The crowd grew and moved like waves in the sea. Hundreds of men pressed together stretched out their arms towards the rabbi’s body, trying to touch the coffin in an expression of religious devotion.
It was the highlight of the third lockdown in Israel, and the location was an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood near central Jerusalem. Meetings were prohibited. The use of a mask was mandatory. Coronavirus infection rates were on the rise, especially among ultra-Orthodox groups like this one.
However, hundreds of people were in attendance, most with open mouths, participating in the illegal funeral procession of a revered rabbi who himself had died from the coronavirus.
For these deeply pious Jews, their presence was a religious and personal duty. Touching the rabbi’s coffin sharply and symbolically helping him as he passed from this world to another was a sign of deep respect for the dead.
But for secular Israeli society, and even for some in the ultra-Orthodox world, this type of mass gathering suggests a lack of respect for the living.
“What’s more important?” Asked Esti Shushan, who fights for the rights of ultra-Orthodox women, after seeing photos of the funeral procession. “Attend the funeral and study Torah? Or stay alive?
It’s a question that ends one of the central conflicts of the pandemic in Israel: the growing tension between mainstream public opinion in Israel and the growing ultra-Orthodox minority, a closed group of highly religious Jews, also known under the name of haredis, which reject many of the common elements of modernity in favor of intensive religious study.
When the pandemic began, a Haredi leader vowed that obedience to Jewish law would save his supporters from the virus.
Throughout Israel’s history, haredi have been reluctant participants in society at large, often prioritizing the study of the sacred scriptures over conventional employment or military service. The coronavirus has widened this division.
Since the start of the pandemic, parts of ultra-Orthodox society have resisted secular state-ordered protocols and restrictions to tackle the virus, choosing instead to follow the advice of their own leaders.
The haredis are not fully unified and many of them have faithfully respected the measures adopted against the virus. Some Haredi leaders have asked their followers to wear masks, register for vaccines and close the doors of their institutions.
But other prominent rabbis did not, and some ultra-Orthodox sects continued to promote weddings and funerals with large numbers of attendees. They kept their schools and synagogues open, while the rest of the country closed its doors. A few other radicals even protested against the measures and clashed with the police.
“This is a dispute that has raged for decades,” said Eli Paley, president of the Haredi Institute of Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based study center. “There are tensions between the haredi and the rest of society, tensions that interfere with deeper issues of Jewish identity.
“And the coronavirus has heightened all the tensions already present.”
Throughout the pandemic, the Israeli government has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Haredi who violate anti-virus protocols. Analysts say Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not want to displease the ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians who are part of his ruling coalition.
Israel is the world leader in immunizing its citizens; the country is seen as an example of what a post-pandemic world can look like. However, as the vaccination rate increases, the country is still months away from normal. The number of infections remains high, especially among Haredi.
Rivka Wertheimer, a 74-year-old Haredi housewife, was among the most recent wave of people infected with the virus. One recent night she was on the verge of death.
Two ambulances were parked outside his apartment building in northern Jerusalem, ready to rush him to hospital. Two paramedics were inside the building, ready to place him on a stretcher. A nurse next to the patient said that unless she went to the hospital at that time, Rivka would only have a few hours to live.
But his family was undecided.
Her seven sons and daughters kept her at home for over three weeks. Hasdei Amram, one of the few haredi charities that provides home health care for coronavirus patients, had sent nurses, oxygen cylinders and medicine to Rivka’s apartment.
Midnight was approaching. The oxygen machines were seething. To help her make a decision, the family called the man they trusted more than any doctor: her rabbi.
“Everyone knows that the human intellect has a limit,” said Chaim, Rivka’s eldest son. “When we ask a rabbi, we are asking what the blessed God wants us to do.”
Science is valuable, but for Haredi people it takes second place to faith, which governs all aspects of their life in the community.
Hadri has many leaders and sects. They are divided between Hasidic, Lithuanian and Sephardic traditions, each with its own subgroups. Many feel frustrated with those who endanger the lives of others by breaking the rules of isolation.
“They have to be aware of what is going on because people are dying,” said Shushan, the haredi activist. “How many more funerals are we going to have because of this?”
But even internal haredi critics like Shushan are unable to break with tradition entirely. Despite their disagreements with other Haredis, they still defend their community and are reluctant to give ammunition to secular critics. And they are intimidated by the degree of negative secular backlash against the ultra-Orthodox community.
“I feel stuck between two sides,” Shushan said. “I am afraid of the pandemic and I want to protect my family from it. But I’m also afraid of the secular side.
“When they look at the Haredi, they see us all as one group,” she said. “All dressed in black.”
The feeling of being misunderstood is rife in the Haredi world. Many ultra-Orthodox feel victimized by a double standard, as secularists are allowed to stage large protests outside the Prime Minister’s residence every week, but ultra-Orthodox are vilified for mourning their deaths in groups.
They also feel that their detractors do not understand the importance of religious study, rabbinical leadership and mourning for the dead to their livelihood. Nor how big is the existential mess caused by the closing of religious schools, and many ultra-Orthodox spend most of their waking hours in search of divine truth.
“Without education we cannot live,” explained Chaim Wertheimer, the eldest son of Rivka Wertheimer. “It’s our life.”
“The Torah is the will of God. The more a person studies Torah, the more they will know about God’s will.
Hasdei Amram tries to bridge this divide. The organization, which is headquartered in a basement in Mea Shearim, receives thousands of calls a week from Haredi who have fallen ill with the virus.
The main team of the association is made up of Haredi volunteers who have no formal medical qualifications. They are driving through town to provide oxygen, blood tests and steroids to coronavirus patients who call for help.
The work of the organization is regularly supplemented by a pool of caring private doctors and nurses who also roam the city every night, often after completing their regular shifts. Some of the costs are covered by donations and the patients themselves pay the doctors.
When patients like Rivka Wertheimer become too sick to be treated at home, the organization advises them to go to the hospital. In general, however, Hasdei Amram believes that many patients recover much faster at home, surrounded by family members.
The work of the organization is improvised, carried out by people who are deeply motivated, dedicated to their work and not concerned with their own safety.
But some experts fear that these volunteers are taking too long to detect when a patient needs hospital care.
“Basically I think it’s a good thing,” said Ronny Numa, a senior health ministry official who heads haredi issues. “But the work of the entity depends on cooperation and transparency. When something is wrong, we need to find out as soon as possible. “
At Rivka Wertheimer’s home, north of Jerusalem, her family finally agreed to send her to hospital after consulting with the rabbi.
Rivka died shortly after arriving at the hospital, while her second son, Moshe, waited outside.
She was buried the next day, under the midday sun, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.
Their children said they did not regret what they had done. They said the time of his death was decided by God. They were happy because they kept her at home, comforted by the family, for as long as they did.
Moshe Wertheimer said, “The truth is, if we had been stronger, she would have stayed here. We wouldn’t have sent you to the hospital.