Orthodox Jewish synagogue fined $15,000 over secret wedding amid Covid-19

The Hasidic community in New York City has been gripped with tension in recent months over restrictions
Last Updated 25 November 2020, 03:52 IST

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered to celebrate a wedding inside a cavernous hall in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighbourhood earlier this month, dancing and singing with hardly a mask in sight. The wedding was meticulously planned, and so were efforts to conceal it from the authorities, who said that the organisers would be fined $15,000 for violating public health restrictions.

The wedding, organised November 8 by leaders of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, is the latest incident in a long battle between city and state officials and members of the ultra-Orthodox community, who prize autonomy, chafe at government restrictions and have frequently flouted guidelines like mask-wearing and social distancing.

In October, state officials announced a series of restrictions in several neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and Queens with large Orthodox Jewish populations after the positive test rate for Covid-19 in those areas rose above 4%. Many residents protested the restrictions, which included closing nonessential businesses and limiting capacity at houses of worship.

While positive test rates in several of these areas have decreased since the restrictions were implemented, tensions between city officials and area leaders have continued.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the fine Monday night after video of the wedding — and a florid account of the event and extensive efforts to conceal it appeared in a Hasidic newspaper — drew backlash online. He said additional penalties could be imposed on the organisers.

“We know there was a wedding,” the mayor told local news network NY1. “We know it was too big. I don’t have an exact figure, but whatever it was, it was too big. There appeared to be a real effort to conceal it. Which is absolutely unacceptable.”

Representatives for the Satmar community did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

“We’ve been through so much,” de Blasio added. “And in fact, the Williamsburg community in recent weeks responded very positively, did a lot more testing and was being very responsible. This was amazingly irresponsible, just unacceptable. So there’s going to be consequences right away for the people who let that happen.”

On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the event “a blatant disregard of the law” and “disrespectful to the people of New York.”

State officials ordered the Satmar community in Orange County to cancel a series of weddings planned for Monday night, but it was unclear if the group complied with that order.

The wedding in Brooklyn, which lasted for more than four hours, was held at Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue in Williamsburg and celebrated the marriage of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, grandson of Satmar Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum. The bride was publicly identified by her initials, B.K., and the name of her father, Rabbi Yitzchok Horowitz. Her full name could not be determined.

Last month, Satmar leaders cancelled another wedding in Williamsburg, which they said expected 10,000 guests, that was to be held for the grandson of Aaron Teitelbaum’s brother and longtime rival, Grand Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum.

An account of the wedding was published November 11 by Der Blatt, a Yiddish-language newspaper closely aligned with Satmar leadership in Williamsburg.

It described the wedding as “an experience for which words do not suffice” and “a celebration the likes of which we have rarely had the good fortune to experience,” according to a translation provided by Hasidic activists.

The newspaper also said it knew about the wedding in advance but had participated in an elaborate scheme to hide the event “so as not to attract an evil eye from the ravenous press and government officials, who have in the past exploited the present situation to disrupt already-planned simchas,” a Hebrew word for a joyful event.

“All notices about upcoming celebrations were passed along through word-of-mouth, with no notices in writing, no posters on the synagogue walls, no invitations sent through the mail, nor even a report in any publication, including this very newspaper,” according to the newspaper.

The Hasidic community in New York City has been gripped with tension in recent months over restrictions meant to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which has left few families in many of these insular neighbourhoods untouched by sickness and death.

A range of factors have lead to the pandemic’s heavy toll in the community, experts say, including unsuccessful government outreach, widespread misinformation over herd immunity and the effectiveness of masks, what the city has described as the insufficient quality of education in subjects like science and a long-standing wariness of outsiders that has grown out of a history of religious oppression.

Those tensions spilled onto the street last month when violent protests erupted in Brooklyn over new health restrictions. Face masks were burned in the street, and a Hasidic mob attacked three Jewish men, including two Hasidic Jews accused of disloyalty to the community.

Those tensions, and a fear of turncoats, were alluded to darkly in the Satmar newspaper’s account of the wedding.

“Despite having organised this simcha with minimal public notice, the days leading up to the wedding were nonetheless filled with tension,” it said, “not knowing what the next day, or the next moment, will bring, which disgruntled outcast might seize this opportunity to exploit even what hasn’t been written or publicized, to create an unnecessary uproar, and to disrupt the simcha, God forbid.”

(Published 25 November 2020, 03:17 IST)

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