In face of COVID-19 spike, New York Orthodox Jews take holiday prayers outside

By Gabriella Borter

MONSEY, N.Y. (Reuters) – Standing at least six feet apart and wearing skullcaps, prayer shawls and face masks, about two dozen Orthodox Jewish men pored over texts this week on a lawn in New York’s Monsey suburb, filling a quiet morning with the soft hum of Hebrew prayer.

Rather than crowd into a synagogue, the group has congregated outside a neighbor’s house each day to observe the week-long festival of Sukkot, one of many Jewish holidays this time of year coinciding with a sharp rise in coronavirus cases among members of this insular religious community.

Rockland County, encompassing Monsey and lying about 40 miles (64 km) north of New York City, is one of the state’s most troubled hotspots. Since March, nearly 700 of its people have died from COVID-19, more than in 15 individual U.S. states, according to a Reuters tally.

A recent spike in infections after a summer lull has been a somber reminder that the virus is still spreading, especially in places where large groups gather for religious or other reasons without adhering to public health guidance.

“The community had such terrible losses in the early days, and the last thing we need is to have such things happen again,” said Rabbi Asher Bush of Congregation Ahavat Yisrael in the Rockland village of Wesley Hills. “That would be utter, utter catastrophe.”

The open-air service is one of many adjustments that Orthodox Jews throughout the world have had to make in their traditions. The High Holiday season that includes the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is typically marked by mass prayer services, big family meals and travel. The celebrations traditionally feature group dancing. All of that now is forbidden because of the virus.

Two Rockland zip codes had positive coronavirus test rates top 15% over the weekend, compared to the state average of just over 1%, according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The viral spread has been especially acute in the Orthodox Jewish enclaves of Rockland County, as well as in New York’s Orange County and Brooklyn, areas where the governor says social distancing and mask-wearing have not been adequately enforced.

A drop in infection rates prompted some people – including, but not limited to, Orthodox Jews – to become more lax about mask-wearing and social distancing, several members of the Orthodox Jewish community told Reuters.

“It’s critically important for everybody to buy into this,” said Aaron Glatt, an associate rabbi at an Orthodox congregation in Woodmere, New York, and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau.

Tuvia Rotberg, a bookstore owner, hosted the outdoor Sukkot services in a white, open-air tent. He launched outdoor services for daily and Sabbath prayers just as the pandemic gripped New York in March and has kept them up, even though synagogues now are open with limited capacity.


On Tuesday, Cuomo planned to meet with Orthodox Jewish leaders in Rockland and Orange counties and Brooklyn, after announcing the state would enforce mask mandates and social-distancing laws in those areas.

This week he ordered that schools be closed in 11 New York City neighborhoods where a high concentration of Orthodox Jews live. He also said he might enforce a new round of business and school shutdowns in Rockland County.

“I have to say to the Orthodox community tomorrow, if you’re not willing to live with these rules, then I’m going to close the synagogues,” Cuomo told reporters on Monday.

Health officials in Orange County on Tuesday shut down schools in the Village of Kiryas Joel and the Town of Palm Tree, which have large Orthodox Jewish populations, because of a burgeoning outbreak, News 12 Hudson Valley reported.

Rabbi Bush of Wesley Hills said his synagogue has been diligent about enforcing social distancing and masks, although he recently attended a service at another synagogue where other worshipers gathered in a tent outdoors without masks.

“There is a very large gamut of how different congregations are conducting themselves,” he said.

But if there was nonchalance at the end of the summer, recent hospitalizations of friends and family have forced many Orthodox Jews to acknowledge the severity of the situation, community members told Reuters.

“People are trying,” said Shoshana Bernstein, a communications professional in Monsey whose family has been attending outdoor services during Sukkot. “And if they weren’t doing the right thing last week, then more people are doing the right thing this week.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Howard Goller)

New York City moves to curb COVID-19 spread in new clusters

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City officials said on Wednesday they were working to address a rise in COVID-19 cases in parts of Brooklyn and Queens that was raising “a lot of concern.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the new outbreaks, including a large cluster in three Brooklyn neighborhoods, accounted for about 20% of confirmed positive cases citywide.

