January 28, 2021 Year-in-review: Hasidim had similar Covid outcomes despite opening
This is a review of the Covid situation in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. As we near the one year mark, we have a lot of data and pieces of news that can illuminate the big picture of how Covid has impacted the Hasidic community. People unfamiliar with this community will still probably have heard about the many “superspreader” events, and that Hasidim held maskless weddings with thousands squeezed indoors. This post is an attempt to gather bits and pieces of information that I’ve collected through the year on this particular community, to give my best possible overview of how this unique community dealt with the virus, and what the impact was. As you’ll see, despite the obsessive media coverage of their mass gatherings, it seems to have had no impact on their Covid mortality.
PART 1: MARCH MADNESS
From the very start of the pandemic, Hasidim have not followed the rules as the rest of the city has.
From mid-March when NYC locked down, the Hasidic community was two things: terrified and also compelled to break rules for religious observances. As the Rabbi of the Kiryas Joel faction, Aaron Teitelbaum, said at the time, this community was uniquely unfit for a lockdown:
Unlike the gentiles… they have families of two or three children, with an apartment, with a room for the television, a room for videos, entertainment… and if there is not school then there can be entertainment at home, there are ways to stay entertained. The gentile won’t just wander around among people, so he thinks that this is a way to limit contact with people.
They do not at all understand what a Jewish family is; a family thank god with many young ones, where the space at home is tight and there is hardly any room. We set up beds to sleep, there is none of the secular entertainments, and if the kids are sent home from the school and there is no room in the home, then the children will roam the streets. And there they will meet again, so the whole effort is for naught, no good comes of it!
Here, in one Hasidic man’s vivid report of a wedding during “Corona Times,” the early, terrifying plague days,” as he told it on a Yiddish podcast, we get a sense of how chaotic these times were.
I’ll tell you one thing, V. I was at a wedding the first night that they closed the wedding venues. The wedding of a family — it was held in a warehouse… You could touch the seriousness and the confusion of the people… no one knew how to even pull on a glove. And the thought of a mask — we thought belonged at a dentist… I sat there with others — one of them… a few days later… spent ten days in the hospital. By the time of the post-wedding ceremony I was already bedridden with fever… And that doesn’t come close to another family wedding I had:
Remember that Saturday night when we heard of one person [getting sick/dying] and another, and another, and another – you know which Saturday night I’m referring to? Sunday, the night after, I had a very close relative’s wedding. Can you imagine? I had just made a list of sixteen Hasidic victims; I’m talking Boro Park, Williamsburg, our community — it was that Saturday night. Can you imagine, Sunday the night after, I was at a wedding. At the outdoor ceremony, at the groom walking up to the bride, half or three quarter of the regular guests were absent, we couldn’t find the words… Ehh… I remember they honored someone with a blessing under the canopy — he was hardly able to recite it, he was crying so hard.
Aaron Teitelbaum’s argument against lockdowns were largely shut down by public health and outside pressure. The community tried t0 juggle lockdown with religious life. In the secular media, because Hasidim were not following the rules to the hilt, the public narrative was that the Hasidic community was especially hard hit. As the New York Times wrote:
“Hasidic Jews have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, which has killed hundreds in their community, including influential religious leaders.”
This assertion was based on the number of positive cases, not hospitalizations and deaths. So a typical report would look like the JTA’s:
“In Crown Heights, 63.4% of tests are positive, while in Williamsburg the figure is 62.5% and in Midwood it is 60.3%. The average positive test rate across the city is 53%.”
The mood online, in Hasidic and ex-Hasidic circles, reflected this common perception that the Orthodox community was affected disproportionately. There was a lot of that deafening self-righteous social-media noise. The story was thus: The tattling and shaming was justified because the community had brought on itself this terrible death toll. As the Gothamist wrote in early April:
“The aggressive condemnation comes amid growing anxiety in the city’s ultra-Orthodox enclaves, which have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic.”
In the spring, I set out to try to clarify if this was true. I didn’t think cases as a metric were useful (they were what everyone used), because many cases were asymptomatic and therefore, were not really a measure of anything we should worry about or respond to. And we now know there are many problems with how cases are diagnosed with PCR tests. So I thought hospitalizations and deaths were the important metric.
The city did not have deaths and hospitalizations listed by zip code, so I couldn’t isolate the community at the time. Instead, as I wrote then, I spoke to the funeral director of the only Williamsburg Jewish funeral home. He gave some helpful stats. Twitter user @yeedle also shared his spreadsheet of possible deaths. I found, as I wrote at the time, that the data didn’t bear out that the community was “disproportionately affected.”
“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.”
To my surprise, that post did not get any real disagreement. One commentor was quite surprised that the number of dead was that low, as it had “felt” like everyone was dying.
Kiryas Joel, the 25,000-person community I grew up in, was the cradle of the Dr. Zalenko hydroxychloroquine debacle, and it brought a lot of unwelcome media attention to the community. By the end of the season, Zalenko closed his practice. But as far as I know, hydroxychloroquine remained a much used treatment. You can read about this story in the Forward here.
