Politics

The Messy Battle Over COVID Restrictions in Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn

An Orthodox reporter on being attacked by his own community, and how the city screwed up.

Heshy Tischler on the street, speaking to reporters holding out microphones and video cameras.
Orthodox Jewish activist Heshy Tischler speaks to the media on Thursday as protesters demonstrate in Manhattan against the closing of some schools and businesses in Jewish neighborhoods due to a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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You may have seen these videos out of Brooklyn and wondered what to make of them.

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They were shot recently in the center of one of New York City’s new “red zones”—places where the coronavirus has been spreading rapidly. In them, young Orthodox Jewish men and boys fill the streets, wearing traditional hats. Some are honking car horns. Others are waving Trump banners. The scene feels like a party, but with a dark edge. There’s one video of a few men forming a circle and dancing. But another shows men lighting a fire in the middle of the street and burning masks. The protests in Borough Park started because some residents were opposed to new state-imposed coronavirus restrictions. As COVID rates crept up in the insular Hasidic community this fall, the mayor and then the governor decided on strict measures to stop the spread in the so-called red zones. Schools were shut down. So were businesses. 

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Jacob Kornbluh is a reporter for Jewish Insider who lives a few blocks from where these videos were shot. He’s been a staunch defender of masks and social distancing. He ended up in one of these videos when the crowd turned on him.

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They back him up against a brick wall, spit on him, kick him, and call him a “moyser”—a snitch. One reporter who was watching the scene said Kornbluh was lucky to be alive when it was all over. “We have never seen scenes like that—burning of masks, stopping traffic, engaging in violence. This is not what the community really is,” Kornbluh said. How did things get to this point? I spoke with Kornbluh on Monday’s episode of What Next about how some community members turned on COVID-19 precautions, where the city failed, and why a charismatic local political figure is fanning the flames. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Early on in the pandemic, the Orthodox Jewish community was hit especially hard. Hundreds of people died or were hospitalized. And when the initial lockdowns went into place in the spring, people largely obeyed the rules, right?

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Jacob Kornbluh: People saw the amount of fatalities. People saw that a lot of members of the community were dying. It was devastating. People were in a state of shock. In this community, you actually know each other, because we live together, because we grow up together. Everybody has a family member who was sick. Everybody had somebody who knew somebody else whose grandfather or grandmother passed away or father or mother. And therefore, it was actually a collective understanding that this is very serious.

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But as the weather got warmer, and the city and the community seemed to recover, people retreated to their political corners. For some in the Orthodox Jewish community, that meant listening and following the rhetoric coming out of the White House.

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In the Orthodox community, an overwhelming majority supports Trump and follows his guidance, and therefore, there was a lax in people wearing masks and keeping social distance. But it was also the view that the coronavirus has moved on and also it’s OK if you get sick, because the more people who get sick, you are basically immune. That drove people to actually resume daily lifestyle, resume services, weddings.

One of the strongest voices advocating for a return to normal life was a man named Heshy Tischler, a conservative radio host who happens to be running for City Council. It seems to me that as the lockdowns got more draining, Heshy Tischler emerged and seemed to almost sense an opportunity. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?

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Absolutely. He ran for City Council in 2017. He wanted to run for State Assembly in 2018. He reemerged when he saw community leaders who did not serve as a voice to those who are frustrated with the lockdown restrictions.

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I saw this video that he made where he gets bolt cutters to open a playground and children rush in. It’s really dramatic.

He took the initiative of trying to be the guy who’s going to save the community from Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo’s rule. And at some point, the lawmakers representing the community had to join him because they were seeing how popular he’s become.

I feel like we should say out loud that Heshy Tischler is not a faith leader, but he is part of the Orthodox community. And so I wonder how faith leaders see him.

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Well, he’s charismatic. He’s very loud-voiced, and people follow him, which actually motivates him to engage in even further disobedience. He was basically the savior. He was the guy who confronted elected officials. He gained a following. And it wasn’t necessarily noticed until he drew attention to the community by his violent acts.

I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you noticed his rise, because it seems like you have had a fairly personal relationship with him, like you could WhatsApp him if you wanted to?

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I didn’t have a personal relationship. I just knew him. And because I was a member of the media within the community, I actually know all the players and I actually have them all on speed dial. When we used to meet each other on the street, we used to greet each other and talk and engage about politics. Here and there, I used to chat with him, exchange text messages on WhatsApp. Because he published all these videos on his status every day, I was basically sometimes commenting on the rhetoric that he engaged in, telling him to tone it down.

