Kiryat Yearim successfully kicks coronavirus out

Kiryat Yearim / Photo: Dudi Avitan Kiryat Yearim Local Council

One ultra-Orthodox community near Jerusalem, at first badly hit by Covid-19, has been exemplary in stamping out the virus. "Globes" finds out how they did it.

The media are devoting great attention to infection in Israel's haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities. One such town, however, initially hit hardest of all, has halted the spread of the virus. Kiryat Yearim (Telz-Stone) in the Judean hills west of Jerusalem was initially called the "local coronavirus capital." For almost a week, however, there have been no recorded cases of infection there.

One of the residents was infected by a relative who arrived from France, and then infected several more residents at a Purim party attended by dozens of Kiryat Yearim residents. Within a short time, it was learned that 2,000 of the town's 6,000 residents, one third, had been exposed to the virus, and went into complete isolation, and the number of people infected rose daily.

"We were much stricter than the government's orders"

Kiryat Yearim Local Council head Yitzhak Ravitz (son of late MK Avraham Ravitz) told "Globes" that he attributed the halt in the virus to several severe measures that were far stricter than those ordered by the Ministry of Health. "When isolation is observed with no compromises or cutting corners, it works. We maintain our distance. We took aggressive action, far beyond what the government ordered. For example, I closed down the grocery store almost completely. Anyone going there left a list, or called a special center we opened, and local council workers prepared the delivery. The phone line was open 24 hours a day.

"I didn't want to completely close down the supermarket in order to avoid an atmosphere of absolute depression, but we completely eliminated the possibility of infection in public areas. We closed down the local mikveh (ritual bath), all of the synagogues, and the Mifal Hapayis center, and concentrated maximum effort on persuading the residents. The town rabbi, who was not obligated to go into isolation, did so anyway as a personal example, and issued binding rabbinical rulings that all the requirements had to be obeyed, including the extra strict ones issued by the local council. The public obeyed the instructions completely.

"There were no breaches. We enforced it mainly through explanations, street patrols, and a huge amount of aid to residents. We went down to 150 people in isolation today, compared with 2,000 before. A large proportion of the 30 people originally infected have recovered, and everyone who was hospitalized has been released, thank God. No synagogue was open on the Sabbath. Worshippers formed minyanim in the streets, and some of them prayed and sang together from separate balconies."

"Globes": How do you explain the difference between you and other places with high concentrations of haredim?

Ravitz: "The haredim here are the same population as in Modi'in Illit, Beitar Illit, and Bnei Brak. We succeeded in fulfilling the heavenly commandment, "And you shall take very good care of yourselves." The commander of the Harel regional police station called me to tell me that the orders were being fulfilled better among us than in all of the surrounding communities. What is the secret? We took care to supply all of the residents' needs, and above all food. Besides the small local supermarket, we brought in a businessman, who opened an emergency tent supermarket in a place assigned for this by the local council.

"Approvals, which usually take months, were given in days, and the supermarket began supplying food to all of the residents through a system of deliveries organized by the local council. The residents can go there with restrictions on the distances between the people entering and maximum number of people in the space. We took control of the public space, left no opening for infection, and the public listened to us."

How do you help residents stuck in their homes, most of whom have no Internet or television?

"There are families of 13 here in a 75-square meter apartment. Think about how hard it is to keep them at home. We brought content and action to homes, distributed games at the entrances to homes, drawing books, reading books, and coloring books. We opened a special phone line for people to hear Bible lessons, content for children, stories, and legends, and much more. Distribution takes place on Fridays with complete kits brought to the door of homes. It includes material for all ages, including parents. Incidentally, this includes books and booklets about the coronavirus.

"Besides this, there is a phone line with many extensions for any question and need for the residents, open 24/7, including an emergency line for the Sabbath. A team of volunteers operates it. On the Sabbath of March 21, there were several emergency cases, including a person whose test results arrived, and we used a loudspeaker to tell the residents who had been in contact with him to enter isolation. I also had to speak on the phone on the Sabbath because of the emergency situation."

What do you suggest for other local authorities?

"'Don't compromise. Make the hard and unpopular decisions.' It goes against the basic instinct of elected public officials to appease the voters who elect them. When I was exposed to this, I realized that we had to do everything to save lives; that's the most important thing. This happened with closing down the supermarket, mikveh, and synagogues, even before the Ministry of Health ordered it.

