May 3, 2020 Coronavirus in the Hasidic Community
When the coronavirus crisis came onto my radar in January/February, and the headlines started to predict a plague of biblical proportions, I made myself a promise not to get too enmeshed in the news.
It had been less than a year since the measles outbreak. With the measles, I followed closely and did a lot of research. Most of the cases were concentrated in the Hasidic community, especially in Williamsburg, in my turf.
The media was quick to blame the entire outbreak on Hasidic anti-vaxxers, yet it didn’t mention the extremely young Hasidic population; the median age of 18 or so is the starkest differentiating feature between Hasidim and other populations. A younger median age means there are more babies who are too young to be immunized, or who have only had one shot as of yet, or who generally are too young to have built up much of an immune system. (The same holds true with Hepatitis A, hence why a vaccine was trialed in the Hasidic community. Read about it here.) After all, anti-vaxxers are not unique to Hasidim, but a median age in the teens is.
At the time of the measles outbreak, I spent hours and hours examining every stat and detail I could find to get a reliable, clear eyed, objective picture and share it here. I was also interviewed by many media people (even the New Yorker), but when I didn’t give a scoop on the anti-vaxxers, the journalists moved to sources that gave them the answers they already had.
I explained in my blog posts and hundreds of internet comments how difficult the whole debacle was. It was hard for me to see how faulty the media institution looked up close. There were a lot of egos, a lot of people looking to file “safe” stories, meaning the same stories that others filed, and there was little integrity or honest searching.
In May, the New York Times wrote that the scientists, so busy with putting anti-vaxxers in their models, had no idea that the next measles outbreak would originate in the community with the youngest median age and most hyper social life. According to the article, “both groups of scientists failed to predict the measles outbreak that began in Brooklyn, currently the nation’s largest.” No shit. If you limit your data input to a few select variables, and you don’t account for other vital variables, then you’re predictions will be wrong. And they were, by the scientists’ own admission. But that lead them no closer to acknowledging the flaws of their methods. (That’s the science we are supposed to respect.)
After months of panic mongering, the story fizzled. In total, there were some 400 measles cases in Williamsburg and not a single death. But thousands of articles and an ever-lingering public misconception that Hasidim don’t get vaccines because there are pig particles, or whatever variation of this is most liable to stick in people’s minds, are still floating around on the internet and in public memory.
* * *
When the media began its public health crisis coverage of the virus that came from Wuhan, I just took one glance at the cover page felt demoralized. I knew it would be impossible to read the news without breaking out in hives of frustration. The endless visuals, dramatic graphs with high peaks, the pictures of people mourning, all emotion and no substance—it was too much. The out of context death-o-meters were patently absurd, completely misleading, and entirely illogical. Sure, I believed that there was an epidemic. I never doubted that there was an outbreak of something nasty. But I had no idea what the virus was like and how it spread, how many silent cases there were, and so on. Without this information, I just couldn’t understand all that was supposed to follow. I had all the threats but none of the science available to me.
As Lionel Shriver so eloquently says for me and my “type:”
“I am a type. I don’t like groups. I maintain few memberships. I question and resist authority, especially enforcement of rules for the rules’ sake. I’m leery of orthodoxy. I hold back from shared cultural enthusiasms.”
That’s my type. I’m very leery of orthodoxy.
So I read in the New York Times this:
“Hasidic Jews have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, which has killed hundreds in their community, including influential religious leaders.”
My reaction to this is to say: wait, hold up. Can you explain? How so? Yes, an 89-year-old rabbi died, but what does this prove? How many people are dying? Out of the overall population? How old are they? Did they have other conditions, did they indeed die from the virus or maybe they fell from the roof or were smothered to death? How about other Hasidic variables, like the unique diet or young population, how does this add in? Again, I had the surrounding fear, but no numbers.
But to ask such question at a time when everyone is so–understandably–anxious and bereaved, does not go over well. The media has framed us as skeptics and deniers, conspiracy theorists, right wing loonies, Trumpists or…tada…backward unscientific Hasids. The Twitter mobs called us selfish and greedy, said that we just wanted a lot of people to die. So I told myself that it would be better not to ask questions.
