Amid NYC protests, Orthodox Jews urge new virus-era dialogue

After months of grappling with a pandemic that struck New York's Orthodox Jewish communities and resulted in changes to holidays, mourning, and prayers, new boundaries for worship and other activities in some areas are creating tension in some Brooklyn neighborhoods.
New restrictions in places where coronavirus cases are increasing, including several Orthodox areas, sparked street protests Tuesday evening. Videos posted on social media showed hundreds of Orthodox men gathering in the streets of Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood, lighting fires in some cases with their masks burning, and a crowd assaulting a man who was filming the riot. On Wednesday evening, many men returned to the streets while the police watched.
When the protests hit the headlines and the Orthodox group Agudath Israel cited a lawsuit in federal court Thursday to try to stop the coercion, some Orthodox Jews in New York urged officials and fellow believers to find a way to better communicate.
“We need partnership. We need government and community collaboration to find an approach to combating the virus that can "respect" the culture of belief, said Rabbi Abe Friedman, an Orthodox leader and law enforcement chaplain in Brooklyn.
Friedman said he hoped the government would understand that Orthodox Jews are not “carelessly gathering for the pandemic” but are returning to cherished customs of common prayer, celebration and mourning.
"We gather together, we pray together, and that's why social distancing is sometimes even more difficult and has a greater impact," Friedman praised the parishioners who follow the public health guidelines.
Orthodox Jews in the US don't have a single faith-based government structure, but leaders from six major groups representing different sectors signed a unified declaration in March calling on their believers to observe the rules of social distancing.
According to many Orthodox Jews in New York, whose areas were hit hard and early by the pandemic, city and state officials fueled tensions over their handling of restrictions on places of worship and schools in hotspots. Not only do some Orthodox Jews feel honored as a religious community, but they also cannot receive adequate and reliable guidance on public health because they often rarely have access to television and the Internet. At the same time, they have to deal with restrictions on belief practices that are based on social engagement and have supported them for generations.
The surge in virus cases and the resulting restrictions came soon after the Jews celebrated some of the holiest days on their calendar. After this week's Sukkot holiday, the Simchat Torah promises to continue testing the Orthodox communities' ability to assemble safely over the weekend. The lawsuit cited by Agudath Israel alleges that the state's new borders "make it impossible for Orthodox Jews to fulfill both their religious obligations and order" and impose restrictions.
Simchat Torah is usually a joyful occasion when worshipers often dance, hold, and kiss Torah scrolls - risky behaviors during a pandemic. Orthodox practices also include multiple daily group prayers, which many had to change this spring as the virus spread.
Another essential aspect of Judaism, however, has been found to be helpful in promoting masks and social distancing: the Torah's emphasis on the value of human life to the extent that violation of other principles is permissible if it is the saving of life means. In announcing a partnership with Agudath Israel to distribute 400,000 masks, the Boro Park Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn reminded members that "the Torah obliges us to stay safe."
"Only by working with communities - treating them as partners, not problems - can the city achieve the desired results," wrote Yair Rosenberg, lead author at Tablet Magazine, in a column on Thursday on how to prevent an "impending" situation Coronavirus crisis in Hasidic Brooklyn. “Rosenberg's father is a rabbi in a modern Orthodox synagogue in one of the urban areas subject to the new restrictions.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday the city had responded impartially to mass gatherings and violations of pandemic-related rules.
"This is all about the data and the science, and we apply it equally to all communities with respect and understanding," de Blasio told reporters.
In a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, Orthodox Jews made up 10% of the total Jewish population in the United States. There is similar friction in Israel regarding the behavior of the ultra-Orthodox in the public health field, who make up about 10% of that country's population but account for more than a third of coronavirus cases.
As the debate deepened in New York's Orthodox neighborhoods, more than 400 rabbis and other leaders from various branches of Judaism published a letter describing the "data-driven, geographic-based efforts of the city and state to contain the spread of COVID- 19 "supported.
The letter, published by the New York Jewish Agenda, calls for the dissemination of public health guidelines in a manner that is "both culturally appropriate and does not encourage anti-Semitism."
"But to be clear," it said, "calling for masking and social distancing for all gatherings, including religious gatherings, is not anti-Semitism."
Orthodox Jews were not alone in contesting the state's new borders for personal worship in certain areas. A lawsuit filed Thursday by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn alleged that the restrictions would force more than two dozen churches to close "even though those churches have been reopening without it for months in strict accordance with all medical and government guidelines incidents related to COVID occurred. ”
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Associate press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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Associated Press religion coverage is supported by the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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