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Amid Lockdown, Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Rely on Each Other
Ultra-Orthodox men are shown in Israel’s coastal city of Netanya on September 24 performing the ‘Tashlich’ ritual, where they symbolically cast their sins into a body of water. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid Lockdown, Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Rely on Each Other

Many find low- or semi-hi-tech ways to assist members of community isolated at home

Rioting broke out Sunday in several Israeli ultra-Orthodox communities after police tried to ensure that the nation’s coronavirus lockdown was being observed.

The violence came as the country’s daily infection rate soared to over 8,000 in recent weeks, with the proportion of cases far higher in ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods, where the lives of males revolve around group prayer and study.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who has been tasked with directing the country’s pandemic response, said ultra-Orthodox residents account for 40% of all new infections.

Despite the finger-pointing, though, many of Israel’s devoutly pious Jews are complying with the rules.

When an immediate family member has been exposed to, or has tested positive for, coronavirus, the whole household, which tends to be large, is often forced into quarantine. With limited internet or no internet at all because it is forbidden by rabbis, people are forced to find other, simpler ways to cope.

“I called up my neighbor when I heard her husband had tested positive and asked her if she needed anything at the grocery store,” Jerusalemite Nathalia Rottman told The Media Line. “She declined, as her son, who had the virus a few weeks ago, could now go out.”

I called up my neighbor when I heard her husband had tested positive and asked her if she needed anything at the grocery store

Members of the insular community go to bat for one another.

Chesed [loving-kindness] is a natural part of our society; it’s what we learn and [what is] in the stories that we tell,” Chaya Weisberg, who lives in the Old City of Jerusalem, told The Media Line.

“It’s just a norm in the community to think of how you help people,” she explained.

“Almost everyone is involved with some sort of chesed initiative,” she continued. “Many people have made recorded stories for kids that they can hear by calling certain phone lines if they don’t have internet.”

Rottman has been involved with getting toys for quarantined children in her apartment block.

“In my building, there were two kids in isolation. We went to the ‘shekel store’ where you can buy some cute stuff and delivered it to their door,” she related.

“It makes them feel like the neighbors care and that they’re not just locked up for two weeks,” she explained.

It makes them feel like the neighbors care and that they’re not just locked up for two weeks

Weisberg contends that the phone is a more meaningful way to stay in touch as opposed to going online. One initiative involves making a list of people who are alone, and members of the community sign up to call them.

“Most people have nice-sized families…. My daughter wanted to cheer me up and asked a neighbor to buy me the nicest ice cream at the corner store, which she would then reimburse her for,” Rottman said.

“I think there is a big difference between writing something online and people putting likes or sad faces in response, versus when someone spends time talking to you,” she said. “It’s part of the reason why the religious community has such affection, because there is [currently] much more physical phone contact than in the secular world.”

I think there is a big difference between writing something online and people putting likes or sad faces in response, versus when someone spends time talking to you

Still, technology has made inroads into the community.

“Everyone uses technology,” says Roxanne Abrams, a Jerusalem therapist who immigrated from the United States a year and a half ago.

“I know people who use their phones to call into Zoom; even kosher non-smart phones are a form of connecting with the outside world,” she told The Media Line, referring to cellular phones that are permitted for use because they do not support browsers.

I know people who use their phones to call into Zoom; even kosher non-smart phones are a form of connecting with the outside world

“Some of the kids are using phones for classes or bedtime stories…. That’s still using technology,” she said.

“The Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] contingency is not rejecting technology,” she noted. “I think it is rejecting risks that seem unnecessary and seem wise to avoid, but whether or not to avoid them depends on the circumstance.”

Abrams explains that some families have internet at home for work purposes, and this allows the use of certain forms of online education or even entertainment.

“Technology has changed the nature of this experience…. The existence of Zoom and WhatsApp has completely transformed everything…. It’s possible to be busier than ever without ever leaving the house,” she said.

“Nobody is saying that we should forget our filters and principles… but that’s not the same as people using technology and expanding their comfort zone on a temporary and informed basis,” she stated.

Nobody is saying that we should forget our filters and principles… but that’s not the same as people using technology and expanding their comfort zone on a temporary and informed basis

Abrams is currently at home in quarantine after an overseas trip.

“I asked the program where I volunteer as a tutor whether they can… have someone drop off some produce… and it magically appeared. They brought challot on Friday, and when I tried to pay them back, I was told not to worry about it,” she said. “People were even volunteering to take out the trash.”

She cites mysterious, wrapped gifts appearing at the door of hundreds of older women living alone.

“There was a lot of chatter on one of the Har Nof list servers saying: ‘Is this really for me? Does anybody know who left it?’ Besides the generosity, the unexpected nature of it that turned into something special,” she said.

There was a lot of chatter on one of the Har Nof list servers saying: ‘Is this really for me? Does anybody know who left it?

Recently, Abrams saw a posted appeal for board games for people who are ill or otherwise in quarantine. Esther, who declined to give her last name, is one of the people who responded.

“I had two [games to lend] and I thought why not help if I can?” she told The Media Line.

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