How New York's Orthodox Jewish Community Is Responding To Coronavirus Safety Measures

Oct 1, 2020
Originally published on October 2, 2020 4:13 pm

New Yorkers have been watching with alarm as COVID-19 cases have begun to climb in the city, particularly in areas that Governor Andrew Cuomo has called hotspots, several of which are in predominantly Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Queens.

The seven-day average of positive test results in the city ticked up to 1.46% on Wednesday, according to the New York Times. With cases on the rise, the city is targeting hotspots with additional police officers, contact tracers and city employees who will distribute masks.

"We're working with community leaders – we have been for weeks now," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a news briefing on September 23, when asked about the spread of COVID-19 in Hasidic Jewish communities. "We're getting out information, we're getting out masks, we're doing everything that we know how to do to stop the problem. So, I think we're being very clear about where the challenge is and we want to work with communities to solve it."

Avi Greenstein, the CEO of the Jewish Community Council in Borough Park, Brooklyn, is critical of De Blasio's outreach plan, and says the city has failed to work collaboratively enough with the community. He's working to distribute hundreds of thousands of masks.

"We can definitely see an increase in the number of mask wearing in the Borough Park community, the result of the community organizing, trying to encourage family members of the importance of wearing masks, and that wearing masks is better than not wearing masks," Greenstein told NPR's Ari Shapiro.

Greenstein talked with NPR's All Things Considered about COVID-19 in the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, the high holidays and more.

How are people responding to the city's enforcement and outreach efforts? ... Do you think people are being forthcoming about sharing information, with contact tracers, for example?

Well I think that it's unnecessary. When you work with this community, community leaders, you'll be at a point where enforcement will be unnecessary.

But contact tracers are something that communities all over the country are dealing with. When somebody calls and says, 'You've tested positive, tell me everybody you had contact with in the last two weeks,' do people answer that question?

Well you have to realize that this community, every community is unique. When people feel that they're being misunderstood and especially when these people were denied the collaboration that is needed by the Department of Health with proper information along the process, but when it comes to enforcement or when it comes to different various programs of the city by the Department of Health, it's not being done in a proper collaborative way. There is a way to do things in the community, and the way is to organize it through community leadership to help mobilize what needs to be done, but it has to come from a point of collaboration.

What do you think a collaborative approach would look like? Give me one example of something you wish the city had done to be a little bit more understanding.

One example would be, work with our community to help form a leadership advisory council so that we can be in constant communication every single day or on a weekly basis. And so before the city is going to announce measures for enforcement, a proper dialogue could be had.

We're just past the high holidays. These are traditionally times that people gather with families and loved ones in big groups. What's the balance you are seeing between people taking risks in order to uphold religious obligations and traditions versus making sacrifices and maybe not observing holidays as they're accustomed?

Well we're in the midst of the holiday season. And this community in general is a deeply rooted social community and a lot of our daily routine revolves around being with other people, praying with at least 10 people three times a day, but we do see an increase of mask wearing. So that when people are purchasing the items for the holidays, we would see an increase in individuals wearing masks. People are trying to do their part and hopefully we'll get the information out and we'll be at a place where the numbers go down and hopefully the community continues to stay safe and get through this.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

New Yorkers have been watching with alarm as COVID-19 cases grow in the city, and Orthodox Hasidic Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Queens are among the hot spots. The mayor has announced new enforcement and outreach measures in those neighborhoods, and locals are stepping up, too. Avi Greenstein is leading an effort to distribute hundreds of thousands of masks today in Borough Park, Brooklyn. He is CEO of the Jewish Community Council there.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AVI GREENSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: As you walk around the neighborhood these days, do you see people in Borough Park generally wearing masks?

GREENSTEIN: I can say that we can definitely see an increase in the number of mask-wearing in the Borough Park community - the result of the community organizing, trying to encourage family members of the importance of wearing masks and that wearing masks is better than not wearing masks.

SHAPIRO: How are people responding to the city's enforcement and outreach efforts? I mean, New York is sending out hundreds of outreach workers and contact tracers to neighborhoods where rates are going up, including yours. Are they welcome? Do you think people are being forthcoming about sharing information with contact tracers, for example?

GREENSTEIN: Well, I think that it's unnecessary. When you work with this community, community leaders, you'll be at a point where enforcement will be unnecessary.

SHAPIRO: But contact tracers are something that communities all over the country are dealing with. I mean, when someone calls and says, you've tested positive; tell me everybody you had contact with in the last two weeks - do people answer that question?

GREENSTEIN: Well, we have to realize that this community - every community is unique. When people feel that they're being misunderstood and especially when these people were denied the collaboration that is needed by the Department of Health with proper information along the process - but when it comes to enforcement or when it comes to different various programs of the city by the Department of Health, it not being done in a proper, collaborative way. I mean, there's a way to do things in this community, and the way is to organize it through community leadership to help mobilize what needs to be done. But it has to come from a point of collaboration.

SHAPIRO: The city has also said there will be fines for people who are not wearing masks. Tell me what you think a collaborative approach would look like. I mean, give me one example of something you wish the city had done to be a little bit more understanding.

GREENSTEIN: Well, one example would be work with our community to help form a leadership advisory council so that we can be in constant communication every single day or on a weekly basis. And so before the city is going to announce measures for enforcement, proper dialogue could be had.

SHAPIRO: There were some early setbacks in the relationship between the Hasidic community and the New York City mayor and police during this pandemic. I mean, in the spring, police broke up big weddings and funerals, and they were accused of enforcing the rules disproportionately against your community. Then the mayor had a tweet that some interpreted as being anti-Semitic. Is there a trust deficit here? I mean, do you feel like the city is starting from a place of mistrust with the people in your community?

GREENSTEIN: This community has a great record of working with Mayor de Blasio. He's been there as a great mayor, as a friend to this community. In the sense of COVID, there's been a lot of uncertainty and a lot of misinformation. Whatever happened early on - I think ultimately, what my place is here to - is to work with the Department of Health and to work with the city. And we're here to do so. But that's definitely the most important priority of myself as a leader of this community.

SHAPIRO: So we're just past the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And tomorrow night, the harvest holiday of Sukkot begins. And these are traditionally times that people gather with families and loved ones in big groups. So what's the balance that you are seeing between people taking risks in order to uphold religious obligations and traditions versus making sacrifices and maybe not observing the holidays as they're accustomed?

GREENSTEIN: Well, we're in the midst of the holiday season. And this community in general is a deeply rooted social community. And a lot of our daily routine revolves around being with other people, praying with at least 10 people three times a day. But we do see an increase of mask-wearing so that when people are, you know, purchasing the items for the holiday, we would see an increase in individuals wearing masks. People are trying to do their part. And hopefully we'll get the information out, and we'll be at a place where the numbers go down. And hopefully the community continues to stay safe and get through this.

SHAPIRO: Avi Greenstein is CEO of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn.

Thank you for talking with us.

GREENSTEIN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.