COVID-19 Series: Moshe Krakowski Interviews Rabbi Eli Steinberg

Eli Steinberg, a rabbi and writer active in Jewish communal politics in Lakewood, NJ 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Eli Steinberg, a rabbi and writer active in Jewish communal politics in Lakewood, NJ (the center of Yeshivish haredi life in America). Alongside writing about Jewish communal issues, he has also written on broader aspects of American politics and policy. I know Rabbi Steinberg through my research on haredi education and culture, having spent many years looking at how haredi communities navigate secular and religious knowledge and culture in schools, and how haredim develop an epistemology and world view through a close school/community relationship. 

In my research, I observe classes, and talk to teachers and students, as well as to members of the broader haredi community. In that capacity I have often used the insight and perspective of a number of haredi insiders who are deeply connected to the pulse of their respective communities. Rabbi Steinberg is one of those insiders—someone who is involved in haredi communal affairs and is able to articulate his perspective using modes of discourse more common to the secular world. In a way this is the inverse of my position. As an academic working at a research institution, I am entrenched in nonharedi society, but I am able to engage with haredim using the language and discourse of haredi life. I believe that this partnership has allowed me to characterize insider perspectives with a great deal of fidelity, to understand the experiences of haredim, as well as the underlying dynamics of haredi world-view development.

Because COVID-19 has so significantly impacted the haredi community, and because of the attention haredim have received in the popular press, I wanted to speak to Rabbi Steinberg to understand how the Yeshivish haredi community in Lakewood has experienced the virus. Prior to our interview he sent me a short written piece describing his perspective on this issue. 

Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood. Photo the Lakewood Shopper.

In this piece he discussed the explosion of cases (and deaths) in Lakewood following Purim celebrations in March that led to a tremendous viral spread. He wrote about how the communal rabbinic leadership shut down synagogues and schools, despite the centrality of Torah study to this community’s sense of self. He further described the sense of confusion that permeated the community, as updates on the virus came via “cholim lists,” which list the Hebrew names of the ill so that community members could pray for them. Finally, he focused on the degree of antisemitism community members faced, as Orthodox Jews as a whole were held responsible for the actions of a few scofflaws, and Jews once again found themselves accused of bringing the plague to their gentile neighbors.

One of the central concerns I had in the interview was to understand how information moved through the community, and how community leaders and members made decisions in response to the virus. This, in particular, helps us understand how haredim are navigating the desire to open up with the desire for public safety, something that many outsiders have questioned. Are they opening up schools and shuls too soon? Are small businesses violating orders? In response, many haredim wonder why they have been singled out. Why, for example, are police officers so quick to shut them down, while leaving others alone? They feel that they have been treated with a double standard. These concerns provide a subtext to our conversation below, as Rabbi Steinberg both describes and defends his community as an insider who has deep connections to the outside world of politics and policy. Acutely aware of the sometimes-negative perception of haredi communities in many circles, Rabbi Steinberg took pains to point out that his community responded much like any other community: with confusion, fear, and the desire to protect themselves from the virus. These desires, however, were expressed in a decidedly haredi register.

COVID-19 Series: The Pandemic through Hasidic Women Artists’ Voices

by Jessica Roda, PhD, Georgetown University, Center for Jewish Civilization

Hasidic women are often portrayed in the mainstream media through a Western feminist framework, which assumes that women can only gain agency by leaving their faith. Two media events during  the COVID-19 crisis have reinforced this narrative:  The first is media coverage of the ultra-Orthodox response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its domination by male voices of rabbis, doctors, and male community leaders on various platforms, while women, such as journalist Efrat Finkel, are rendered invisible and unheard. The second event is the release of the Netflix drama Unorthodox, a miniseries based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir of the same name, which follows a hasidic woman named Esti, who can only end her suffering and shine as an artist by leaving her Brooklyn community for the secular, inclusive, multicultural, and artistic Berlin.

