The White House’s Direct Line to the Ultra-Orthodox May Save Lives

By | Mar 23, 2020
Coronavirus, Jewish World, Latest

Jewish politics from the nation’s capital.
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1. White House urges Haredi Jews to stay home

Unusual times call for unusual measures, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise when a key aide to the president of the United States convenes a conference call with leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, only to urge them to follow government instructions.

Last Tuesday, Avi Berkowitz, Donald Trump’s adviser whose day job is to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, jumped on the line with a group of more than a dozen prominent Hasidic New York rabbis from Monsey, Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg.

The call was set up just as news broke that more than 100 Orthodox residents of Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large Jewish Hasidic population, had contracted the coronavirus. A week earlier, outbreaks were registered in other Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey.

Berkowitz, according to participants and to partial recordings from the call leaked to the Haredi publicationYated Ne’eman, conveyed a stern message to the rabbis, stressing the need to immediately implement social distancing.

When asked if that means closing synagogues and yeshivas, Berkowitz responded: “Yes, the federal government is sayingthe president of the United States is sayinghe is giving guidelines that those things should be closed down.”

Berkowitz fielded questions ranging from the possibility of convening outdoor pop-up prayer minyans (his answer was no) to the use of mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath. “I know we all consider davening in a minyan to be extremely important,” Berkowitz told the rabbis, before warning them that any such gathering could “lead to serious complications.”

“This really is a matter of pikuach nefesh” he concluded, using the Hebrew term for “saving lives,” referenced by Jewish sages as the only circumstance which overrides the need to adhere to rituals and mitzvahs.

The mission was relatively successful.

According to reports from Orthodox neighborhoods, many gatherings were canceled, and many yeshivas and synagogues closed their doors, although some remained active with more than ten people attending, even after the conversation.

(As a side note, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the Satmar rabbi of Kiryas Joel who was on the White House call, later tested positive to coronavirus, illustrating just how dangerous these gatherings could be. Rabbi Teitelbaum issued an order to fully close all synagogues and communal buildings.)

This unique exchange between the White House and the Hasidic rabbis illustrates not only how unusual this time in history is, but also the different path taken by the Trump administration in its dealings with the Jewish community. The current White House engages mainly with the Orthodox community and with ultra-Orthodox Jews, a group that was marginalized by past administrations. At times, this has proven problematic, when focusing on one small group within the Jewish community has led to ignoring the vast majority of liberal, non-Orthodox Jews. But at this point in time, the close ties, and having a top staffer who can relate on a personal level to the concerns and needs of ultra-Orthodox Jews, has proven to be advantageous, perhaps even life-saving.

2. Trump reaches out to religious communities at a time of need

Alongside this specific engagement with the New York-area Hasidic community, the Trump administration has also been reaching out to a variety of faith leaders, including those in the Jewish community. In two conference calls last week, the White House presented an initiative aimed at partnering with faith leaders to help deal with the coronavirus outbreak. At the center of this government initiative stands the understanding that religious leaders can both convince their followers to adhere to the emergency rules enacted in order to limit the spread of the virus and to “address potential concerns, fears, and anxieties” related to the crisis.

The calls were attended primarily by Christian leaders, although the message conveyed by the administrations was non-denominational and focused on the need for faith communities to help publicize the needed practices for ending the coronavirus spread.

3. And Pence solicits church donations

Trump and Mike Pence then held a short call with church leaders on Friday, after which the vice president seemed to use the White House press room podium to raise funds for Christian institutions.

“One thing the president and I promised,” Pence said, recounting his call with the religious leaders, “was to remind people that on the weekends that you’re not in the pews, it’s still a good—it’s still a good idea to, if you can, to go ahead and make that donation. All the ministries are continuing to play a vital role in our communities and we encourage your continued support.”

The comment was likely well-intentioned—a call to support your religious institution even when it is forced to close its doors. But for those sensitive to the erosion of the wall separating church and state, this was just further proof that Pence is currently the most significant force driving America in that direction.

4. Jewish charities lobby for assistance

Congress may soon be voting on the largest economic stimulus plan ever, and among those competing for a share of the package are social service nonprofits, which have taken a serious hit due to the coronavirus crisis shutdown.

The drive is led by a group known as Leadership 18, and it includes the Jewish Federations of North America, alongside other organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. The coalition is asking Congress to include in the stimulus plan $60 billion, so some 12 million employees in these charities can continue working with the most vulnerable populations.

The Orthodox Union has also been lobbying Congress in an effort to ensure that the bill gives nonprofits access to $300 billion in small business grants, tax deductions for donors and FEMA grants, and that Jewish day schools, yeshivas and private schools can get a share of the $12 billion which will be allocated to K-12 schools.

5. There’s also a presidential campaign going on

It may not make the news headlines, but the race for the White House is marching on in full force. The Republican Jewish Coalition was forced to cancel its annual Las Vegas meeting, due to the new restrictions on public gatherings, but the group is as active as ever and even launched a revamped website. On the Democratic side, the Jewish Democratic Council of America is expanding, with new staffers and a focus on online outreach, befitting the new era of social distancing campaigning.

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