Aron Wieder, a Satmar Hasid active in New York politics, finds himself in a complicated position. An elected member of the Rockland County legislature since 2011, he serves as chair of the Public Safety Committee. Wieder’s Twitter feed is an X-ray into the complexity of trying to control COVID-19 in Hasidic communities.
His Satmar community has had infection rates exponentially greater than in many other populations. The New York Times reported that COVID has hit this community “with devastating force, killing influential religious leaders and tearing through large,
tight-knit families at a rate that community leaders and some public health data suggest may exceed that of other ethnic or religious groups.” That was in April.
In October, after New York managed to “flatten the curve” overall, the Times reported that the disease was growing at “an alarming rate,’’ close to four times the citywide average, in several neighborhoods with significant Orthodox populations. Yet in many of these areas there was resistance to widespread testing, contact tracing and, most important, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Instead, the Hasidim often continued with the time-tested practices that have allowed them to “lock” their ghettos and culture from the inside: denouncing the advice of those who don’t share their values; demonizing people who live life in mainstream society; and using primarily internal sources of information, thus limiting their own people’s access to knowledge about science and the spread of illness.
And, of course, they maintained their focus on the superiority of collective life over individualism. For Hasidim, life is with people. Large families live in small places, gather in large groups around their rebbe/leaders and in synagogues and study halls and cannot imagine a life lived in solitude—even, and especially, when they are sick.
Thus, when Governor Andrew Cuomo or any other outside official demanded they close synagogues, or suspend large gatherings at weddings, funerals or even in the small spaces of their sukkahs to curb the outbreak, they resisted. Some even rioted. A text circulated on WhatsApp among yeshiva parents in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community before the High Holidays urged people, “DO NOT test your child for Covid.” The note advised parents to keep sick children at home but to “indicate they have a stomachache or symptoms not consistent with Covid.” Parents wanted no association with the disease that might eventually force a synagogue, school or other community institution to close.
What was a leader like Aron Wieder to do? He could not deny the importance of maintaining his community’s norms and values, but he was also responsible for their health and public safety. On October 7, he tweeted a video in Yiddish (with English subtitles). It shows an entirely different way to make the argument for masks.
“By now,” the video begins, “everyone has heard that Governor Cuomo issued an executive order that will essentially close synagogues and study halls in the Orthodox Jewish [the word he used in Yiddish was ‘heimische,’ an insider term signaling ‘our’ people] communities of New York.”
Quoting Cuomo’s claim that the order was a collaboration with the community’s leaders, he asserted, “It is an utter lie.” This signaled that the leaders are not “collaborators,” a common accusation and a pretext for shunning those who break community norms.
“But friends,” he then asked, “are we wearing a mask because Governor Cuomo demands it or [Mayor Bill] de Blasio wants it? No! We are doing it because it is the right thing to do and because God demands it.”
Wieder, like all observant Jews, is aware that Judaism has an essential concern with preserving life. “You shall live by them,” the Torah says of God’s commandments. The Talmud interprets this to mean anything that endangers life is prohibited by the Torah, a principle known as pikuach nefesh. Clearly, the resistance to masking and distancing, though it upholds internal community norms and the culture war with mainstream society, runs headlong into this principle. How to express support for both?
Wieder solved this problem in a brilliant way. After recalling the recent death of a young and healthy friend—a subtle reminder that no one is safe from this plague—he argued that not only is God in favor of mask-wearing; God Himself wears a mask! Quoting the psalm that Jews recite during the High Holidays, in which they implore the Almighty, “Do not hide your face from us,” (27:91) he explained that we are asking that the Lord reveal His face—which is currently masked—and thereby remove the virus from our midst so that “we may all also take the masks off our faces” and return to the life we once had. And if God can wear a mask, so can those who believe in Him.
Whether this message will resonate in the community remains to be seen. But if not, COVID-19 will certainly do its deadly work.
Samuel C. Heilman is a professor of sociology emeritus at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.