At least five rabbis from the close-knit ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood, N.J., have died in the past few days from coronavirus, reports from local media say.
Lakewood is a town of about 100,000 with an Orthodox Jewish population that is thought to be approaching 70 percent of the total population. Despite very high infection rates in Lakewood, some residents of the town have prioritized religious imperatives over the stay-at-home order that Gov. Phil Murphy instituted on Mar. 21.
Over the past two weeks, local police have broken up at least three wedding celebrations, a group of some 35 men studying Talmud together, as well as another party of 40 to 50 people in Lakewood.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Ocean County, which includes Lakewood, had reported 1,022 positive cases of coronavirus. As of Monday afternoon, the town of Lakewood had 371 positive cases — much higher than most other communities in the county.
As NPR's Daniel Estrin noted on Tuesday, there is a mirrored struggle going on in Israel among ultra-Orthodox communities. Police in Israel have also issued fines and ordered people to disperse as haredi (strictly observant Orthodox) Jews similarly ignore social distancing guidelines, despite high infection rates.
But as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz observed last week, there is a growing fear that the infection rate in Lakewood and in other ultra-Orthodox communities will spur anti-Semitic incidents and sentiments. In New York City alone, more than half of the hate crimes recorded in 2019 were against Jewish people.
Last Friday, police arrested a man who threatened to harm the haredim of Lakewood for not following the state's ban on gatherings.
With Passover — one of the most important Jewish holidays of the year — starting at sundown on Apr. 8, prominent rabbis in Lakewood have called for their followers to "remain at home and avoid, to the maximum extent feasible, any outside interactions."
The pre-Passover period is usually filled with shopping errands, as observant Jews remove chametz (any potentially leavened foods) from their homes and swap them out for non-leavened foods and make other preparations in their households.
However, the rabbis said, this year's festival must be different: "Our responsibility is to refrain from any nonessential outside interactions, including especially in-store shopping."