“We’re seeing a serious uptick in multiple neighborhoods simultaneously and it’s something we have to address with a very aggressive public health effort right away,” de Blasio told reporters, adding that the Sheriff’s Office and the New York Police Department would help tackle the spread.

Dr. Mitch Katz, the CEO of New York City’s public healthcare system, said the city would distribute masks, gloves and hand sanitizer while officials will ask religious leaders to reinforce key public health messages.

Robocalls in English and Yiddish and sound trucks will urge residents to physically distance and wear a face covering, Katz said. Brooklyn is home to many Orthodox Jews, a community that has been hard-hit by the coronavirus and where compliance with restrictions has been at times problematic.

After becoming the global epicenter of the pandemic in the spring, the city’s positive test results have fallen to below 1%.

However, in the borough of Queens, positive cases have risen to 2.24% in Kew Gardens and 3.69% in Edgemere-Far Rockaway. In Brooklyn, officials are concerned about Williamsburg, with a 2% positive rate, and a southern part of the borough that includes Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst that officials are calling the Ocean Parkway Cluster, where the positive rate is 4.71%, the health department said.

Overall, there has been a slight uptick in coronavirus cases in New York City over the last two months. On Sept. 14, the city reported 380 new cases, the highest since July 20.

However, the average percent of tests coming back positive has remained virtually unchanged since August, according to city data.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Unvaccinated children face public space ban in New York measles outbreak

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is pictured at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

(Reuters) – A New York suburb has banned children not vaccinated against measles from public spaces, such as schools and shopping malls, as it fights the state’s worst outbreak in decades of the potentially deadly disease.

Rockland County declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and said the ban would remain in place for 30 days or until unvaccinated children get the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot.

The Rockland announcement follows measles outbreaks in California, Illinois, Texas and Washington and is part of a global resurgence of the viral infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We will not sit idly by while children in our community are at risk,” County Executive Ed Day said in a statement. “This is a public health crisis, and it is time to sound the alarm.”

There have been 153 confirmed cases of measles in Rockland County, about 11 miles (18 km) north of Manhattan, mostly among children who have not been vaccinated.

The ban begins at midnight after which unvaccinated children will not be permitted in locations such as places of worship, schools and shopping malls. Outdoor spaces like playgrounds are excluded from the ban. People medically unable to get vaccinated are exempt.

The outbreak began when a traveler visited Israel and returned to a predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Rockland County. There have also been at least 181 confirmed cases of measles in the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens since October, mostly among Orthodox Jews, according to the city’s health department.

The New York and Washington outbreaks began after U.S. travelers picked up measles in foreign countries, where the disease was running rampant and brought it back to places where vaccination rates were too low by U.S. public health standards.

The disease has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to get them vaccinated, citing reasons such as philosophical or religious beliefs, or concerns the MMR vaccine could cause autism, authorities said.

Large scientific studies have demonstrated that there is no link between vaccines and autism.

Officials say the measles outbreaks offer a lesson about the importance of maintaining a minimum 95 percent “herd” level of immunization against dangerous, preventable diseases such as measles. Rates as low as 60 percent were found in parts of New York where measles spread, State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in February.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Bill Berkrot)

Tens of thousands at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for priestly blessing

Jewish worshippers, some covered in prayer shawls, pray during a priestly blessing on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of worshippers packed Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza on Wednesday to receive a blessing from members of Judaism’s priestly caste.

Holding prayers shawls above their heads and covering their faces, the priests, known as “Kohanim” in Hebrew, began chanting the blessing, which begins: “The Lord bless you and keep you”.

The ceremony is held during the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot, the latter of which is being celebrated this week.

A Jewish worshipper prays during a priestly blessing on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

A Jewish worshipper prays during a priestly blessing on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

The Kohanim on Wednesday included the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

“It’s my opportunity to bless the people of Israel,” Friedman, an Orthodox Jew, told reporters.

According to Jewish tradition, Kohanim are descendants of Aaron, Moses’s brother, whose offspring served as priests in the biblical temples of Jerusalem. Many Jews with surnames such as Cohen, Kahan and Katz are Kohanim.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the compound of the Second Temple that was destroyed in 70 AD. It stands today beneath a religious plaza known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller)