Hasidic, Devout, and Mad as Hell About COVID-19

An illustration shows photos of Hasidic men and clips of text from the magazine Der Veker
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

A few weeks ago, Reuven went to a party. It was indoors. No one wore masks. No one who attended was in any rush to get a vaccine. Reuven and his wife were uncomfortable. But if they hadn’t gone, his relatives would have felt as if he were “judging them” for gathering, “and they judge me back,” he told me. “I have to weigh my options.” Reuven’s parents and siblings roll their eyes when he constantly talks about their risk of getting sick, just as he did at the beginning of the pandemic. He’s meshige far corona, they say. Crazy about the virus.

The Yiddish-speaking, Hasidic Jewish world that Reuven inhabits is intensely communal. Men crowd into synagogues in his Brooklyn neighborhood to pray together three times a day—morning, afternoon, and night. Many large families share small apartments or rowhouses, where they stage elaborate meals each week on Shabbat and during the Jewish calendar’s many holidays, filling their homes with scrambling kids and occasionally the cousins and uncles who live just blocks away. Orthodox Jews in New York are distinctly vulnerable to the virus for many of the same reasons low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods have been hit hard: crowded living spaces, lack of public-health infrastructure, jobs that require in-person work. For many people in these communities, sealing themselves inside their apartments for a year simply wasn’t possible. Reuven knows this; he doesn’t fault the Hasidim for the way they live. “We shouldn't be judged merely on the fact that we feel that some forms of gatherings are important to us, even during a pandemic,” he told me. “What’s so disappointing and depressing, and even shocking, is the fact that we chose to do all this with zero precautions, for which there is absolutely no excuse.”

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New York papers have published plenty of criticism of the Hasidic community’s disregard for COVID-19 safety, covering secretive weddings, massive funerals, and violent anti-lockdown protests. Far less common is pushback like Reuven’s, from within the Hasidic world. This spring, his small, independent Yiddish-language magazine—called Der Veker, meaning “One Who Awakens”—published an investigative report on how the COVID-19 death rates in Hasidic neighborhoods compared with those in other parts of New York State. Based on death notices posted by an establishment Hasidic paper, Der Yid, Reuven and his colleagues concluded that the death rate in their community was three to four times higher than the state average. The number of deaths could have been lower, Der Veker implied, if Hasidic leaders had encouraged their followers to take more precautions—and modeled that behavior themselves. Most Hasidim believe that complaining about the community, especially to outsiders, is like “washing your dirty laundry” in public. “There is no mechanism for self-criticism,” Reuven said. Hasidic Jews who follow particular rabbis are accustomed to heeding their leader’s guidance without question, and those rabbis often crack down on criticism from within their ranks. Reuven worries that speaking out might exacerbate the anti-Semitism the community already faces. But after a brutal year filled with dying, Reuven wants a reckoning—one that will happen, he believes, only under external pressure.

Most Americans would find Reuven’s Brooklyn world foreign. But some people might recognize his dilemma, especially if they live in other communities where the risk of contracting the coronavirus is high and regard for restrictions is low. How could a community that prides itself on generosity and kindness fail to protect its most vulnerable members from a deadly pandemic?

On a recent Friday afternoon before Shabbat, I visited a bakery in the heart of Borough Park’s Hasidic area. Men in black coats circulated busily through the small storefront, collecting pastries and braided loaves of challah to eat that evening, children snaking through their legs. At the time, COVID-19 rates in New York City were roughly as high as they had been during some weeks of the first wave of the pandemic last spring. We all stood in line, shoulder to shoulder, raising our voices to give our orders to three women from outside of the community who stood behind the counter, wearing jeans and black masks. Among the other customers, I didn’t see a single mask.

I met Reuven on a brutally cold spring morning, one more intolerable day after an endless winter. He’d requested a spot in Brooklyn’s rambling Prospect Park, not for its convenience, but for its inconvenience. Reuven is not his real name; it’s a pseudonym he chose. A handful of other Hasidim help him edit and publish Der Veker’s thick copies a couple of times a year, but his real identity is unknown to most contributors. Most of Reuven’s own family members don’t know that he runs Der Veker. “If people find out I’m behind it, the consequences can be extremely harsh,” he told me. He worries that his kids would get kicked out of their yeshivas, or Jewish schools; that he would lose his job; that his marriage would collapse from the stress. As we walked, he kept directing us farther toward the interior of the park, away from the street, in case someone he knows happened to drive by. We passed an elderly couple, a man in a yarmulke and a woman in the kind of wig many Orthodox women wear. Reuven didn’t know them, but he instantly stopped speaking, moving away from me to pretend that we weren’t there together. He made me promise to write that I had approached Der Veker, not the other way around. Even anonymously, he doesn’t want to be known as someone who spoke badly of his community.