"'Be a step ahead of the Ministry of Health. Find out in advance whether someone is sick, where he or she went, and isolate anyone who was in contact with him or her, even before the Ministry of Health does it. Close the grocery stores to ordinary shopping, and do home deliveries. Ensure a regular supply of food through deliveries. Shopping carts, store shelves, and cash registers were among the major causes of infection. Provide activities for people in isolation and under closure. Pray - a lot.' Had we not taken these measures, who knows where we would be today."

"Anyone who takes the order lightly and infects other people is close to being a deliberate sinner, and the religious law of pursuing a murderer applies to him"

Meanwhile, several weeks after it should have been done, and in opposition to his earlier dubious instruction, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky instructed the public to strictly comply with the government's emergency regulations, and to behave even more stringently. Kanievsky and other rabbis published responsa containing an absolute ban on attending synagogue and places of Torah study, holding prayers in a minyan - even in the open air - a stringency that goes beyond the Ministry Health's rules.

The opinion published states, "According to an order by the authority in Biblical law, anyone who does not observe the rules issued by the Ministry of Health is classified as a rodef (attempted murderer). Everyone has the duty to hand anyone taking the instructions lightly over to the police. If a telephone rings on the Sabbath for someone waiting for answer to a coronavirus test, it should be answered. Someone who does not strictly obey the doctor's instructions should be rebuked."

The opinion goes on to say that someone who takes the orders lightly and infects others is close to being a deliberate sinner, and the law for an attempted murderer applies to him. Rabbi Kanievsky gave his approval for contacting the legal authorities in the case of a person violating the regulations - not a popular act in haredi society - and to leave a telephone active and turned on, even on the Sabbath, for emergency cases.

This religious ruling comes after it was learned that the infection rates in haredi society are much higher than in other population groups, among other things because of irresponsible behavior by a few people in this society. Earlier this week, hundreds of people from a group in Bnei Brak took part in a funeral of one of the group's rabbis, in complete contravention of the rules. The police were unable to disperse them. This comes on top of other violations reported in recent days, including weddings attended by dozens and hundreds of people, without keeping a distance between people, and with dancing in which the participants held hands.

The police stepped up their patrols in haredi neighborhoods over the past few days, and began to issue tickets. In the Beit Israel neighborhood in Jerusalem, a confrontation took place between police and several young haredim after one of them was detained for questioning. Ministry of Finance director general Shai Babad told the Knesset today that the possibility of imposing closure on haredi neighborhoods or communities with a high proportion of infection was being considered.

It is impossible to avoid putting some of the responsibility on Rabbi Kanievsky, who gave instructions three weeks ago to violate the instructions of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education. He ruled then that studies in yeshivot should be continued, while exercising caution. Beyond the direct consequences of this order, it caused part of the haredi population to behave as if the rabbis knew better than the government, and that they were not absolutely obligated to comply with the rigorous instructions.

It must be said that the situation among Sephardic haredim was the complete opposite, and that all the leading rabbis in this sector called for total obedience to the instructions, including the closing down of synagogues. Many Ashekazi haredi rabbis joined this call, citing examples from Brooklyn and haredi areas in the US, which have been hit hard by the epidemic. Up until recent days, however, mass breaches of the instructions could still be seen.

Part of the problem is attributable to poor communications in haredi society, which is largely cut off from the Internet and television, and the question of keeping large families confined within small homes.

Even taking this into consideration, however, the spread of the coronavirus in haredi society constitutes a failure of the entire Ashkenazi haredi leadership. Rabbis and politicians did not take a firm stand with their constituency and demand that they comply with all of the rules with extra stringency. This is particularly noticeable when the minister of health is MK Yaakov Litzman, a Chasid haredi. At the same time, it must be said that in the largest Hassidic groups, including Gur, to which Litzman belongs, the rules were usually observed. Reports and leaks indicate that haredi politicians were engaged in exerting pressure to lighten the restrictions, and in other matters, rather than enforcing those restrictions on their public.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 1, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Kiryat Yearim / Photo: Dudi Avitan Kiryat Yearim Local Council
Kiryat Yearim / Photo: Dudi Avitan Kiryat Yearim Local Council
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