I tried not to look for answers to these questions myself. Instead I’d see the news, sigh, and move on. On Twitter, everyone—Hasidic, double lifers, ex-Hasidim—were all snitching on their Hasidic neighbors for insufficiently locking themselves in their homes: I saw, sighed, and moved on. In the New York Times and the Forward, Hasidim were called out for the heinous crimes of celebrating holidays, holding weddings, shopping for Passover, going to funerals, etc.: I saw, sighed and moved on.
I found comfort in all this, ironically, in my mother. Yes, my mother. My Hasidic, shpitzel-headgear wearing, praying-every-dawn mother. From whom I have hidden pretty much everything in my life, and with whom I still don’t discuss that I give tours or write or pretty much anything secular. My mother who, usually, when I see her name on my phone caller ID, causes me to shrivel into the couch and tell my son “Don’t answer, I’ll call her back!” (This is me with phone calls anyway, a lost cause).
But suddenly, my mother was the only person I could talk to openly. From the beginning, my mother has been open-minded, skeptical, open to discussing the tremendous cost of the cure even as the disease was raging, even as my father was bedridden and many of my family members were sick with the virus. Despite the fear and anxiety in the home, she could still commiserate with the tremendous toll the lockdown was taking on young mothers, women who suffer in terrible marriages, the lonely elderly. Since I didn’t feel comfortable voicing these doubts to anyone else, my mother was my fellow rebel. Oh the irony!
* * *
But slowly things changed. Two weeks turned to four, then six, then summer programs were cancelled and school was called off until, at the least, September. Skeptics began finding each other. We formed a small group of skeptics on Reddit, which I moderated in the beginning, and we began to collect many more skeptical voices. I made friends with a neighbor. I have my mother.
But the dominant narrative has yet to allow for questions. On the contrary, some of the tyrants have only gotten more brazen as they snitch on the Hasidic community (among other snitching work) and demand the city leaders to intervene. The tattlers finally compelled Mayor DeBlasio to retaliate this week with actions that were complete governmental overreach. We now had a round of aggressive crackdowns in Williamsburg and Boro Park by the New York Police Department.
So six weeks in, I lost my heroic self-control. I started to try to get actual coronavirus numbers for the Hasidic community. There is not a lot of data yet on the Hasidic population, but there is enough for a bit of a picture to emerge.
Most helpful was that I managed to reach Rabbi Isaac Brach, or the Dobshiner Rebbe, who is the head of the only Williamsburg chapel, Yereim Chapel, and has been for 26 years. He is a Williamsburg native and looks like an everyday Williamsburg Hasid, but someone had told me that he’s something of a character.
When I called him, I started to sputter out words quickly because I was afraid that he was going to hang up on me. As I rambled, he interjected. “Hold on, who is dis?”
I told him “I am a tour guide in Williamsburg.”
“What’s your name?”
When I said “Vizel,” he immediately warmed up. “Ah, yuh, I know you. I read your interview in The Veker —very good, very good.”
He was very generous with his time. I’m really grateful to him for sharing his perspective, and I plan to follow up with him to learn more.
Here is some of the information I have gathered from him and other sources*:
Case and fatality rates in the Hasidic community:
NYC does not release death rates by zip code, so we can’t use that metric to calculate the death rate in the Hasidic community. The city does, however, release positive case data, and for that, the Hasidic community has fewer cases than in most areas. See this Twitter thread by Laura Adkins, the opinion editor of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Rabbi Brach also reported to me that, per his count, there were 54 Covid-19 death certificates issued in Williamsburg. Since Williamsburg has only one chapel, his count would be comprehensive. In a separate spreadsheet put together by @yeedle from Williamsburg, there are 72 deaths accounted for in Williamsburg. As Yeedle said, this might include people who didn’t die of Covid-19, and it might also be missing many numbers. If we average both Rabbi Brach’s and Yeedle’s numbers, the death rate of the overall population would be around .05-1%, which, I think, is a high estimate.