Dobby Baum, April 12, 2020, Concert-Talk on Zoom and Instagram 

Although the ultra-Orthodox are known for their opposition to the Internet, some hasidic business owners find it necessary to be connected. Other ultra-Orthodox Jews use technology by choice. Among them are Dobby Baum, Malky Media, Devorah Schwartz, Sarah Dukes, Bracha Jaffe, Devorah Leah, and Chany Rosengarten, each of whom I discovered online in the last two years. These women come from a mixed ultra-Orthodox background, representing Bobov, Chabad, Ger, Litvish, and Satmar communities. They are particularly active on Instagram, where they promote their businesses, music, films, lessons, performances, and albums. The application serves as a marketing tool and springboard to create a community of followers. Ultimately, their use of Instagram might lead to their broader recognition, and to a range of contracts for live private and community performances. Dobby, Malky, Chany, Sarah, Devorah S., , Bracha, and Devorah L. are each building a new image of Orthodox womanhood. Implicitly, they are creating a counterpublic space (Hirschkind 2006; Fader 2020) in response to a mainstream religious space.

My intention is never to diminish the suffering of OTDs (Off the Derech, people who left ultra-Orthodoxy) or to dismiss the lack of action from some religious leaders, yet I felt the need to give voice to the Hasidic women whom I had the privilege to meet in person during my fieldwork and whom I follow on Instagram every day. To demonstrate the oversimplification of hasidic women’s agency, I would like to call attention to contemporary ultra-Orthodox women artists’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

Because modesty is central to their way of being, the majority of their activities occur live among only women and girls. The artists were preparing to perform and screen their films during Passover, but found their income compromised by the coronavirus outbreak. Like many around the world during this challenging time, they must fulfill their raison d’être by boosting their online presence and creating new opportunities for artistic collaboration.

Dobby Baum, Live Concert on Zoom and Instagram, April 2020, Borough Park (NYC)

During the pandemic, viral videos have surfaced of neighbors singing from their balconies in Italy, Spain, and France; songs such as “The Coronavirus Rhapsody”; and diverse compositions urging us to stay home and wash our hands. Similarly, Orthodox female artists have provided creative responses to the crisis online. They continue their women-and-girls-only performances via live concerts on Instagram and Zoom, where hundreds of girls and women participate from around the world. Their notable releases include their first collaborative video, “A Song for Lori,” in honor of Lori Kaye, who was murdered in the Poway synagogue shooting. Dobby Baum’s “It Is Meant to Be,” a response to COVID-19, is also noteworthy. As evidenced by their concert-conferences on Zoom, they have used this moment to constantly engage with their online viewers about the pandemic and the importance (and challenges) of staying at home. With thousands of followers––and more to come––they are reinforcing a sense of community and sisterhood. Crucially, they are reinventing their religiosity by means of technology and media. In doing so, they challenge narratives that imagine them as silent members of their religious society.

Postcolonial feminist scholars, such as Saba Mahmood and Serene Khader, have argued that critiquing Western secular feminism is necessary to prevent the oversimplification of the concept and experience of agency. Their argument is certainly relevant when it comes to the realities of conservative groups and families. These aforementioned scholars impacted how I understood my observations during my fieldwork with hasidic women in Montreal and New York City, and how I understand the online activity of ultra-Orthodox women artists.

The girls and women of Unorthodox cannot openly pursue their artistic aspirations. Dobby, Malky, Chany, Sarah, Devorah S., Bracha, and Devorah L. present a challenge to the show’s characters, as they seek new avenues to reinforce their religious belonging while challenging it from the margins.  


Jessica Roda is an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. She is currently an assistant professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is working on her second book, Beyond the Shtetl: Hasidicness, Women’s Agency and Performances in the Digital Age, in which she investigates how artistic performances empower hasidic and former hasidic women to act as social, economic, and cultural agents. Jessica Roda was a fellow at Fordham in 2017.

COVID-19 Series: Archives on Lockdown

Archives on Lockdown: The Pius XII Papers at the Covid-19 Age by Maria Chiara Rioli

When he announced the opening of the Pius XII Archives on March 4, 2019, Pope Francis could not have known that the date scheduled for this event a full year later – March 2, 2020 – would coincide with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe.

