My mother is a Hasidic woman with 12 children, close to a hundred grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. Passover 2020 will be the first time she will recite the Ma Nishtana — the four questions of the Haggadah, traditionally asked by the youngest child at the table — herself. She will serve her incomparable chicken soup and egg noodles, fermented borscht with warm potatoes, and falsche fish made of a mixture of ground chicken and turkey only to my father. While the coronavirus sweeps through the world, her dining-room table that seats 12 and extends for 14 or more will host a party of two.
Early on in this pandemic, when I spoke to family members in the Hasidic Kiryas Joel community where she lives — a place I left with my husband and children 11 years ago — I was met with disbelief: Could this coronavirus really upset our Passover plans?
Hasidic communities are facing a unique challenge when it comes to controlling the spread of the coronavirus. I fear that in these places, highly communal lifestyles combined by skepticism about the need for social distancing — at times promoted by religious leaders — are going to cost more lives. One rabbi I know of mocks the “hysteria” around the virus and still holds services in his sanctuary.
The main ZIP code in the ultra-Orthodox hub of Borough Park in Brooklyn has the second-highest number of reported positive cases in New York City. Rockland County, N.Y., has the state’s highest rate of Covid-19 infection per capita, and the second-highest in the country. Authorities say the numbers are partly explained by the communities there where Orthodox residents haven’t conformed to social distancing.
Last week, I lost three close Hasidic relatives in three days to the virus.
I believe a lack of information about this unprecedented threat — and what it will take to survive it — is part of the problem. In my former hometown, television, the internet and secular newspapers are verboten. Smartphones are banned for personal use. Loopholes abound, and a good chunk of residents own two devices: a flip phone for outward use and a smartphone buried on the underside of a man’s suit or within the deepest pocket of a woman’s purse. But still, the restrictions mean news trickles in with a delay.
There is also a general mistrust of science and a solid distrust of secular authorities in Hasidic communities, based partly on historical suffering at the hands of non-Jews and partly on a sense of divine protection.
Families in Hasidic communities live in tight quarters. It’s not unusual to have 10 or more children. Each building in a suburban town like Monsey or Kiryas Joel houses several individual apartments, and in Williamsburg and Borough Park, Brooklyn — the two largest Hasidic communities in New York City — families live even more closely together. Children and grandchildren visit their parents daily or weekly. The elderly in need of assistance typically reside with their children, not in assisted living facilities.
Before social distancing became the norm, Hasidim celebrated Purim, where young and old mixed in merriment. When I visited family that day, we bumped elbows and joked about that distant threat.
The precautions that are necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are at odds with communal and ritualistic life. Hasidic men, reared to pray three times a day with a quorum of 10, immerse in a communal mikveh daily before prayers. Many of those who are now hunkering down at home have never before missed a minyan or a dunk in ritual waters.
A video of the cavernous morgue of a funeral chapel in Borough Park surfaced earlier this week — bodies lined up on the floor outside the morgue, and desperate employees calling for help to transport the corpses piling up. When I see footage of Hasidic funeral processions that have taken place in recent weeks, I’m incredulous: Don’t you see how a gathering will perpetuate the collective grief?
But then I remember how funerals were conducted in the place I grew up. If you know a friend who knows a neighbor of the deceased, you go to pay your respects. In life and in death, in ritual and in celebration, this community is always interconnected.
While many of my Jewish friends and I are now foregoing our Seder traditions of hosting large numbers of people, it remains to be seen how Hasidic individuals will deal with the challenge of social distancing.
In Hasidic households, preparations for this holiday start as early as the last night of Hanukkah. Every balabusta (homemaker) arrives to the Seder with sore muscles from scrubbing out the chametz and cooking up a storm for weeks — and a twinkle of accomplishment unmatched by anything else she might have achieved the rest of the year.
The Seder starts with the call to all who are hungry, let them come and eat; all who are in need, let them come and celebrate Pesach. It’s no wonder my Hasidic relatives tell me lonely Seders will feel like the apex of the pandemic.
The very things that make my former community unique and beautiful — multigenerational families, custom, and tradition — may well contribute to the spread of the virus. I refuse to point an accusatory finger at the community as a whole, because I believe most Hasidim want to do the right thing. Instead, I put the blame squarely at the feet of the rabbis who have largely failed to promote social distancing. While some have insisted that people stay home on Passover and beyond, too many have failed to crack down. They should use their pulpits to demand their followers practice social distancing and protect their sacred lives.
Frimet Goldberger (@FrimetG) is a writer.
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