To compare, according to the Daily News, New York City has to date had 18,231 deaths. Out of a population of 8.54 million, this gives you a .2% death rate.
I don’t like calculating death rate against positive case rate because I think it’s useless. There are many undiagnosed positives, so this makes the denominator obviously wrong.
In any event, we definitely can see that there is no proof that Hasidim are more effected (even if a famous 89-year-old rabbi died. My goodness, New York Times!)
(I am not a mathematician and did not comb through this exceptionally carefully so please be a critical reader and be so kind and alert me to any errors you think you see in my information. I am still building information.)
Perspective on death trends:
This from Rabbi Brach:
“Usually our chapel gets 8-10 deceased a week. During the peak, a few weeks ago, we had 70-90 a week. Now it dropped in half, more than half. Maybe 30-35 bodies a week.”
(NOTE: While Rabbi Brach’s is the only chapel in Williamsburg, it does not serve only Williamsburg. So, these numbers are going to be higher than those listed earlier which accounted only for Williamsburg.)
Why people die:
When I asked Rabbi Brach if he could tell me how many people died of the coronavirus, he said it would be impossible to get to the information because all deaths are now listed as Covid-19:
“The truth of the matter is that you are never going to find out who really died of Covid-19. Every single patient is put down on the death certificate as a Covid-19 death. No matter what they die of.
“There’s another thing —90% of people who died of coronavirus, (I would say more than 90% but I’m comfortable with 90%) died with an underlying condition, meaning that they suffered already from diabetes, heart problems, lung problems, liver problems…all were sick beforehand…there were a few that died who didn’t have already underlying problems.
“And again, I’ll debate with you if it’s corona that killed them or if it was neglect, or loneliness or fear.”
Death from neglect:
Rabbi Brach was very animated when he talked about what he saw in hospitals. In his eyes, people were dying from neglect in overcrowded hospitals. “Every patient I picked up looked like a homeless person,” he said. “Not washed, properly fed, nothing.” He said he picked up the bodies, the dirty sheets, he prepared bodies after the ritual bath–this is what he saw.
His view reflected a widespread anxiety in the Hasidic community altogether. Some of the stories I heard from Rabbi Brach I had heard from my mother too. In one example, he said he was called to pick up a body, but there was no body by the name. Just to be sure, he went to check, and it turned out the person was still alive. He said Maimonides Medical Center and NYU were especially bad. He had maybe 100 deaths from NYU, while only a few from Cornell.
I don’t think this is so surprising, because even in non-Jewish stories we’ve heard of neglect in care homes or in other overwhelmed facilities, which clearly contributed to deaths. Rabbi Brach asked: If hospitals were confident in their service delivery, why did Governor Cuomo sign a law that hospitals could not be sued (which you can read about here)? Brach also mentioned the monetary incentives for ascribing patient deaths to Covid-19, but he did not expand, and I think it would take some work to investigate that.
I don’t think he was implying that there was a conspiracy or intent to harm. I think here Hanlon’s razor applies: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” (or mismanagement or other human bungling.) But he was adamant hospital neglect was an issue.
I am in no position to speak to the problems in hospitals or the monetary incentives. I do think it’s valuable to share what people in their midst are experiencing. These reports need to be investigated and reported on. I’m hoping we will get honest accounting down the line.
Unique Hasidic Variables:
The “models” scientists use to predict death often don’t account for specific demographic variables present in the Hasidic community. This is not comprehensive, but demonstrates the few obvious ones:
- Very low median age: The very young population effects the outcome in a number of ways. One of the things I read about Italy’s crisis was that its population is very old. The position put forth by Professor Knutt Wittowski, the one increasingly vindicated, is that children act as protectors because they are very good at fighting off viruses, and they are the perfect candidates for herd immunity. (For a fascinating perspective on how herd immunity might happen, see here.) On the other hand, the low population skews the Hasidic data, because since this virus takes out the old, the percentage of Hasidic deaths will be lower simply because they have a lower percentage of elderly. For more information on how the median age skews the numbers, you can read this short piece.
