Orthodox Jewish leaders decry NY Governor Cuomo’s ‘draconian’ measures to restrict worship amid virus rise

October 8, 2020 by  
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Professing his “respect and love” for the Orthodox Jewish community, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced major restrictions and closures in parts of the state designated as “COVID clusters,” areas that have an overwhelmingly large Orthodox community.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holding a press briefing to announce new restrictions on worship on Oct 6, 2020. Source: Screenshot.

“I understand the imposition this will place on them,” the governor said on Tuesday afternoon after a morning meeting with leaders in the Jewish community. “I said I need their cooperation; I need their assistance. I asked them to work with me to follow these guidelines, and that was positively received. I said that I am doing this for a very simple reason—because I have such respect and love for the Orthodox community. … It’s out of respect and love, and because I want to protect them.

“In Jewish teaching, one of the most precious principles is to save a life,” Cuomo continued, noting that the Torah allows one to violate certain rules in order to do so.

Under the governor’s plan are three colour-coded levels of rules. In red zones, the hotspot areas, houses of worship will be limited to just 10 people, mass gatherings are prohibited, and all non-essential businesses will be closed, as will schools. In surrounding areas—so-called orange zones—houses of worship will be limited to 25 people with mass gatherings limited to 10 people. The outer-ringed yellow zone will face some restrictions; houses of worship can have 50 per cent capacity, and schools will remain open with additional virus testing.

Taking to social media, some Orthodox Jews sharply criticized the governor’s announcement, while others expected that it would lead to more anti-Semitism.

“Responsible leaders have been working around the clock to increase compliance, masks and distancing to make community safety a highest priority,” said Chaskel Bennett, a community leader in a post on Twitter. “Despite multiple calls to fight, we had resolved to try to work with [Mayor Bill de Blasio] and [Cuomo]. Blindsiding us won’t get better results.”

“I’m extremely disappointed by the governor’s new rules and creation of zones for the COVID hot spots,” Rivkie Feiner, a small-business owner and member of the Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County, N.Y., told JNS. “They are very confusing, and we have more questions than answers right now. We feel targeted, and his way of handling the situation right now is causing anti-Semitism to skyrocket to levels I haven’t seen in my lifetime.”

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, associate rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere and chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiology at Mount Sinai South Nassau, both on Long Island, has been on the forefront on the coronavirus pandemic and told JNS: “It is very important for us to fight COVID with science and good public-health measures. Masking and social-distancing efforts, with the appropriate quarantine and isolation of contagious individuals, are the best way to prevent the spread of illness.

“Closing selected and essential religious facilities in a community will, in fact, potentially harm the community and public-health efforts to contain the disease,” he said. “Proper safe worshipping can be accomplished without draconian measures.”

Report from Faygie Holt/JNS

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