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Ultra-Orthodox Enclave in Israel Opens to Outsiders to Fight a Virus


BNEI BRAK, Israel — By the time the mayor of Bnei Brak grasped the deadly seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, his city had already become Israel’s biggest center of contagion.

An ultra-Orthodox enclave in the shadow of Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak had one in seven of Israel’s cases, and as many as a third of its 210,000 residents were expected to get sick.

The very customs that have protected its venerable traditions from change — strict limits on modern technology, an aversion to secular media, a deep suspicion of state institutions — had deafened Bnei Brak’s residents to urgent public health warnings. Densely packed with sprawling families in shoe-box apartments whose lives revolved around shoulder-to-shoulder worship and study, it was fertile ground for the rapid spread of Covid-19.

In desperation, Mayor Avraham Rubinstein reached outside his community for help from people the ultra-Orthodox have long seen as a threat to their way of life: the army.

Two weeks later, Bnei Brak still holds Israel’s biggest concentration of known virus cases, but the crisis is rapidly coming under control. The rate of new infections has been cut by more than half, the number tested per week has tripled, and only 2,109 residents have tested positive. Synagogues and yeshivas are locked, the streets nearly empty. The sounds of prayer can still be heard at regular intervals, but from balconies and rooftops.

The story of Bnei Brak’s rapid reversal is not just one of coolheaded military leadership under a different kind of enemy fire, but also of the uneasy bridging of one of Israel’s most acrimonious divides: between a cloistered community that treats outsiders as hostile and the army as a particular threat, fearing its reputation as a secular melting pot, and Israelis who view the ultra-Orthodox as backward and a burden, in part because most refuse military service.

“It’s the fusion between the other parts of Israel and the Orthodox Jewish community,” said Maj. Gen. Ronny Numa, a reservist and the former head of Israel’s Central Command, who got a late-night call from Mr. Rubinstein two weeks ago and took charge at City Hall the next morning.

Bnei Brak’s rabbis were finally waking up to the lethality of the virus — their own newspapers were printing the death notices of dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York, New Jersey and London — when Mr. Rubinstein, whose wife had contracted the virus, reached out.

Mr. Numa, 53, said he tried to project calm and rationalism amid overheated emotions. He enlisted two fellow reservists. Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, formerly the top military spokesman, began polling residents to see how well they understood the situation. Col. Avi Cohen, who specialized in electronic warfare, installed a state-of-the-art data-visualization system to map the sick, the elderly, yeshivas, synagogues and layers of other information on big-screen TVs, turning an empty City Hall office into a virus war room.

Together, they quickly realized that Israel’s national strategy for dealing with the virus would not work in Bnei Brak.

“Elsewhere, the sick can stay in a room of their own, and healthy relatives can bring them what they need,” Mr. Manelis said. “Here, they are all living together. You can’t separate the sick.”

To keep infected residents from leaving their homes, Mr. Numa persuaded the army to send two brigades of active-duty soldiers, who, along with hundreds of volunteers, began delivering groceries, cooked meals, medicine and toys to quarantined homes.

On Monday at the municipal welfare building, soldiers helped volunteers load 2,800 prepared meals into ambulances, whose crews raced around town delivering them to needy families in lockdown.

At a hastily built test site in a commercial parking lot, ambulances and private cars packed with families experiencing virus symptoms steadily rolled up to hazmat-suited medical workers wielding swabs.

The effort, supported by public funds and donations, is costly. The first two weeks of meals alone cost more than $8 million. But the logistics proved less challenging than getting the message out in a city where news travels at the speed of print.

Mr. Manelis sent out a car with a loudspeaker blaring health warnings and placed advertisements in ultra-Orthodox newspapers. Residents in hundreds of buildings were recruited to knock on doors, hand out brochures and gather information about who was sick or needed help. A call center was set up to handle an avalanche of questions and requests. A robocall system normally used for political campaigns fired off 40,000 calls a day.

And a popular ultra-Orthodox children’s book author, Chaim Walder, agreed to record lengthy morale-boosting messages for parents (“Be strong for our people and for God,” he says in one) and for children (“Keep busy, and don’t get bored”).

