her to get her son tested immediately and instruct him to strictly quarantine until he receives the results.” Her friend replied incredulously: “ ‘You try keeping a teenage boy home all day.’ ”
“I had nothing more to say,” Marcus told me recently while driving home from work on a rainy Friday afternoon. “It was clear to me that she wasn’t prepared to quarantine.” Was she disappointed in her friend of 25 years, I asked? “No,” said Marcus. “Why should I expect more from her than from the rest of the community?”
The past few months have been tumultuous for the ultra-Orthodox enclaves of New York City, where an uptick in COVID-19 cases led to unwelcome attention from the media, secular New Yorkers, and local officials. Last month, reports of a Nov. 8 wedding in Williamsburg attended by thousands threw the ongoing tensions between insular religious communities and government officials into stark relief. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would slap the Brooklyn synagogue that hosted the event with a $15,000 fine. Nonetheless, authorities failed to stop another similar wedding in the upstate New York Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel shortly thereafter; the nuptials proceeded despite a cease-and-desist order.
The past few months have also been a trying time for Marcus, who is now in the unfortunate position of giving advice that no one wants to hear. She has watched as her neighbors dismiss the virus and publicly defy safety measures intended to contain it. She has fought against the idea that her community has reached “herd immunity,” only to see it gain traction. She lives just blocks away from where Heshy Tischler, a Borough Park resident, ultra-Orthodox radio show host, and COVID-19 denialist, made national headlines in October for rallying his mostly young male followers to burn their masks and rage against de Blasio. Marcus says she felt horror when Tischler targeted Hasidic journalist Jacob Kornbluh for publicly criticizing his community’s unwillingness to follow the same safety precautions she’d been advocating for. She felt even more horror when Tischler’s acolytes physically attacked Kornbluth, pinning him to the ground while chanting “moser”—a derogatory Hebrew term for an informant who betrays his own community.
At the same time, Marcus, who covers her hair with an understated brown wig and, when not in scrubs, covers her elbows, knees, and collarbone, too, understands why New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jews have felt unjustly singled out for rebuke and have therefore chafed at government regulation. Back in April, after a large funeral for a local rabbi in Brooklyn drew thousands into the streets of Williamsburg, de Blasio visited the scene and called out “the Jewish community.” Months later, the mayor apologized for the statement, but many community members—smarting from a second wave of shutdowns announced in early October that disproportionately affected Orthodox-dense ZIP codes—felt the harm had already been done. Gov. Andrew Cuomo insisted that the shutdown measures were not personal, stressing in a press conference that, though the COVID-19 hot spots “overlap with large Orthodox Jewish communities,” shutdown measures apply equally to “every citizen of the state of New York.” But members of the Orthodox community, who were already on edge after a series of violent anti-Semitic incidents in late 2019 (an assault on children in a Williamsburg housing project, a shooter threat at the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights, a fatal attack at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, and the Dec. 29 stabbings at a Hanukkah celebration in suburban Monsey) left them feeling vulnerable and targeted, thought otherwise. From a certain vantage point, you can see why a community on edge would be wary of outsiders, who hadn’t been able or willing to protect them in the past, now swooping in to tell them how to behave in the face of a different threat.
This is not the first time Marcus has found herself caught in the middle of a tense, complicated cultural battle involving medical misinformation and an us-against-them vibe taking hold in her community. I first met Marcus in April 2019, as a measles outbreak raged in Orthodox Brooklyn, culminating in the official declaration of a public health emergency in select Brooklyn ZIP codes and the shuttering of local yeshivas. Marcus had just launched the EMES Initiative—EMES, which stands for engaging in medical education with sensitivity, means truth in Hebrew. When we spoke last year, she was in the midst of editing, printing, and delivering 10,000 copies of a 40-page informational booklet about vaccines to the doorsteps of ultra-Orthodox homes across the five boroughs to combat a similar booklet disseminated by anti-vaxxer groups. She was organizing small informational sessions for ultra-Orthodox women afraid to vaccinate their children, trying to stop a neighborhood “measles party,” and meeting with New York City public health officials and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention members around her dining room table to talk about culturally sensitive ways to reach ultra-Orthodox people.
Back then, Marcus was energized. Today, she seems beat. As the coronavirus ravaged her community, the EMES Initiative escalated its efforts. It’s now grown to include 30 or so Orthodox health care workers. But the challenge they are trying to meet feels nearly insurmountable. “I have nothing left,” Marcus told me on the phone a few weeks ago, as health officials tracked a “slow but steady” rise in positive coronavirus cases across New York City. “I used to be so passionate about helping the community. I used to have the patience to answer the same question for the 80th time, I used to care about helping people make healthy choices. But the work is thankless.”
Ephraim Sherman, a nurse practitioner at New York University hospital and another member of EMES, remembers sitting on the porch of his Crown Heights apartment on March 10, watching his fellow Hasidim dance through the streets in costume. It was the Jewish holiday of Purim, a day of partying and festive communal meals. At that point, New York City had not yet issued lockdown orders. Sherman stayed home from festivities that day because he had come down with a virus, which he now assumes was COVID-19. “In retrospect,” he said, “I was watching a slow-moving bomb explode in front of my eyes.”
In March and April, the coronavirus hit the Hasidic Jewish community in New York with devastating force. On March 17, the White House organized a call with 15 leading Orthodox rabbis in New York City, including prominent Hasidic leaders, to urge the community to shutter key institutions and adhere to social-distancing protocols. By March 19, even before New York’s major hospitals were overwhelmed with critically ill COVID-19 patients, more than 500 cases of the coronavirus had been identified by one urgent care center serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Hasidic media outlets were reporting on the deaths of prominent rabbis and community leaders daily. “We were waking up each day to find out who died overnight,” said Marcus.
Sherman, a 34-year-old father of two, is Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic sect headquartered in Crown Heights. He soon left his regular ambulatory clinic to work around the clock in makeshift COVID-19 crash units at NYU hospital. There, he witnessed death on a scale he had never seen before. His first day on the job, he recalled noticing a body that had been left unattended for hours. “The person had died and no one had a moment to move the body down to the morgue,” he said. “That’s when I understood the gravity of what we were facing.”
Sherman said that nearly everyone in his community knows someone who died from COVID-19 in the spring. “Many believe that their family members died in the hospital because of neglect,” he told me. “It’s easier to accept that your mother was sick and the hospital neglected her, rather than believe that the grandkids came over, gave Bubbe COVID, and then Bubbe died.”
The conditions under which the Hasidic community experienced the first COVID-19 wave created a “perfect storm,” said Nesha Abramson, the director of community health outreach at Vaad Refuah, a Brooklyn-based patient advocacy center that primarily serves the local ultra-Orthodox population. Many Hasidic people died alone. Overwhelmed hospitals failed to communicate well with family members. “For a community with real historical and epigenetic trauma, mistrust of systems external to the community are latent,” Abramson said, referring to the Holocaust.
In Abramson’s eyes, the suffering of the community in March and April contributes to “a current communal dissociation from the possibility that something like this could happen again.” “Folks are shutting themselves off,” said Abramson, who works alongside rabbis to gain community trust and compliance and has volunteered with the EMES Initiative. “For many, the trauma is so intense that there is literally nothing I can say to make them hear me.”
For EMES, spring 2019’s measles outbreak was a kind of harbinger of things to come. Back then, Abramson worked closely with Marcus to battle “overwhelming fear and misinformation” about the MMR vaccine. “As someone who was constantly preaching about the danger of the measles virus, I became a target for misdirected anger,” said Abramson. A fellow parent at her young son’s local yeshiva threatened to sue her for insisting vaccinations be mandatory for all students, she recalled. (Slate reached out to the parent, who did not respond to a request for comment.)
