How Coronavirus is Upending Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Traditions | NYT News

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews are estimated to have died in Brooklyn. Here’s how the pandemic is changing their longstanding rituals.

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Transcript

“I never imagined I would
see this in my lifetime:so many bodies from a
short period of time.”These are scenes from a recent
burial at a Jewish cemeteryin New York.The deceased died of Covid-19.The virus has hit New York’s
ultra-Orthodox Jewishcommunities particularly hard.“It’s not in Iran and
it’s not in Syria,and it’s not what you
ever see on YouTubefrom different
countries, whereyou see bodies lined up.This is New York.”Doctors and
funeral directors told usthey estimate hundreds
of ultra-Orthodox Jewshave died in Brooklyn alone.This video from late March
shows bodies lined upinside a funeral chapel in
Borough Park, a neighborhoodwith the highest number of
Covid-19 cases in Brooklyn.Avraham Berkowitz
is a Hasidic rabbi,who lives in nearby
Crown Heights.He recently attended the
funeral of a family memberfrom his car.“They told the families they
were not allowed to come.They had to stay.Only a few people,
and be at a distance.So tragic.”He’s recorded at
least 39 fatalitiesin his neighborhood alone.“Life has completely stopped
in the last few weeksin Crown Heights.Sirens and ambulances —
heart-wrenching.”The coronavirus is
posing unique challengesto these
close-knit communities.“We belong to a
community that thriveson physical proximity
and constant interactionat weddings, at bar mitzvahs,
three times a dayat the prayer, we go to the
same kosher restaurants,the same grocery stores.Our kids go to
the same schools.We all meet each other,
know each other,and it’s one
interactive circle.”Now, longstanding
traditions arebeing upended by
social distancing guidelines,and are having to be
rethought on the fly.People are holding
virtual bar mitzvahs,and attending
drive-by weddings —as well as funerals.Rabbis and community
leaders are telling peopleto stay home.“Follow what God says,
and you stay at home.”“We are fighting an
invisible enemy.”They’re urging followers
to heed authorities’ callsto practice social
distancing, especiallyamong prayer groups.The hospitals that
serve these communitieshave also had to
adapt quicklybecause of the recent
surge in patients.Dr. Sarah Rosanel
is a cardiologistat Maimonides Medical Center
in Borough Park.Maimonides has banned almost
all visitors, includingfamily members unless
death is imminent,which can make it
hard for familiesto reach their loved
ones in time to recitecustomary prayers.Stories of people dying
alone without proper rightsdrove community
members to come upwith another solution.“We get a lot of complaints
that the hospitals wouldn’tlet any family members in.How can we say
final prayers if the peopleare dying alone?”Mayer Berger is the
Director of Operationsof the Jewish burial society,
Chesed Shel Emes.He helped create
a hotline withprerecorded Jewish prayers,
meant for the final momentsbefore death.“People can have a patient rep
in a hospital callingthe hotline, and
put the prayers onspeaker right next to the
people who passed away.”Traditionally bodies are
buried within a day of death,but this has proved challenging
for Chesed Shel Emesbecause their
caseload has quadrupledover the past few weeks.“When I’m seeing young people
leaving behind seven orphans,this is the hardest part,
just thinking about allthe families who
are being left behind.”And the families
left behind are nowforced to grieve alone,
during periods of mourningknown as shivas.“The whole beauty of the
Jewish tradition or religion isafter any person
passes, you’rewith your immediate
family for seven days,and hundreds and hundreds
of people from the communitycome and visit you and
comfort you and bring you food.Suddenly that whole
therapy, that whole ritual,that whole religious power
of comfort, that is gone.They’re locked alone
with a video camera.I had to do Zoom shiva calls.”The ongoing crisis has
moved Rabbi Berkowitzto wage a personal campaign,
running medical suppliesto health care workers.“How are you?Do you need masks?Do you need —”“We could always use masks.”“OK.I reached out to every
major hospital,New York Presbyterian,
Methodist, Mount Sinai,every single hospital.If I wasn’t helping front-line
health care workers getthe supplies they need,
I would be a complete wreck.Members of the
Hasidic communityor the Orthodox Jewish community
we’re shuttering the synagoguesto save lives.But this virus
doesn’t know race.It doesn’t know religion.It doesn’t know color.It doesn’t know borders.And if we’re not going
to unite in force,it’s going to take us all.”

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