May 20, 2020

Hasidic School With 60 Children Is Closed for Violating Virus Ban

After receiving a complaint, the police descended on the building in Brooklyn and discovered the students. Few were wearing masks.

Liam Stack and Nate Schweber
New York Times
May 18, 2020 Updated May 19, 2020,

The buses arrived early Monday to drop off dozens of children at a Hasidic school in Brooklyn.

Neighbors watched with alarm as the children, few of them wearing masks, filed into the building, crowded into classrooms and played on the roof at recess in violation of public health orders that have kept schools across the state closed since March.

“It was definitely a regular day for them, like business as usual,” said Joe Livingston, who lives across from the school building in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. “That’s dangerous.”

The police brought the school day to an abrupt end around noon, after a neighbor who had seen the children playing on the roof called 311, officials said. Officers found about 60 children at the school, and quickly sent them all home, Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, a police spokeswoman, said.

The dispersal of students from the yeshiva was the latest of several episodes that have ignited tensions between the authorities and Hasidic Jews since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the virus has killed Hasidic Jews at a rate that public health data suggests may exceed the rates for other ethnic or religious groups, social-distancing rules have repeatedly been broken in areas where Hasidim dominate, especially at activities like weddings, funerals or religious education.

Friction between the community and the authorities boiled over last month after 2,500 mourners packed the streets in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for a funeral that drew a sharp rebuke from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The mayor went to Brooklyn to personally oversee the dispersal of the funeral crowd, and he later vowed to enforce social-distancing rules more vigorously.

Two days later, the police issued five fire code violations and six summonses after officers found large groups of worshipers hiding in two Hasidic synagogues in Williamsburg, Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar and Congregation Darkei Tshivo of Dinov.

The doors at both synagogues were chained shut and black garbage bags covered the windows, the police said. There were more than 100 children spread between two rooms at one of the synagogues, a law enforcement official said.

On Monday, Mr. de Blasio said the city would move to ensure that the school in Bedford-Stuyvesant did not reopen as long as the state’s stay-at-home order remained in effect.

Hasidic groups say a small minority of the community is responsible for the violations, and they bristle at the attention the incidents have received from elected officials and the news media.

But as the pandemic has continued, Hasidic parents in Brooklyn have increasingly complained that yeshivas are secretly operating again. In the tight-knit community, they say, that creates strong social pressure to send their children into crowded classrooms despite the advice of public health officials.

“Parents who try to keep their children home are faced by the dilemma of letting their child be the only one who’s not joining the class, which is obviously extremely hard and can have a serious social effect for years to come,” said one parent in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, who declined to be named because he feared retaliation.

Building records indicate that the school visited by the police on Monday, Nitra Yeshiva, may be affiliated with the Nitra sect of Hasidim. But a spokesman for the Yeshiva of Nitra Rabbinical College in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., a center for the sect, said he did not know anything about the Bedford-Stuyvesant school.

Avrohom Weinstock, associate director of education at the Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, said there were “no excuses” for a yeshiva to violate the stay-at-home order, even though many Hasidic families feel under strain.

Mr. Weinstock said his organization had been in touch with the school’s administrator who told them “no formal classes were held.”

“He said that individual students were studying together on their own accord, and with masks and extreme social distancing in place,” Mr. Weinstock said. “I can’t comment on the facts as we were not present, but felt it was important to convey another side to this story.”

Most of the students found at the school appeared to be teenagers, and no summonses were issued to anyone on the premises, Sergeant O’Donnell said. Neighbors said that Monday had been the first day in weeks that students arrived at the yeshiva, which made little effort to conceal their presence.

The students arrived in a small fleet of buses, a sight that Mr. Livingston found jarring after so many weeks of quiet. Another neighbor said his apartment offered a clear view through the school’s windows, which were uncovered all morning.

He said he had seen dozens of students in classrooms, which reminded him of the bustle of the school in January. Few of the students were wearing face coverings, and many of those who were had them pulled down beneath their chins, he said.

“It just seemed like they were trying to see what they could get away with,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

Tommy Leonard, who lives next door to the school, shook his head as he recounted seeing the buses roll up, the students pour into the school and, eventually, a television news helicopter hovering overhead as the police shut the yeshiva down.

“No masks or nothing, just jumping off the bus and into the school,” Mr. Leonard said. “Of course it’s unfair, everyone’s wearing masks but not them.”

He added: “It’s terrible.”

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