PART 2: SUMMER LULL
As spring turned into summer, Covid waned. Hasidim began to open up shop. Schools, stores, festive events that had been opened on the down-down low, with terrific terror, were now cracking doors open. There were little covert breaches, not so much meant to declare the end of the pandemic as meant to keep living life. A wave of media targeted the Orthodox neighborhoods for violating the rules. Police showed up at covert open spaces and forced them to close. I wrote for the Forward that I was concerned that this was traumatic and divisive. But the public remained focused on the narrow question of whether the rules were being violated.
By mid-summer, it felt like the debacle was ending. The Yiddish newspaper Der Yid declared “After the Plague…” a play on a biblical expression. The JTA reported that Hasidim acted like they had herd immunity.
The city was a mess, with rioting and a curfew and non-stop fireworks. With droves of BLM activists marching through Williamsburg, it felt like everyone was done with the rules—not just Hasidim. Orthodox summer camps and bungalow colonies opened, everyone traveled, masks were disappearing.
Then, as the George Floyd protests disappeared from the news, Covid was again the preoccupation. But while the rest of New York City remained closed and masked, my Hasidic family celebrating weddings normally. This was my experience as I recorded then:
“I had a close Hasidic family wedding in the middle of the summer. Crowds of wedding guests of all ages came in pretty dresses and with sweet, full, open faces. The custom for women is to say “Mazel Tov,” shake hands, and kiss on the cheek. I sat next to my Holocaust survivor grandmother. Tens, maybe hundreds of women came up to her to offer their congratulations. She danced with little girls wearing great puffy dresses. I danced under-over and in the circle. I pressed into the sweaty palms of forgotten classmates who now have half a dozen kids or more. The music was loud enough to give you hearing loss, so we all bent into each other’s faces to scream our catching-up. It’s many weeks later and my grandmother is fine. Everyone is.”
PART 3: HIGH AND LOW HOLIDAYS
Then with the fall came new infections. I don’t know what triggered the wave during the fall. There is no doubt that the Hasidic EMS was again busy with the life-threatening symptoms that caused older people’s blood oxygen level to drop dangerously low. But again, a pattern emerged: When more people got sick, a lot of people were scared witless. The rumor mills, the scare-mongering telephone news sources, the gasping sharing of terror stories, all of it contributed to tremendous anxiety. This type of breathless panic spreads like fire on dry tinder in the Hasidic community always, and Covid was no exception.
But this did not mean that people wanted to disrupt everything—the high holidays, the hum drum of life, the routines, the children’s schooling, the economic life—for these fears. Things remained opened
The city and state of New York descended on Hasidim with floodlights and laser beams. Why were they singled out of all other city residents? Because these neighborhoods had far higher “Covid numbers.” These numbers, on closer inspection, were relative. They were based on a ratio of positive tests to negative tests. Once Hasidim caught on to this, they started to do whatever possible to ensure they could remain open. For example, as I wrote then, the people who were sick were urged not to get tested, people who were healthy were urged to get tested, and everyone was instructed to wear masks outside, when the media and secular authorities saw. As one letter to the families put it:
“The fact that, when you visit the neighborhood you don’t see masks, angers the media and authorities and they then go after us, therefore: We plead: everyone should make sure to carry masks when they are in the street. […] This is not a time to sit with idle hands. The education of our children, the wasted Torah study, and prayer of the public are all on the scale.”
Unlike in the spring, by the fall, those who had screamed at people to stay home no longer ruled the day. Now the anger came from people fed up with the government infringements and with the media smears. The protests in Boro Park that followed garnered national media attention. Masks were burned. There was a lot of anger. Synagogues stayed open anyway. There was a lot going on then, and this video summary goes into some of the data and the hullabaloo.
Looking back now, I would argue that the fall Covid season returned to the Hasidic community a few weeks earlier than it did for the rest of the city. This comes as no surprise as there are a number of things that make things pass around in this community sooner: the many children, the communal life, the packed households. But as we saw a few weeks later when the city started to shut schools and citywide numbers went up too, the spread caught up with the rest of the city, albeit with delay.
When I visited Boro Park in November and then when I gave a tour in January, the Hasidic neighborhoods were back to normal. No masks, everything open, school buses running everywhere.
PART 4: BREAKING NEWS – A HASIDIC WEDDING!
Now it’s almost February 2021. Almost a year since the initial closures. Here is one way to contextualize all the most important moments when the worlds’ attention turned to Hasidic Jews:
I compiled a list of some of the “super spreader” events in the NY Hasidic community. This is a summary meant to illustrate an overall trend. But just because these events got an onslaught of attention doesn’t mean that this is a comprehensive tracker of when Hasidim mingled. The aim for this list is only to contextualize the big media moments.
