Last Erev Shabbos, a major American Torah figure called me and began the conversation, "You have no idea [sitting in Israel] what is going on here." Not only has the Torah community been subject to intense criticism from without because of the disproportionate casualties suffered, he explained, but even more importantly the high toll has caused many within the community itself to wonder whether there is something wrong with us that we have suffered such horrendous losses.
I cannot answer those self-doubts on the spiritual level. That is the task of gedolei Torah. But on the level of derech hateva, the self-doubts and recriminations are excessive.
Although the failure to adhere to social distancing guidelines resulted in many individual tragedies, it is not the main reason for the disproportionate blow to our community. Neither in the United States nor Israel were the social distancing guidelines introduced prior to Purim. Once the large Purim seudos and high level of social interactions went forward as usual, the die was cast to a large extent. The Telshe Stone suburb of Jerusalem, for instance, was an early epicenter of the coronavirus simply because one infected person from outside the community joined in a Purim seudah.
Large Torah families living in high-density apartment buildings further ensured the rapid spread of the disease. In minority communities in New York City, which are also characterized by high-population density, there has also been a disproportionate number of fatalities. The difference is that the media attributes the latter disproportionate impact to racism, whereas that of the Torah community is attributed to negligence.
In addition, the very virtues of our community have contributed to the rapid spread of the virus. The elderly in our community are likely to have many descendants and to be in frequent personal contact with them, rather than living lonely and isolated lives. That too made it more likely that they would be infected before the distancing requirements went into force.
Finally, inconsistent application of the distancing regulations may have misled many as to the seriousness of the matter. When the first call was issued to close shuls and other places of worship in London — albeit with no legal requirement to do so — pubs still remained open. That no doubt led many in the community to conclude, not unreasonably, that if the pubs were still open, the government did not take distancing too seriously and there was no reason for Torah Jews to do so either. Similarly, news reports of American college students frolicking on Florida beaches during spring break may have misled others.
True, we could have done better in Israel and chutz l'Aretz in enforcing social distancing requirements, and some groups were much slower than others in appreciating the severity of the matter. But we will surely do so in the future if, chas v'shalom, there is ever again such a pandemic.
Even after the post-Pesach lifting of some restrictions on davening with a minyan in Israel, many leading figures, including the zaken hador, Ponevezh Rosh Yeshivah Rav Gershon Edelstein, Rav Asher Weiss, and the Stoliner Rebbe, urged the tzibbur to continue davening b'yichdus or with the so-called "porch minyanim." All the many shuls in my Har Nof neighborhood remain locked. The lessons have been learned.
Israel Turns 72
Israelis could be forgiven for looking to the future with cautious optimism on Israel Independence Day. For one thing, the country appears to have weathered the coronavirus better than any other developed country in the world, with the exception of Hong Kong (which is not technically a country).
In addition, Israel is the fastest growing country in the developed world, with the highest fecundity rate. Twenty-eight percent of the population is under 14 and only 12% over 65, in stark contrast to the rest of the OECD, where the youngest sector of the population is approximately the same percentage as those over 65.
A poll released by the Israel Democracy Institute just prior to Independence Day showed that 77% of the Arab population feel a sense of belonging "very much" or "quite a lot" to Israel — i.e., they feel part of the country and share in its problems. The comparable figure for the chareidi public was 92.5%.
These results have to be taken with a grain of salt. The sample size was not large, and the jump from the previous year among both the Arab and chareidi populations was too sharp to be fully credible. Last year, the comparable figure among chareidim was 68.5%.
Nevertheless, the poll does point to a changing Israeli reality. The Labor Party that ruled Israel for its first 30 years is now history. Matti Friedman describes in Tablet how the socialist realist murals of the early kibbutzim are now museum pieces, though the kindergartens of the now privatized kibbutzim are full.
Chareidim are over ten percent of the population, and the fastest growing sector. In short, we are no longer a vulnerable and beleaguered minority feeling forced to segregate ourselves entirely from a larger society bent on our destruction. Chareidim are more comfortable taking a bit of pride in Israel's accomplishments, and more willing to acknowledge the sacrifices made, and which continue to be made, to build a country in which the study of Torah thrives.
At the same time, there is no longer a large population ideologically committed to jettisoning Torah, or creating a "new Jew." Every effort to teach Torah finds a ready and eager audience.
It is surely a cause of optimism that during the current plague, when people have time on their hands and worries aplenty, that there has been a surge of secular Israelis reaching out to organizations like Kesher Yehudi and Ayelet Hashachar for chavrusos.
The convalescent plasma campaign I wrote about two weeks ago ("Gift of Life") has proven a major teaching tool about the Torah community. First and foremost, it has made clear the paramount value the Torah places on the preservation of life.
While those who are not Torah observant cannot fully appreciate what it means that the activists involved carried on working on Shabbos and Yom Tov, they will grasp something of the implications. The heroics of the group hearken back to earlier stories of Rav Gedaliah Schorr and Mike Tress working through the night on Shabbos to fill out a visa application for Rav Aharon Kotler, and Mike travelling to Washington, D.C., by train the next day to beg a State Department official to wire the documents to the US Consul in Moscow. Or to the major fundraising campaigns on Shabbos during the War to purchase documents that might save the lives of Jews trapped in Europe.
The campaign also testified to the spirit of volunteerism that animates the Torah community, and to the capacity of the community to mobilize quickly. And it bears witness to the exceptional human resources of the community — the energy, creativity and determination of volunteers who saw a need and rushed to fill it. The leaders of the blood drive had to bring themselves up to snuff in a few days to deal with medical experts at the highest level.
Most important, the project has been emulated. News reports last week described the Torah community as supplying 50 percent of all blood plasma nationally. Last Sunday, over 1,000 members of the Chicago community turned up at the Joan Dachs Beis Yaakov to be tested for antibodies. In Israel, 50 bochurim from a major Israeli yeshivah tested positive for COVID-19 virus. Each received a call from the yeshivah as soon as they came out of quarantine to donate their blood plasma.
The ability to turn the heavy blow to the Torah community from the coronavirus into something positive reflects the resilience that has always characterized the Jewish people. The key to that resilience is our faith that everything is from Hashem and He has a plan. It is that faith that has always driven us to salvage the positive from the most dire circumstances. And it continues to serve us well in these dark times.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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