With a few notable exceptions, secular society’s understanding of Hasidim is shaped by the accounts of people who have left it. Popular television shows such as Unorthodox portray the community as oppressive and harsh, filtered through the perspective of those who could not or did not want to subsume their identity into collective religious life. This is not Reuven’s experience. He believes that many people in the outside world are lost and isolated; he loves that his neighbors routinely raise thousands of dollars to pay for poor Hasidic brides’ wedding dresses, and that everyone has the number for the community’s volunteer ambulance corps saved in their phone. “It’s hard to tackle life when you don’t have this kind of safety net,” he said. “This is the type of luxury we grow up with, and some of us don’t even realize how amazing it is.” As joggers in brightly colored leggings and expensive sneakers streamed around us like schools of fish, Reuven knew he stood out in his dark overcoat and hat, his long curly sideburns, called peyos, swinging alongside his blue surgical mask. Even though he disagrees with how his community has handled the coronavirus pandemic, he still feels judgment targeted at him.

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Hasidic rabbis who have made public appearances over the past year or spoken about the pandemic have often been defiant. As the first wave hit in New York City last spring, the Satmar rebbe of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village roughly 50 miles north of Manhattan, swore he wouldn’t shut down schools. Secular people “have a family of two or three children, with an apartment with a room for TV, a room for videos, entertainment, and when everyone is not going to school they’ll manage at home,” he said. Hasidic children have many siblings and sleep in rooms crowded with cots; if they stayed home from school, they’d be out in the streets around other people anyway. “A goyish head does not understand this,” he said, using the Yiddish version of a Hebrew word that describes non-Jews, which often carries a derogatory connotation. Rabbi Moishe Indig, a representative of the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel, told me that the rebbe had not ignored the pandemic. He insisted that most Hasidic people had followed CDC guidelines during its early stages. People started loosening up only “after two months, when a big percentage of the community had, already, the antibodies,” he said. Reuven is not impressed by this argument. “Even when people continued to die, they continued to claim that there is no need to do anything, because ‘everyone already had it,’” he said. He felt that, after the first weeks of the pandemic, the rabbis didn’t bother to talk directly about COVID-19 and continued with life as usual. If they had said, “‘We believe the virus doesn’t exist,’ or ‘We believe some crazy, crackpot doctor, and we want to do whatever he says,’ you know, that would have been a little bit better,” Reuven said. “That [would have] meant that they thought about it.”

An illustration shows pieces of the cover of Der Veker magazine. A Hasidic man wearing a tall black hat and a mask over his eyes is shown.
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Since he was a teenager, Reuven has hungered for an intellectual life beyond Jewish texts. In private, he “voraciously” consumed books about evolution written by Orthodox rabbis. (“Did I say the word correctly?” he asked, self-conscious about the English he obsessively reads and rarely speaks.) In his world, it’s a liability to become known as an oifgeklerter, or “enlightened person”—a know-it-all, someone who thinks they’re better than everyone else. No one wants to teach the children of an oifgeklerter. No one wants to marry that person’s kids.

Der Veker grew out of a desire for a literary forum that is both capacious and religious, where Yiddish speakers could, say, publish fiction or debate the community’s practice of not publishing pictures of women. The first edition came out in 2016, and some early issues sold six times as many copies as Reuven and his colleagues were expecting. One copy might be passed around to a dozen members of a family or a hundred boys in a yeshiva. Reuven has seen men in synagogue hide a copy of Der Veker in their prayer book to read during marathon services. In the Yiddish-speaking world, “this is basically the only place in print—not online, but a physical publication—where you can find more critical perspectives that aren’t under the influence of an editor or a censor,” Isaac Bleaman, an assistant professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley who has studied the Hasidic community, told me.

The latest cover of Der Veker features a man with a dark beard and long curls wearing a scarf swept over his shoulder and a velvety black hat. “And there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord,” reads the headline, printed in thick, red Hebrew lettering on a white surgical mask that covers his eyes. The edition’s main investigation—nearly 30,000 words over 79 pages—argues that Hasidic Jews made choices that led to disproportionately high rates of illness and death compared with the rest of New York State. The article uses the decidedly secular language of bar charts and line graphs, crowded alongside passages of dense Yiddish text. I could not replicate their findings—they are based on dozens of weeks’ worth of death notices published in Yiddish—but what matters is that Der Veker’s writers wanted to quantify the effects of behavior they were seeing every day in their neighborhoods. Different Orthodox communities behaved in radically different ways, even among the highly observant Jews of Brooklyn. Der Veker’s data are an attempt to precisely measure COVID-19 deaths in the distinct world of the Hasidim, where many people have claimed that the pandemic is fake or overstated.

What Reuven and his fellow writers agonize over most is the moral posture of the community. “Would we not wear masks on the streets or in the synagogues for months on end if we thought that it would release even a single heimishe person from jail?” the writers say, using the Yiddish word for a member of their community. “Wouldn’t we desist from shaking hands if we knew that it could save one Jew? … So why are the lives of hundreds of our brethren, tens of them, so irrelevant that we will not do the least bit to reduce the chances of us infecting one another?” Small things make Reuven deeply upset: Noticing that there’s no soap in the synagogues for washing hands, or seeing few masks among large groups of praying men. The leader of one Hasidic group, called Bobov-45, made a public show of wearing a blue surgical mask on the afternoon before Yom Kippur in September, but a video shows that he took it off when he went inside a synagogue. A January edition of Der Yid described in rapturous detail the wedding of a grandson of Zalman Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe in Williamsburg and one of the most powerful Hasidic leaders in the world. It was as if attendees were “caught up in an electric current when the rebbe appeared,” the article says. He danced with the bride, the groom, and his in-laws, bobbing “up and down with a religious ecstasy.” Teitelbaum had tested positive for COVID-19 just seven days earlier, during the peak of New York City’s third wave.

