Inside Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Coronavirus Hot Spots – Where Even the Mayor Is Sick

Outside one of the city’s hundreds of synagogues, the members were just beginning to arrive for minhah (afternoon prayers) on Shabbat afternoon. Despite the orders of both the government and the Chief Rabbinate, the place was still open. Bnei Brak’s rabbis follow their own rules.

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Still, the gabbaim (officials) who run the place were half-confirming to the new social distancing regulations. They had prepared a pile of siddurim (prayer books) in the porch and dragged out chairs and stenders (small mobile lecterns for religious books), and the prayer was about to begin in leaf-dappled sunlight.

“We’re all abiding by the regulations here,” sighed one of the regulars. “We started praying outside already last night.” But the regulations had been in force for a week and a half. What took them so long? “When people began to die, we began to pay attention,” he answered.

He wouldn’t specify whether he meant the 12 Israelis who had already died from coronavirus-related causes, or the growing number of prominent members of the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) communities in the United States and Britain whose names and pictures had been emblazoned on the front pages of Friday’s Haredi newspapers.

You don’t notice initially that you’ve left the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan and entered Bnei Brak. There is no discernible border between the two municipalities, and the apartment blocks look very similar at first sight. If you are driving and it’s Shabbat, however, as you turn off Ramat Gan’s Haroe Street and make your way up Jerusalem Street, the fact you are entering Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox city will immediately be brought home to you by the metal barrier that prevents vehicles entering from sundown Friday to nightfall Saturday.

The other thing you won’t immediately notice is that you are entering one of the biggest coronavirus hot spots in Israel.

Bnei Brak, with some 200,000 residents, is the ninth largest city in Israel. But as of this weekend, it had the second-largest number of coronavirus carriers – around 300. That’s 50 percent more than neighboring Tel Aviv-Jaffa, which has over twice the population. And the rate of infection is much higher as well. In just three days last week, the number of confirmed cases in Bnei Brak multiplied more than eightfold, while in neighboring Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv it just doubled.