In America’s Only Orthodox Town, Coronavirus Poses Unique Challenge for Insular Jewish Community

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to strike around the world, Orthodox communities in the United States have made unprecedented and dramatic steps to try to slow the rate of infection.

Orthodox groups and prominent rabbis have issued notices urging people to comply with the social distancing guidelines issued by authorities. They have even gone as far as to call for people to cancel large Passover gatherings and reduce the holiday preparations to “essential” things only.

Synagogues, religious schools and other institutions have also closed in line with health requirements.

New York is by far the hardest-hit state, with more than 26,000 confirmed cases and some 210 deaths. Over 13,000 of those cases are in New York City. Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference Tuesday that the rate of new infections is doubling about every three days. “We haven’t flattened the curve and the curve is actually increasing,” he said. “We are exercising all options as aggressively as we can.”

In the Satmar Hasidic community – an insular group estimated to include some 65,000 to 75,000 members, most of whom live either in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or the village of Kiryas Joel (aka Palm Tree) north of New York City – unprecedented measures have been implemented as well.

Kiryas Joel leaders closed all synagogues, schools and mikvehs (ritual baths) last Thursday, a day after leading Satmar rabbis exempted vulnerable followers from some ritual requirements. Prior to the closures, the community had been slow to adopt changes that state officials had encouraged.

“This wasn’t an easy task, as a big portion of our daily life is taken up with praying in the synagogues three times a day,” says Aron Spielman, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, whose mission is to counter the defamation and generalization of the Orthodox Jewish community.