COVID-19 Series: Moshe Krakowski Interviews Rabbi Eli Steinberg

MK: I’m going to start off with a rather long question: 

A number of articles have appeared that suggest that the haredi community in general was slow to react to COVID-19 (and continues to be), for a number of reasons. 

Some, like Shaul Magid in Tablet Magazine, have suggested that those who take seriously a traditional religious perspective, as the haredim do, would ignore doctors and experts in favor of prayer and Torah study. Another version of this idea is that haredim in general dismiss all science as nonsense, and are primed to disbelieve both the severity of the claims about the virus and the suggested solutions—and thus they do not adhere to scientific guidelines.

Another suggestion is that because the haredim are so insular they simply don’t know what the right thing to do is, as misinformation and conspiracy theories circulate widely on media such as WhatsApp.

Yet another suggestion has been floated that haredim are hard-core Trump supporters, and like many of his supporters, have been dismissive of “mainstream media” accounts of what is going on and what to do about it.

So my question is: Do you think it is accurate to say that the haredi community has been slower, or deficient in some way, in adhering to guidelines? And to the extent that there are people ignoring the guidelines, do any of these suggestions (or others) make sense to you? And finally, are the answers to these questions different in Lakewood than in Boro Park, Williamsburg, Monsey, or Crown Heights?

ES: I really dislike this question because I think it is so rife with assumptions that any response which doesn’t point that out validates those claims. So I want to start by pointing out that we simply don’t know whether haredim are less compliant than anyone else. Anyone who claims they do has to first say what data or knowledge they base this on. No such data exists. 

Haredim aren’t distrustful of science qua science. We are, however, skeptical of people who seek to dictate to us that we need to abandon the things which make our communities uniquely strong and be more like them, using “science” as the reason why. Magid’s piece is useful in understanding that haredim value things other than what is said to be “science” as well, and an indictment of those who say they do, but, as Magid points out, really do not.

My personal opinion is that in this regard, haredim have been more or less as compliant as almost any community. We are, however, more noticeable and easily defined, so when people exercise poor judgment for any reason, it is easier (and for some reason acceptable) to use that to paint the rest of us with a broad brush.

Saying Haredim are “insular” is typically a result of lazy phrasing. Haredim only really actively disengage from secular culture, not society at large. It is true that they prioritize the things and people closest to them, and that sometimes results in exclusion of others—but that isn’t always the case. And there are many domains where haredim proactively seek out nonharedi society. For example, when dealing with medical issues, haredim will typically engage only the best doctors and the most cutting-edge technologies—this is not the behavior one would expect from an insular community. 

With the coronavirus, the same challenge everyone had—of needing to recognize the reality of not being in control—applied to them as much as anyone else.

As for Trump, I’m not sure how Trump support would play into haredi responses. Haredim overwhelmingly support the president and see him as a champion to some extent. They will excuse his behavior because of that, and root for him as well. But I don’t know of cases where haredim changed personal or medical behaviors around what the president said. 

The Lakewood community is different than the others you mentioned primarily in that the virus hit us later, but also in that there is a defining and unifying characteristic to the community. Both of those made it easier to get a higher rate of compliance here, but again, that was not without bumps.

Interestingly, the biggest mistake made on that front was not from the rabbinic leadership, but from the lay leadership. When rabbinic leadership announced they would be allowing public prayer only if confined to individual porches, one lay leader sent out an email blast saying that things were getting better, so he had arranged for weddings (with music, flowers, and a meal) to be held. Of course, neither the government nor the rabbinic leaders had signed off on this. The general community was upset about the inherent danger it brought for transmission and the added negative focus this brought to us—and to the validation it gave to those who alleged we were noncompliant. Moreover, it seemed to prioritize wedding celebrations over religious practice. The plan was quickly shelved.

MK: In your account of the virus in Lakewood you write in a very moving way about the day-by-day history of this period. Can you say a bit more about where people in Lakewood were receiving medical information and guidelines?

ES: The Lakewood community relies very heavily on word-of-mouth as a vehicle for news, as most people live their lives mostly off-line. In the early days, the way most people assessed the severity and threat level was by seeing how it was impacting religious and community life. 

For example, while BMG (Beth Medrash Govoa) never officially announced a closing, there were special prayer services in the days before the impending closure. When some shuls remained open with social distancing modifications, those modifications were clearly posted alongside a notice from the town medical establishment and Hatzalah, as well as sent to the entire shul list. When the shuls were closed, that information was posted and sent as well.