The Vatican Apostolic Archives, formerly Vatican Secret Archives, Sala dei indici (Index Room)

Historians welcomed with great interest Francis’s speech about access to the Vatican archives related to the Eugenio Pacelli’s pontificate (1939–58), which have not been accessible until now. The opening of these archives inaugurates unprecedented possibilities of enquiry for scholars.[1] The full scope of what the archives reveal – both about Pius’s wartime role as well as much else – will only fully emerge after years of study. This documentation will open up new questions, reframe hypotheses, and challenge former interpretations.

At midnight sharp in the Vatican City – 6pm at my New York desk – on October 1st, 2019, I reserved my place in the reading room in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, as dozens of other scholars in the world did as well. In the following months I contacted other Vatican archives – in particular the Archives of the Secretariat of State and the Archives of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches – to ensure the possibility that I would get access to this newly released documentation, essential to my Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral project on the history of a community of Jewish converts to Catholicism within the Latin diocese of Jerusalem in the early 1950s.

In the weeks before the opening of the Pius archives, the spread of the Covid-19 in Europe, with its epicenter in Northern Italy, made many scholars doubtful about the possibility of opening the archives in those conditions. Some historians preemptively cancelled their research journeys. The archives opened as scheduled, immediately accompanied by some polemical jabs between Johan Ickx, the director of the historical archives relating to the Vatican’s Section for Relations with States, and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, about Pius’ role during the Shoah and the risks of an apologetic use of the documents.[2]

In the first week of March, the spread of Covid-19 accelerated. On Friday, March 6, the first case was registered in Vatican City. Around 10am that morning, scholars were informed that the reading room of the Secretariat of State archives was closing that day. The other Vatican archives shut down too. On Sunday March 8, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the lockdown of the whole country. The critical situation in Italy means that any provision for reopening for libraries and archives, including in the Vatican City, is still uncertain.

In those first days after the opening of the archives, historians had just confronted a small part of this new documentation: in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, scholars can request a maximum of 5 boxes per day, while in the Archives of the Secretariat of State, whose digitization could allow quicker and more efficient research, the access is limited by the closure of a part of the documentation, particularly from the years 1949–58. Now, much of their research is on hold or much delayed. The first conference, scheduled for June 2020 at the French School in Rome, that was aimed at revisiting the Pius pontificate in light of the newly-released documentation, has been postponed to Spring 2021.

For my research, however, these days have been indeed precious and fruitful. I am able to consult documents on the premises of the establishment of the Association of Saint James, the correspondence between the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Oriental Church, the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem and Palestine, and the Church of Jerusalem. These records allow the historian to reconstruct a much more complex narrative of the relations between the Rome, the Jerusalem Church, the State of Israel, and the Jewish world, often represented only in terms of “conflict,” “opposition,” and “absence of contacts.” I made use of this archives in my book Tribulationis Tempore: The Latin Church of Jerusalem in the Palestine War and Its Aftermath, 1946–56, forthcoming with Brill.

At the reopening of the archives, an attentive examination of the documents contained in the section “Ebrei” at the archives of the Secretariat of State, the correspondence of the Berlin and Paris Apostolic Nunciatures deposited in the Vatican Apostolic Archive and other collections will certainly contribute to a more accurate appraisal of the role of the Holy See during the Shoah. At the eventual end of the lockdown, unlocking the archives will allow new narratives to be constructed and to circulate.

Maria Chiara Rioli is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at the universities of Ca’ Foscari in Venice and Fordham in New York within the REL-NET project: “Entangled Interfaith Identities and Relations from the Mediterranean to the United States: The St James Association and Its Transnational Christian-Jewish Network in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”


[1] David I. Kertzer, “What the Vatican’s Secret Archives Are About to Reveal,” The Atlantic, March 2, 2020 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/what-vaticans-secret-archives-are-about-reveal/607261/

[2] See Rossella Tercatin, “Is the Vatican trying to distort how Pius XII behaved towards Jews?”, Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/is-the-vatican-trying-to-distort-how-pius-xii-behaved-towards-jews-619644