Now, Abramson says, the community’s reaction is far more intense and antagonistic than it was during the measles outbreak.
“People say wild things to me, on the phone, in the grocery store. People accuse me of using Nazi tactics to make people stay isolated in their home,” she said.
A prominent community doctor whom I initially planned to interview for this article eventually declined to talk to me; after publicly decrying his community’s lax response to COVID-19 safety measures for months, he is no longer speaking to the media, a source close to him told me, because the “personal fallout” this doctor has experienced for chastising his fellow community members has been “severe.” (Within the Orthodox community, there are several ways community leaders can quash dissent. One particularly effective method is to threaten a person’s marriage prospects—or the marriage prospects of that person’s children or grandchildren. The threat of poisoned matchmaking prospects, or “shidduchim,” as it is colloquially called, can quickly muzzle those who might otherwise be compelled to speak out on issues from child sexual abuse to COVID-19 safety protocols.)
Sherman, the Chabad-Lubavitch father who has since returned to his local ambulatory practice in Crown Heights, has not faced anything quite as scary. But he says that his efforts to pressure his fellow community members to comply with COVID-19 safety measures are often met with “anger, frustration, and contempt.” “Somehow,” he told me, “I’ve become the threat.”
One catalyst for this anger was the local government’s handling of COVID-related school closures. Dr. Moshe Lazar, a pediatrician with clinics in Borough Park and Midwood, is still deeply frustrated about this. He knows ultra-Orthodox Brooklynites are not blameless; he acknowledges that certain superspreader events at the end of summer and early fall—including a handful of large weddings where many partygoers were unmasked and did not observe social-distancing rules—contributed to the uptick of positive COVID-19. “I can’t argue on the wedding situation,” he told me. “Our community was not ready for it, and we paid dearly.” But he thinks the community’s anger is partly justified because of what happened with the schools.
Lazar worked closely with local yeshiva schools in Brooklyn and Queens to open safely in time for the new school year. But many of the institutions he helped reopen in September were then forced to close by city officials, citing a rise in positive COVID-19 tests in nine New York City ZIP codes, nearly all of which have significant Orthodox Jewish populations.
“The day the city closed down Darchei Torah, they lost,” said Lazar, referring to a prominent boys yeshiva in Queens that the Department of Health shuttered in mid-September after an uptick of positive COVID-19 cases. He said the “mainstream Orthodox yeshivas,” like Darchei Torah and its sister school, Torah Academy for Girls, worked closely over the summer with the Department of Health to safely open schools in the fall. “Social distancing, masks, no lunch in the lunchroom — they complied with all of it,” said Lazar.
He believes that the way de Blasio and Cuomo announced new lockdown measures in October—with last-minute emails to school principals and inconsistent messaging about why the schools had to shutter when others in the city did not—cost city and state officials the trust and goodwill of the Orthodox mainstream. “They steamrolled Jewish schools and made everyone feel like garbage, when we had worked for months to cooperate closely with the DOH,” Lazar said. “To contain a pandemic, the government officials need to test, trace, and contain,” he said. “Not test and then immediately punish the community by shutting down schools.” (In an Oct. 5 press briefing, de Blasio shared that between Sept. 25 and Oct. 5, 1,351 COVID-19 tests conducted in more than 35 schools in the “nine ZIP codes of highest concern” had produced only two positive tests. In an interview with the New York Times, the mayor conceded, “We have seen very little coronavirus activity in our schools.” Despite that acknowledgment, schools in the nine “red zone” ZIP codes were forced to shutter long before the citywide shutdown of public schools in late November.)
Since those lockdowns, several reports in Jewish news outlets have indicated that Orthodox community officials are actively discouraging members from testing their children for COVID-19 in order to avoid further school shutdowns. “Once you punish, it diminishes any incentive to test, which makes tracing and containing the virus that much harder,” said Lazar. The governor and mayor “effectively put a target on the Orthodox communities’ back,” he said. “The narrative no longer [felt] like all New Yorkers versus the pandemic—to many Orthodox Jews, it feels like us versus them.”