Concurrently, the robocalls with information I referred to were sent out to the entire Jewish community, and copies of medical guidance were sent out in the weekly circulars. Copies were also posted on a local website and circulated via email and WhatsApp. 

But all those were contributors to word-of-mouth.

MK: Do you think that more people see the virus as a serious threat requiring lockdown measures, or as an overblown exaggeration? Somewhere in between?

ES: I think it evolved. In the beginning, before people started getting sick, people thought the closures were a bigger problem than the virus. There was a real effort made to try and keep the religious institutions open within the guidelines—I was a part of that in my shul. But when the Roshei Yeshiva of BMG learned that a student had tested positive—and that he had come into direct contact with hundreds of others—they realized that there was no way to contain it outside of a lockdown. It is important to note that this was before the governor mandated a lockdown, and the restrictions they put into place were more severe than the state’s. We see that working now, as the new hospitalizations have dwindled to practically zero.

But at this point, I think many people are frustrated by the fact that while they see things have gotten better, there is no communicated strategy to easing back to a seminormal way of life.

To the extent they could, our medical establishment and rabbinic leadership have tried to find the ways to find an aspect of normalcy in this crazy world. They allowed “porch minyanim” for up to ten people—no more, with designated areas ensuring distancing, to gather outdoors to daven. The town opened parks as well, but not playgrounds, so people can get out in socially distant ways.

MK: How much exposure do you think people in Lakewood had to information about what was happening in other Jewish communities or in non-Jewish communities? 

ES: With the other Orthodox communities there is a lot of overlap, so it’s one and the same. Lakewood papers had obituaries for people who did not live here, but have children here—which expands the “Lakewood community” exponentially. 

Obviously, we knew what was going on in Bergen County because that is where it all began (in NJ).

There was also some conflict between medical professionals in other communities and the leadership of Lakewood. Local leadership saw the need to take the unique characteristics of Lakewood into account when deciding what they should and shouldn’t restrict, while other communities wanted one uniform set of rules. Lakewood resisted that—and with hindsight, we can say it was the correct call.

MK: Why do you say it was correct?

ES: One particular doctor from Brooklyn called one of the Lakewood poskim when they permitted “porch minyanim” and told him that he was going to put together a letter, signed by 150 doctors, to condemn him. He felt that allowing these minyanim would cause a spike in illnesses and ultimately more deaths. It’s now about twenty days later and we are seeing fewer and fewer cases. The Lakewood poskim and Roshei Yeshiva understood that a complete lockdown would lead to less compliance, and a responsible but more lenient lockdown would be safer.

MK: Do you think that most people are conversant in the politics of COVID-19? The Trump briefings, Dr. Fauci, the governors and mayors? How would they compare in your estimation to the general population in awareness?

ES: People are not as plugged into the ongoing soap opera that this has become for many in this country. I would say that although people are generally attentive to this, there is less time for leisure, as people are trying to maintain schedules while also caring for entire families all day every day. Family size being what it is, I think this means they are less tuned in to the daily drama.

MK: You mentioned the community going all out to provide plasma for new treatments. Can you say more about the way the community has functioned to provide for others throughout the crisis? How have the traditional tzedakah organizations managed, for example?

ES: From the beginning, our community institutions have stepped up. The most central has been Bikur Cholim—the medical services organization which is coordinating the plasma testing and donations. But that is only a small part of what they did. The sent meals to the people in the hospitals—which was especially necessary because of Pesach and especially challenging because of restrictions hospitals put in place. They worked with the trust and relationships they built over the years to help make it happen. They also furnished medical equipment—such as oxygen concentrators—to help keep people out of hospitals and keep the hospitals from getting overloaded. They helped the hospitals procure ventilators as well.

Tomchei Shabbos, which provides food to needy families year-round, raised money and distributed food for the additional families that have become needy due to COVID-19, and modified their semi-annual bulk below-cost food sale for the entire community to a curbside-pickup model instead of a shop model. They also added another similar event before Shavuos.

The community raised some $2 million to distribute directly as cash grants to those who found themselves in need due to the crisis. Schools distribute kosher meals daily for all children as part of the government meals program.

Because there were communal restrictions against going to family for Pesach, many young couples were faced with the daunting task of preparing food for the very first time. To address that challenge, the BMG kitchen prepared meals for all the days of Pesach and packaged them for a sterile pickup.


Moshe Krakowski is Associate Professor and Director of Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University. He is affiliated with the New York Working Group on Jewish Orthodoxies, which convenes at Fordham University.