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When the city department of health announced that COVID rates were beginning to rise in Orthodox neighborhoods, Tischler said the authorities were singling Jewish people out and called the scientists liars. 

The community felt they were singled out. But it was also then that Tischler said, You know what? Here they come again. He basically seized the opportunity to prove himself once again that he is out there to save the community from de Blasio and his officials.

I wonder if we can talk about why the Orthodox community may have been particularly upset as cases begin to rise in the fall, because I think a lot of people all over the country have felt hemmed in by coronavirus restrictions. But the fall is traditionally the holiest of times for the Jewish community. Was that part of the rising frustration?

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Absolutely. It took the government about four weeks to inform the community that there was an uptick in cases, which is unfortunate, because they actually had a period of two or three months to educate the community about the virus.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that the government should’ve seen this coming. And if it acted faster, they might not have run into the High Holy Days, when they were more likely to have conflict.

I also believe that if they acted earlier, maybe we wouldn’t have seen this uptick. I’m not saying that it’s the sole responsibility of the government to make sure that people are not getting sick. Obviously, it’s the collective responsibility of every individual. But I believe that the community only became aware the first time about this in a press conference where de Blasio spoke to members of the media, not to the members of the community. The community felt they’re being singled out by de Blasio and Cuomo using the term ultra-Orthodox Jews, when it’s a pretty diverse neighborhood.

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I can really understand why the community reached a boiling point, given everything you’ve just said. The administration doesn’t look great. Certainly someone like Heshy Tischler was able to kind of exacerbate that and fan those flames. And then, of course, we get to the night where you were attacked.

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This is not what the community is. We are not at war with the government or against coronavirus restrictions, because our objective is to save lives. And it’s not fair for those people in the community who were actually frustrated at the imposition of certain limits and restrictions that they are being represented by somebody who engages in violence.

I read that you messaged him that what he’s doing was a desecration of God’s name.

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Correct.

What did he say to you?

That’s what led him to say: You are next. I’ll bring you down. You’re a rat. I tweeted at the time that this could bring violence. I just didn’t know that it would be so severe.

When I look at the videos from when you are attacked, I think a lot of people would be struck by the sight of all these young Orthodox men carrying Trump flags, because it’s not the cliché of a Trump supporter. And you’ve said that Trump is very popular in the Orthodox community. I’m wondering if you can explain how Trumpism connects with this insular religious group.

I think the fact that there’s a distrust in secular authorities, that there’s distrust in the media at large, that Trump represents that. He doesn’t trust his own government. He attacks the media. So they feel that he actually represents them and is a voice for them. But also traditionally, most members in the community vote on a national level for Republicans. They felt that this was also a political issue, that whatever Trump says is holy, whatever Trump says is the fact. And those experts who were trying to disagree with him are actually trying to harm us. I think there was also that aspect of him gaining a traditional following where people do not really care what the norm is. They can engage in any sort of character assassination just because it’s OK in today’s political world. That’s what led people to send hate mail against me, to call me a snitch. It’s now OK to spread rumors about a person and actually in the end attack him.

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So you think Trumpism has created a space that put someone like you at much greater risk?

Absolutely. Watching from my apartment, seeing Trump flags in a protest against me and the chants being said—it wasn’t a scene that I wanted to see, but it was also people hijacking that message and trying to bring everything together. We are weeks away from an election, and Trump is treated as a superhero within the community. I think everything combined with the lead of Tischler is why these scenes would come to light.

Heshy Tischler was arrested a few days after you were attacked. That same night, a crowd of his followers surrounded your apartment, daring you to come out. We’ve mentioned that Heshy Tischler is running for City Council. Does he have a chance?

Again, we didn’t know if Trump had a chance. Because he’s tapping into a certain frustration and anger within the community against the establishment, the fear is that by doing this he’s gaining a large following. People are believing what he’s saying and are following him. Whatever he’s saying is holy, whatever he’s saying is what is really happening. And they’re not getting the other side. But I do believe that it is the responsibility of community leaders, of responsible people, to actually stand up and say he does not represent us. This is not the way we look at this serious situation. And we do not support him, and we will not give him a voice to actually become our representative. It is a responsibility of our elected officials, of our community leaders, to actually speak out, especially when a member of their own community was unsafe in his neighborhood.

It sounds like you don’t think your community leaders have done enough.

Just look at what happened. Look at who is being portrayed as a hero and who is being portrayed as evil, as a rat, as a snitch.

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