That feeling of being targeted plays out in other ways as well. “I’ve been screamed at —‘You people, you Jews,’ ” Dalia Shusterman, a Hasidic mother of four from Crown Heights told me of going out without a mask. “Even when I’m outside and not near anyone, people jump back from me with their hands in the air like they’d seen the plague.” And so, she remains resolute: She will not buy or wear a mask. “If you’re ever the slave to public opinion, you’ll never be happy.”
“It’s a control issue,” another young Hasidic mother who lives in Crown Heights told me.
Nearly one year after Marcus and EMES pivoted from focusing on measles to this deadly new virus, new positive cases of COVID-19 continue to rise across New York City, with a seven-month statewide high of 5,972 recorded last week.
Within the five boroughs, Orthodox-dense “clusters” now account for less of the increase, and the yeshivas are open again, at least for the moment, even as many New York City public schools are not. In Williamsburg, a handful of local Jewish agencies are paying community members to distribute masks several hours per week and hang up posters, some in Yiddish, publicizing safety and social-distancing protocols. But according to Marcus, compliance among her fellow community members is poor, even as positive cases creep back up.
“I love my landsmen, but I will never ever understand them,” she posted on Facebook two weeks ago, after a young mother in her community died from COVID-19 in late November. Even as the community reeled from the enormity of the loss, Marcus says she continues to face ridicule for wearing a mask.
The last time we talked, Marcus was weary but still at it. She is in touch with other members of the EMES task force every day, exchanging WhatsApp messages about lockdown updates and orchestrating Yiddish robocalls to encourage masks. She has reached out to certain city health officials who were particularly helpful during the measles crisis, people who had been proactive in asking for her thoughts on culturally sensitive ways to approach the ultra-Orthodox community. This time around, though, she says those same officials have been largely unresponsive to her messages. (In a September COVID-19 briefing, de Blasio claimed outreach to the Orthodox community has been “nonstop.” “I would be curious to know who exactly they are in touch with,” said Marcus, an edge to her voice.)
On the horizon is what Marcus and her EMES colleagues know will be the formidable challenge of introducing a vaccine to a wary community. Early in the coronavirus crisis, Marcus remembers thinking that the virus might “actually be the reality that anti-vaxxers need.” Maybe, just maybe, she thought, the pandemic might finally “drive home the risks of what happens when we don’t vaccinate.” But she never anticipated the way mistrust and misinformation would overtake her neighbors. “I should have seen it coming,” she said.
“During the measles crisis, we fought to get people to take a well-researched vaccine that has been around for decades,” said Abramson. “Now we’re going to expect folks to accept a new vaccine on the back of this sort of community trauma?” While news of a potential COVID-19 vaccine has been a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape for many of us, Abramson said the headlines made her feel “more sad and scared than I’ve ever been throughout corona.”
As winter encroaches, Marcus and EMES are fighting several battles at once. They want more financial support from the city and state to fight misinformation. They want more support from leaders within their own community. They desperately want to find a way to convince the men and women they pray with, whose children they send their own children to school with, to take COVID seriously, and not take a guy like Heshy Tischler seriously at all. But with the trauma of the first surge, the city’s bungled response, the political climate, and an entrenched distrust of secular restrictions, many of the people they are trying to influence now feel beyond their reach.
“I can’t go on living in fear,” a young Orthodox woman who lost her father-in-law to COVID in March recently told me, explaining that she tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies and therefore thinks she is inoculated against reinfection. She is not interested in wearing a mask or taking other precautions, and she believes that God, whom Jews refer to as “Hashem,” has a plan. “Not everything is in our control,” she said. “Hashem has something to do with it.”
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