- On 4/4/20 hundreds gathered in Borough Park for the funeral of Rabbi Meir Rokeach, “not observing social distancing guidelines.” (Source)
- On 4/28/20, a funeral in Williamsburg for Rabbi Mertz drew huge crowds who were not social distancing. (Source)
- On 7/1/20 JTA reported everything open, and that “wedding halls are packed again.” (Source)
- On 10/6/20, large crowds in Borough Park gathered to protest and burn masks. (Source)
- On 11/8/20, the Williamsburg Satmar sect pulled off a huge secret wedding with some 7K estimated guests, “stomping, dancing and singing at the top of their lungs without a mask in sight.” (Source)
- On 11/23/20 another wedding, this time in Kiryas Joel was held by the other Satmar faction. (Source)
- On 12/7/20, thousands gathered for a funeral in Williamsburg, again no masks. (Source)
- On 1/18/21, the Bobov sect ion Boro Park held a wedding for thousands of guests. Videos “showed a packed wedding hall with thousands of people and no masks in sight” (Source)
In order to appreciate how audacious the gatherings have been, you must watch some of the video footage. You’ll see no masks, packed in there like sardines, as any good Hasidic event would be.
If you plot the dates of these events against the NYC data on deaths and hospitalizations, there is no discernible impact. Here are the death charts broken down by date. You’ll see that on the chart for Brooklyn, I marked red X’s at about where these superspreader events would have been. There seems to be no sign of them having had an impact.
Source: NYC.gov, retrieved 1/24/21
The best way to look at Hasidic enclaves is not by borough (which has mixed populations) but by zip code, which could be much more homogeneous. Hasidim live close together in a sort of bubble, so zip codes can be very reflective. The Hasidic neighborhoods are zip 11219 for Borough Park and 11211 & 11206 for Williamsburg (I am excluding Crown Heights, as I am not very familiar with it). From this view there is also no discernible difference in outcome in cases, hospitalizations or deaths. The New York Times’ interactive map has the death count broken down by zip code, and here is the whole long list, with the relevant zip codes highlighted:
—-> Data for all New York City deaths from Covid: New York Times Covid Death list by Zipcode, sorted by most deaths per capita.
This is a glimpse of what you’ll see: The Hasidic zip codes have no increase in mortality. The most deaths per 100,000 residents was 838 for East New York-11239, and far, far down the list are the Hasidic neighborhoods at 225 for Borough Park-11219 and 205 for Williamsburg-11206 and 154 for Williamsburg-11211.
Source: New York Times tracker. Retrieved 1/27/21
The neighborhoods worst hit are East New York, Brighton Beach, Staten Island, Bronx, and Queens. Of course this comes as no surprise because Brighton Beach, for instance, has an elderly population. Hasidim have a young population. But Orthodox Jews have a high life expectancy—per Wikipedia, Borough Park has a life expectancy of 84.2, compared to the citywide average of 81.2.
This means that there are a sizable number of elderly in these neighborhoods. The city does not give us an age breakdown by zip code, but if you look at the numbers of elderly white people in Brooklyn who died as compared to elderly people in other boroughs, there remains no indication, again, in any of the data, that Brooklyn, with its thousands of Hasidic residents, had a different outcome.
Source: nyc.gov, retrieved 1/24/21
The New York Times summarizes the New York City outcome as follows:
“Many of the neighborhoods with the highest number of cases per capita were areas with the lowest median incomes and largest average household size.”
This condition is easily satisfied by the Hasidic communities, which always come in with low average incomes (especially adjusted for large families) and large households.
Yet, the NYT goes on:
“The biggest hot spots included communities in the South Bronx, north and southeast Queens, and much of Staten Island.”
As you can see, none of these neighborhoods are in Brooklyn, much less in Hasidic enclaves.
Source: NYT. Retrieved 1/27/21
PART 5: VACCINES AND CONCLUSIONS
So here we are. Vaccines are being rolled out; first and second doses. We don’t know if this will be the end of restrictions for the rest of NYC, but for many Hasidim who are mingling and fearful, it spells relief from the anxieties. Vaccines are now on offer in many of the local clinics. I got a recording from a Hasidic clinic advising me that due to high call volume from people inquiring about vaccines, they are unable to field most calls. I am not quite sure what ratio of the population is getting vaccinated.
I think that the case study of the Hasidic community shows that communal, child-centric communities get things faster, but also work through the worst of it faster. I see no evidence, from any of the data, that the Hasidic community’s lack of masks or lockdowns caused an increase in Covid mortality.
RELATED REPORTS ON COVID IN HASIDIC BROOKLYN
- Spring 2020 post on the Hasidic community
- Late spring 2020 on the crackdowns of Hasidic schools (in the Forward)
- Late spring during the BLM protests and the city curfew
- Fall 2020 translated community posters asking people to help keep the community open
- Fall 2020 more posters requesting healthy people to get tested
- Late fall/high 2020 holidays when Hasidim were targeted for lockdowns
- Early winter 2020 visit to Hasidic Boro Park
- Why Hasidim didn’t follow the Covid precautions [podcast analysis]