New York City’s Orthodox Jews believe they are being targeted by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who stated that he would close their houses of worship due to a lack of compliance with coronavirus restrictions.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Cuomo stated: “I have to say to the Orthodox community tomorrow, ‘if you’re not willing to live with these rules, then I’m going to close the synagogues. … It’s a difficult conversation and you’re right on the line of government intrusion on religion.”
In addition, Democratic officials have suggested that several recent COVID-19 clusters are connected to large gatherings of Orthodox Jews. Five synagogues have already been fined $15,000 for having more than 10 people inside, which violates health code restrictions put in place during the pandemic. However, authorities lacked the power to shut them down entirely.
In the ultra-orthodox community of Borough Park in Brooklyn, thousands of people protested the restrictions that they feel are targeting their religious freedom. The restrictions affect tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews in New York and hundreds of synagogues there.
In particular, the new regulations are impacting a few big ultra-Orthodox communities in the Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods that have seen higher-than-average rises in COVID-19 infections, along with cities upstate such as Monsey, New Square and Kiryas Yoel.
Ultra-orthodox communal association Agudath Israel of America said the new rules are “appalling to all people of religion and good faith.” The group said that it plans to explore measures it can take to reverse this “deeply offensive action.”
They sued Cuomo over the executive order, but a judge declined to temporarily block it after an emergency hearing on Friday ahead of a trio of Jewish holidays over the weekend, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.
The group had argued that the ruling affected Orthodox Jews disproportionately because they are not allowed to drive during religious holidays and are therefore unable to travel to synagogues in areas where there are fewer restrictions. And because technology is not allowed during the holidays, leaders did not have enough time to collaborate and strategize about how to move forward.
Although Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto said she sympathized with the impact the order would have on the Orthodox Jewish community, she did not agree that Cuomo was unconstitutionally targeting a religious minority. She asked: “How can we ignore the compelling state interest in protecting the health and life of all New Yorkers?”
Agudath Israel called the judge’s decision a “crushing disappointment” but nevertheless reminded followers to obey health guidelines.
Cuomo, who is Catholic, tried to defend his move by claiming it aligns with Judaism, saying: “In Jewish teaching one of the most precious principles is saving a life… the Torah speaks about certain religious obligations that can be excused if you’re going to save a life. This is about saving a life. No large gatherings in synagogues – to save a life.”
Catholic leaders also fighting against restrictions
Other religious leaders have also been expressing concerns. The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn sued New York last week in federal court, saying that Cuomo’s actions will force more than 24 of their churches to shut down despite having “been reopened for months in strict adherence to all medical and governmental guidance without any COVID-related incidents whatsoever.”
U.S. District Judge Eric Komtiee ultimately sided with Cuomo in denying their request for a temporary restraining order in what he described as a “difficult decision.”
When you consider the fact that authorities are largely allowing rioters to assemble in groups of way more than 10 in the city and not fining them $15,000 for every violation, it’s easy to see why Orthodox Jews feel like they are being singled out by Cuomo.
Sources for this article include: