Small Network of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis Offers COVID-19 Treatment To All Sectors
The surprising initiative comes against the backdrop of fierce clashes between the wider ultra-Orthodox community and the Israel Police over COVID-19 restrictions
The Chasdei Amram organization – a private initiative in one of Israel’s most conservative Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) enclaves – is providing at-home treatments for thousands of Israelis who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
With more than 71,000 cases per million population, Israel is among the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. The current wave of infections is spreading particularly rapidly in the country’s Haredi sector, which comprises approximately 10% of the population but a far higher percentage of its COVID-19 patients. Many Haredi communities report test positivity rates of 20-30%.
Israel is in the midst of an inoculation drive that has made it a world-leader in COVID-19 vaccination rates, with more than 3 million citizens having received their first dose. Despite this and a nationwide lockdown, the number of daily cases is only decreasing slowly, and thousands of new cases continue to be diagnosed daily.
Meanwhile, tensions between the Israeli government and the Haredi public have reached a new peak over limitations imposed to limit the spread of the virus. While battling the pandemic, the government has had to cope with the unwillingness of some in the ultra-Orthodox sector to abide by regulations.
The community’s opposition to the government decrees has mostly centered on the closure of the Haredi education system, which is considered by many in the community to be of vital religious importance. Violent riots have broken out in several cities over the issue, and the police are hard-pressed to get control of the Haredi street.
These elements are the unlikely backdrop for the development of Chasdei Amram’s initiative to help Israelis from all backgrounds care for their COVID-ridden relatives at home, thus allaying some of the pressure experienced by the health system.
Chasdei Amram co-founder Aharon Heimlich told The Media Line that the group, which operates with the help of 12 volunteers, reinforced by an additional 17 “on reserve for emergencies,” has helped more than 5,000 patients with home consultations and equipment. An additional 12,000 cases have received phone guidance regarding treatment from the organization’s help desk.
The organization grew out of what is arguably Israel’s most extreme ultra-Orthodox community, Edah Haredit – vehemently anti-Zionist and anti-government – which has been at the forefront of battles with the government both in the past and in recent months.
He works 24 hours [a day] and he simply walks from house to house. So nowadays, he has a few helpers because he can’t keep up. They currently have 350 oxygen concentrators. … It isn’t just the oxygen concentrators – you need to bring each person a doctor, and [explain] what pills to take
Yoel Krois, who frequently acts as a community spokesperson, told The Media Line that it all started with a resident of the Haredi Mea Shearim neighborhood who studied nursing and took it upon himself to care for his sick relatives. “So, when the corona story began, he had two oxygen machines and he started. When he heard that someone wasn’t breathing properly, he brought them an oxygen [machine]. And then someone gave him another [machine], and slowly [it grew] – at first there weren’t that many … and that is Chasdei Amram.”
“He works 24 hours [a day] and he simply walks from house to house,” Krois continued. “So nowadays, he has a few helpers because he can’t keep up. They currently have 350 oxygen concentrators. You need to understand, it isn’t just the oxygen concentrators – you need to bring each person a doctor, and [explain] what pills to take.”
Since the beginning of the crisis, Israel’s health system has recorded 2,934 cases in which oxygen support was required.
“My father-in-law was sick, OK? Someone from Chasdei Amram came to the house, bringing a doctor with him and everything you need. He took care [of him] as if he was the US president’s private physician,” journalist Yehoshua Rudnik told The Media Line. Rudnik, who manages a popular Haredi news site, continued: “You can call them at all hours of the day and they’ll be there for you.”
Both Rudnik and Krois explained that members of the larger ultra-Orthodox community currently prefer to avoid hospitalization. Rudnik said that people try to avoid hospitalization “as much as possible, they prefer to treat at home if at all possible. … People are afraid of hospitals.” Krois said no one in the neighborhood had been hospitalized in recent months, and, referring to hospitalization in the present situation, added, “It’s terrifying … not because the hospital is bad and wants to kill and other conspiracies – it [simply] can’t cope.”
Heimlich highlighted an additional advantage to the organization’s home treatment. “Here, the family is with them, the family helps us treat the patients,” he said. The family is involved in the treatment right from the beginning; it can follow the doctor’s actions during their first visit and then continue to care for their relative fairly independently. This lessens the workload on the health professionals involved significantly.
The organization’s reach is not limited to the ultra-Orthodox sector. Heimlich said, “We aimed at the general public right from the start. … We wanted to help any person [who contacted us].” But the organization wasn’t widely known at first. Now, Chasdei Amram has counted more than 2,000 patients outside the Haredi community who have been guided over the phone. On top of that, “we treat more than 20 non-Haredi patients a week,” Heimlich said.
Tehila Ben Zaken, a Haredi woman whose husband was treated at home with the assistance of the organization, told The Media Line, “We felt in safe hands. They knew what they were doing and had complete confidence. They have a lot of experience. … When they arrived, they instantly started treatment and we saw an immediate improvement – immediate.”
“It truly is incredible,” Ben Zaken added. “They really are in the business of saving lives.”