Der Veker offers a litany of explanations for why Hasidim have mostly ignored public-health guidelines in recent months: a lack of statistical and scientific literacy, an inability to empathize with the suffering of non-Jews, a sense of being at war with the outside world. Reuven also attributed some of this attitude to the “Trump effect” and to the popularity of right-wing talk-radio hosts such as Mark Levin among Hasidim. “There’s no sports in the Hasidic community,” he said. “Politics is our sport.” Most of Brooklyn is deep blue, but in the Hasidic parts of Williamsburg, some precincts went 90 or 95 percent for Donald Trump in 2020. Even among the largely anti-Zionist Hasidim, many people believe Trump was good for Israel, and they appreciated the high-profile prison-sentence commutations he granted to several Orthodox Jews. The Trump administration reached out to Hasidic leaders during the early part of the pandemic, encouraging them to establish safety protocols. But Reuven believes that most Hasidim observed Trump not taking the virus seriously, and saw the pandemic as a joke. When Democratic leaders such as Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo singled out the Hasidim for condemnation, the backlash was intense. Many people in the community felt as though they were unfairly targeted, especially over the summer as large groups gathered for Black Lives Matter protests. De Blasio is “viewed as Haman or something—really a villain,” Reuven said.

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Theoretically, Hasidic Jews are not supposed to use the internet, but many people covertly own a smartphone or install Wi-Fi in their homes. “Some people think, If only people give [Hasidim] some internet, they would be able to see the light, see the information—real information! But most of these people have the internet, and that’s actually where they pick up the garbage,” Reuven said. It’s a common belief among Hasidim that Bill Gates designed the vaccines so that a GPS tracking device could be implanted in people’s arms; when Reuven challenged an acquaintance about this claim, “he told me: ‘Just Google it!’” Reuven said. Reuven subscribes to The Atlantic and, like many Americans, reads The New York Times on different browsers and devices so that he can get past the paywall. He tends to reply to emails within minutes and confidently uses Google Drive. But his acquaintance could not believe that Reuven didn’t know about Gates’s plot. “He was telling me, ‘You for sure don’t have a smartphone.’”

But even if they wanted to, some Hasidim wouldn’t be able to find the kind of information Der Veker hopes to spread in the community. Several Hasidic groups have created filters, which limit what their followers can see when they browse the web. A filter created by the Satmars, the biggest Hasidic community in Brooklyn, blocks the page where Der Veker is sold on Amazon.

A Jewish principle, called pikuach nefesh in Hebrew, instructs Jews to violate religious laws to save a life. The meaning is clear: The preservation of life takes precedence over almost everything else, even when that means you have to act in ways you would otherwise find unthinkable. The question of why Hasidic rabbis have not viewed COVID-19 as this kind of crisis is “really the biggest question,” Reuven said. Many religious communities, not just Orthodox Jewish ones, have determined that meeting for prayer is essential, even during a pandemic—it’s not an optional leisure activity, but an indispensable part of daily life. “You feel you have to gather, so gather,” Reuven said. “But wear masks. Why do you ignore everything? I don’t understand. I can’t answer that.”

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In areas of New York City, the pandemic has created a sense of collective pride: In the face of a deadly crisis, people banded together and gave up some of the most precious parts of daily life to stay safe and protect one another. People stopped seeing friends for dinner or visiting their grandchildren. Families missed funerals and canceled weddings and brought new babies home to apartments alone. Reuven experienced the opposite: Life continued as normal. Instead of pride, he feels shame. During the pandemic, he found his community indifferent about protecting people from COVID-19, unwilling to accept internal criticism, and hostile to the scientific debates he loves. So why, I asked, does he stay?

He laughed softly, as though he was surprised the answer wasn’t obvious. “The Hasidic community is my whole world. It’s not my country; it’s my planet,” he said. “I can’t hop off the planet and go to a different planet. It’s the way I grew up, from the first minute I was born.” He spent years building his Jewish knowledge. All of that would be effectively useless in the outside world. He would almost certainly lose his wife and kids, along with any connection to extended family and friends. “I would lose myself, too,” he said. “Because I am a Hasidic Jew.”

And yet, even though this is the place where he fits, the past year has shown how set apart he is from his community. “It’s indescribable. It’s like living in a different reality,” he said. “How would you feel if everybody around you feels that the sky is pink?” Maybe as Der Veker is passed from hand to hand, it will force people to rethink their choices. Maybe in another life, Reuven mused, he would have gone to college and become a scientist. But this is the life he has, if his community will help him keep it.