- Little in terms of the sensorium: Hasidic kids can’t sit in front of a computer all day. They’re not learning online–definitely not the way my son is. I think the rest of us are now on screens for most of our waking hours. This is not the case for Hasidim–and good for them! However, it makes it nearly impossible to stay in confinement when you are not in the sensorium, so they are bound to have a harder time with the rules. The number of young children who are expected to follow the rules plays a role too. Kids want to socialize, naturally!
- Lots of mixing: I can’t emphasize enough how social Hasidic life is. All the weddings, charity events, births, the celebration at age three, so on and so forth. Since this began, my sister has had a baby, and my brother has had a grandchild (I became a great aunt for the first time!), there was a pidyon haben, etc. These things go on for the Hasidic community much more often, and much more intensely, than for the general population. All these things still involve some degree of celebration.
- The families are also large: Anyone with a little common sense can take a look at the Hasidic way of life and say “no matter how hard they try, things will get around.”
- Male to female health ratio: This is something I’m curious about and am only speculating on, but in my experience Hasidic women are much more likely to be health conscious and diet minded while men are more likely to be overweight. Men also sometimes smoke but women don’t. These gender variables must play a role as well, and could help explain the much higher rate of male deaths in the spreadsheet above.
- Unique diet, exercise and sun exposure.
- How the elderly are cared for: It would be interesting to find out if the elderly live in care homes at a different rate than the overall population. I know many elderly in the Hasidic community live with family. Care homes have been vectors for the spread of the disease and fatalities.
Media myths about Hasidim:
There are some myths you’ll see repeated in every media outlet. This is one of those narratives that you just can’t contain once it’s out, like a virus. But that doesn’t make it true.
1. Poverty is a variable: There is a lot of poverty in New York City, especially among the black and Hispanic communities. The poverty rate for Hasidim is extremely skewed because poverty rates are adjusted for family size, and also because income is often underreported. So saying that their rates are higher because they are poor is nonsensical.
2. Ignorance is a variable: Frimet Goldberger wrote for the New York Times, “I believe a lack of information about this unprecedented threat—and what it will take to survive it—is part of the problem. In my former hometown, television, the internet and secular newspapers are verboten. Smartphones are banned for personal use.”
Even Hasidim repeat this line to me. It’s plainly not true. I get the telegram version of the daily Der Yid, and COVID-19 has been there all along. I can tell you that my mother was already complaining about the drumbeat of a virus in February. She might not have internet, but news travels extremely fast in the Hasidic community. There are the newspapers, the hotlines, and the nonstop word of mouth.
And then there’s the robocalls. Any Hasidic person will be able to bemoan to you the terrible harassment of nonstop robocalls, which ring home phones and personal phones and scare the bejeezus out of the poor person who answers, by starting the recording with “Help! Save! Ratevet!” For anyone unfamiliar, the Hasidic community sends prerecorded calls out for public health announcements, announcements of sales, fundraisers, or anything else going on. The robocalls have long been a spam-like and unbearable nuisance, but during the pandemic, they’ve taken on a new level of hysteria, attacking people for going outside, or violating public health orders, and demanding people stay inside. The system is unpleasant but effective; to say that the Hasidic community is unaware of the virus and the public health rules around it is simply wrong.
Sure, there are subjects that are censored in Hasidic news, but this is ever more reason for a subject that is totally censor-approved to get more attention.
3. Skepticism is a variable: Another claim that Goldberger article makes is that “There is also a general mistrust of science and a solid distrust of secular authorities in Hasidic communities.” This is again variably not true. If anything, Hasidim can have a reverence for doctors, policemen, firemen that you don’t see on the outside. I’m also struck by how much religious language there is in “trust of authorities.” The secular way is not to trust. As Bruce Springsteen famously said “Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.”
