This op-ed was written by Matt Nosanchuk and appeared in the New York Daily News on October 22, 2020.
Tensions grew in Williamsburg last week when news broke that a high-profile wedding was expected to attract thousands of Haredi (otherwise known as ultra-Orthodox) Jewish guests, defying COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings. Against the backdrop of the violent anti-closure protests in Borough Park two weeks earlier, the potential for an incendiary standoff between the wedding guests, protestors, police and journalists seemed high.
And yet, in the end, the night was calm. The groom’s family agreed to comply with the governor’s restrictions and limited the size of the celebration to fifty guests.
We at the New York Jewish Agenda, an advocacy group that amplifies the voices of liberal Jews, commend the elected officials and community leaders who worked together to avoid catastrophe here. However, we worry that tensions between public health and cultural practices will only intensify this winter as cold weather forces us indoors.
Our message is this: If we want to avoid a spike in infections and deaths, we must improve the speed and efficacy with which we confront COVID hotspots like the ones that emerged in Brooklyn recently. These interventions will only be successful if we can build trust between scientists, government officials and community leaders across lines of faith, culture and race.
There are no shortcuts here. We believe that we can build this trust if we learn from the lessons of the last weeks and pursue four strategies.
First, promote saving lives as a universal religious value. In Judaism, this principle is called pikuach nefesh, and it states explicitly that when human lives are threatened, Jewish ritual practices can be modified.
When the protests against compliance first broke out in Brooklyn, the organization I lead responded by organizing nearly 500 rabbis of all Jewish denominations to unite in support of the closures by emphasizing their life-saving impact. We were successful in broadcasting to the Jewish community and the wider world that there is no contradiction between complying with data-driven closures that save lives and adhering to Jewish law. We know that valuing human life is central to many traditions, and we trust that similar campaigns would be effective in other faith communities as well.
Second, stay on guard against antisemitism and other biases. Although last week’s controversy highlighted the views of a small minority within the Jewish community, we know that this issue is not a Jewish issue. The virus does not discriminate among Jews, Christians or Muslims.
We were troubled when we heard certain politicians and reporters suggest that Jewish practice presented a unique threat to public health. This is simply not true. Whenever anyone uses language that ties this virus to the intrinsic nature of any race, religion or cultural group, we must be vigilant in calling such language out as unacceptable. As Jews, we know that dangerous antisemitic conspiracy theories often flourish at moments of societal uncertainty. Our elected leaders must be incredibly careful with their language to avoid fueling conspiracies.
Third, lean into challenging relationships, don’t pull away. Last week, the Catholic Church filed a lawsuit against closures in their community based on claims of religious liberty. Rather than launching lawsuits, communities that face outbreaks of COVID should focus on collaboration and building a respectful dialogue with government officials. As both Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have recently acknowledged, the government must be more sensitive to the cultural and religious concerns of all groups, and conversely, these groups must respect the scientific expertise of the public health officials.
Finally, denounce violence and extremist rhetoric. Even when communities disagree with the government over the details of COVID-related restrictions, we cannot allow these disputes to escalate to the point of violence and malicious speech. These eruptions only serve the interests of those who benefit from chaos and disruption.
The cold months that lie ahead threaten the possibility of another economically and spiritually damaging shutdown. We hope that these four strategies enable our community leaders and elected officials to work together in containing COVID clusters quickly and efficiently, keeping the necessity of a full shutdown off the table.
Only by acting with the proper balance of empathy, rationality and respect can we hold this virus at bay and eventually return to the full enjoyment of our cultural and religious life.
Matt Nosanchuk is the president of the New York Jewish Agenda