Mr. Numa and his comrades said they approached their mission with great humility, given their ignorance of the ultra-Orthodox way of life, and with empathy for how Bnei Brak’s insularity had turned into a millstone.

Israelis were blaming the ultra-Orthodox for flouting social-distancing orders by continuing to pray and study in groups and hold large weddings. Government officials blockaded entire communities, starting with Bnei Brak.

The town next to Bnei Brak, upscale Ramat Gan, erected fences along its border last week. (They were ordered removed a day later.)

“They started to feel that everyone hates them,” Mr. Manelis said.

Contrary to the public perception that the ultra-Orthodox were disobeying public health orders, Mr. Numa said, Bnei Brak’s residents simply had not heard those orders. “Most of them didn’t know the risks,” he said. “They didn’t know what to do.”

Mr. Manelis, 41, said he was also worried about the opinions of non-Jews. Given the visibility of ultra-Orthodox victims of the virus in New York and New Jersey, he said, he was moved to volunteer in part by a desire to avert a new impetus for anti-Semitism. “My fear is that what happened in Bnei Brak and in Brooklyn could end with hatred of Jews all over the world,” he said.

While Mr. Numa and his team tried to adapt to local sensitivities, the local rabbis adapted, too, digging up Talmudic precedents to justify expedient tweaks to Jewish practice, and sometimes innovating on the fly.

The onset of Passover last Wednesday, for example, meant the ritual burning of “chometz,” year-round food considered tainted by leavening. Normally, residents gather around shared sidewalk fires. This year, each apartment building was given a big yellow bag to collect residents’ chometz, sanitation crews took the bags to the town dump and a few rabbis presided over the ritual incineration.

It’s preferable to perform the ritual oneself, the city’s chief rabbi, Isaac Landa, said. “But when there’s no alternative, you’ll settle.”

Obtaining cooperation also required persuasion, Mr. Manelis said.

A push to move sick families to a special quarantine hotel won people over, he said, only when they were shown photos of what could await them: group prayer, group Torah study for children, kosher food, even hora dancing in the hotel’s backyard. Social distancing is unnecessary, he said, when “they’re all sick.”

It is not lost on many residents that their failure to have gotten the memo about social distancing attests to a longstanding communication problem between the ultra-Orthodox and the central government in Jerusalem. Some suggested that the government had erred by relying too heavily on ultra-Orthodox politicians as a conduit of vital information.

But Rabbi Landa, who said he was not about to abandon resistance to what he described as mass media’s pernicious influence, said he and other leaders did need to take responsibility for spreading the word to residents whose avoidance of the media could put them in jeopardy.

“We have to inform our public in a way that it knows what to do and how to respond,” he said. “I’m going to learn from the situation. We will not wait to realize that our public is unaware of an immediate threat to it.”

Mayor Rubinstein now makes a point of noting how empty the streets are to argue that his constituents, once informed, behaved. “What I’m proudest of is the compliance and obedience of our residents,” he said.

Nowhere in Israeli society have tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the broader public been more heated than over the exemption from military service afforded to Jews who devote themselves to religious study. It has spurred secular politicians to portray the ultra-Orthodox as a financial burden, while the ultra-Orthodox have demonized the army as a nefarious, antireligious melting pot.

But during the past two weeks, Bnei Brak residents have had a rare chance to interact with soldiers up close, and they appear to be impressed.

“Suddenly, one day, there are all these military vehicles, they’re going to the elderly and people with special needs,” said Avshalom Amar, 48. “Seeing this will be engraved on my heart. It’s not just that they’re watching the borders, they’re also coming to help us in this crisis.”

Capt. Oriel Bibi, a commander of paratroopers-in-training, said children keep smiling and pointing at him, shouting, “Soldier, soldier!” while adults offer him candy. “It’s been so heartwarming, positive and friendly,” he said. “And obviously I’m something that’s not normal to this neighborhood.”

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Bnei Brak’s adjustment to the virus is how residents hit upon a way to worship together even while apart, from their rooftops and balconies.

“It’s a new form of prayer,” Rabbi Landa said. “The acoustics are wonderful, and you can hear it through the city,” he added. “And together, we’re all hoping that God will hear our prayers and bring health.”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.


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