How the Hasidic community is dealing with the public relations crisis:
As always, the Hasidic approach is to “Keep your heads down until the crisis passes, don’t pick a fight.” It’s a very pre-Zionist Jewish approach. The Hasidim are trying to social distance if for no other reason than to not encourage their bad name. There is a campaign everywhere to deny that the rules aren’t being honored. The Yiddish daily Der Yid excoriates Hasidim to not fight with the police and behave themselves.
My own view is quite different. I don’t come to it with the philosophy of “Gentiles, these goyim, let’s not excite their anger on us.” I am a part of this secular democracy (so called!), and I don’t think I should hold my head down at unreasonable laws; rather, we all make the laws and should demand reasonable ones. If many like me spoke up, then Hasidim could open up schools, and we could all open schools and go back to some modicum of normalcy. So instead of denying the violations of rules, I’ll tell you that I saw with my own eyes that the rules were extremely lax in Boro Park (relatively speaking), and I thought to myself, good on them! At least they have lives and aren’t all hiding under their beds! I shopped in all the stores in Boro Park, because I like to shop local and all my stores are closed.
So I saw that the rules were not observed as seriously, and yet the doom predicted by the models was not born out. If the models that predicted mass deaths had been correct, the numbers for the Hasidic community should look much worse than they do now. But instead, the situation is steadily improving.
Can we hold it against a population for trusting their own lived experience with the outcome? Of course not. Science is about testing a hypothesis against reality. Models which make guesses based on numbers alone and leave out human variables make for questionable science.
Where this leaves me:
I still don’t have a complete picture. I will keep collecting data. Please send if you have any.
But I think it’s clear that the Hasidic Covid-19 fatality rate, despite tremendous deviation from the social distancing recommendations, is nowhere where the model’s predicted death rates would be if people didn’t heed the social distancing measures We also don’t see that Hasidim have a substantial deviation from the general New York City population.
It seems to me that targeting them for trying to live life under draconian rules (while their reality doesn’t confirm the need for such draconian measures) is unfair. I think in hindsight, when the poverty and the side effects of the lockdown really start hurting, many who target them today will be less proud of themselves for it.
It’s a strange time. We now live in a world where all the learned wisdom from millennia is discarded for technocratic solutions. We ignore that humans coexisted with viruses always. We can only imagine a solution through a vaccine. We give no credit to our bodies and their tried and true faculties. We claim that this is “science,” but it isn’t, it’s the technocracy, and we play god in the name of science.
So while on one side, the technocrats claim to be on the side of science and demand we sacrifice a year of our lives, the economy, health and well-being so that the lab can do what the body has done much longer, and on the other side is my mother and her inherited wisdom borne out of eons of tweaking and learning, I’ll be on the side with my mother.
05/02/20 – I plan to update this post with new information or corrections. I will note any updates over here.
05/04/20 – Some asked if Williamsburg residents, buried in Monroe, NY, would be sent to a different chapel. According to Rabbi Brach, it would all go through him. I also know that typically a funeral of a Williamsburg resident with a Monroe burial first takes place in Williamsburg.
05/04/20 – On April 19 the Lakewood Scoop reported close to 50 deaths in Lakewood. So this is another piece that corroborates a ball part of death rate in the double digits per neighborhood.
05/06/20 – Information coming out of New York corroborates what we see here. This interview with NY funeral home directors corroborates Rabbi Brach’s points about padding the covid numbers and death with other causes. The New York Times also reports that most Covid hospitalization were of people with other conditions.
05/06/20 – added some info about care homes as a potential deviating variable in the Hasidic community.
05/11/20 – I’ve biked and walked through Brooklyn. The Hasidic community is bustling, albeit very secretively. (Lots of garbage bags up on storefronts). A lot of things are reopening on the down-low. This has not coincided with a spike in deaths. I can only guess that this experience will create a stronger rift between the Hasidic community and the secular world, and it will increase the Hasidic persecution complex. Already I am hearing people say “the outside world doesn’t understand our way of life…”
Further reading: Swiss Propaganda Research has the best collection of explanations and links.