Israel Faces Challenges In Fighting Coronavirus In Ultra-Orthodox Communities Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 12% of Israel's population — but account for many of Israel's COVID-19 cases. This week a senior rabbi finally urged his followers to obey government lockdown orders.

Israel Faces Challenges In Fighting Coronavirus In Ultra-Orthodox Communities

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

To state the obvious, a stay-at-home order only works if people follow it. Israel has more than 6,200 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and the country is under a stay-at-home order. But many people in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have not complied. NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem has been asking why.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This is the recording that emergency response teams are blasting on loudspeakers driving through ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: "Do not hold prayer gatherings. Anyone who defies doctors' and health officials' coronavirus orders should be deemed as plotting murder and should be turned into authorities."

One of the emergency volunteers, David Rose, sent a voice message about what he was seeing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Hebrew).

DAVID ROSE: Now I see a mother and a child crossing the street, going into a shop. Some people are not aware how severe this plague is going around.

ESTRIN: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are known in Israel as Haredim, those who tremble in awe before God. They make up about 12% of the population but as many as 60% of Israel's coronavirus cases in major hospitals, according to estimates. Many have large families in cramped apartments. And many have ignored bans against large weddings and prayer services.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum is a deputy mayor of Jerusalem.

FLEUR HASSAN-NAHOUM: One of the elderly ultra-Orthodox members of the city council said, you're asking us to do everything against what our sages tell us to do. It's been very, very difficult with the ultra-Orthodox community because it's just asking them to go against everything they know and everything they are.

ESTRIN: While the virus is also hitting ultra-Orthodox communities in New York, in Israel, the crisis highlights a long-running friction between ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders and the government. Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer explains why many in his Haredi society ignored the government's stay-at-home orders.

YEHOSHUA PFEFFER: Israel is a Jewish state on the one hand, but it doesn't espouse the version of Judaism that Haredi society would like to see going on. Some of the Israeli regulations and laws are seen to be inhibitive or restrictive of the Haredi way of life.

ESTRIN: The virus is on the rise in the ultra-Orthodox community. By next week, 30% of Israel's cases are expected to come from one ultra-Orthodox city, Bnei Brak. Authorities are restricting movement in and out of the city. And the community's attitude is changing. A leading Haredi rabbi changed his mind and ordered his followers to obey stay-at-home orders. The mayor of Bnei Brak begged residents to stop prayer gatherings. His wife got the virus. So did Israel's minister of health, a member of the ultra-Orthodox community.

YOEL KROIS: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: One member of the community we talked to, Yoel Krois, says he's keeping his family inside more. But he doesn't trust the government's infection statistics and says shutting down synagogues is going too far.

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: Some ultra-Orthodox Jews shouted, Nazis, as police marched through a Jerusalem neighborhood. They handed out hundred-dollar, even thousand-dollar fines to those ignoring the stay-at-home orders. The government and ultra-Orthodox leadership are getting the message across now, just too late for those who have already caught the virus.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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