Amid NYC protests, Orthodox Jews urge new virus-era dialogue

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Members of the Orthodox Jewish community speak with NYPD officers on a street corner, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to reinstate restrictions on businesses, houses of worship and schools in and near areas where coronavirus cases are spiking. Many neighborhoods that stand to be affected are home to large enclaves of Orthodox Jews. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

After months of grappling with a pandemic that has walloped New York's Orthodox Jewish communities, prompting changes to holidays, mourning and prayers, new limits on worship and other activity in some areas are pushing tensions in some neighborhoods of Brooklyn to the boiling point.

New restrictions in places where coronavirus cases are rising, including several Orthodox areas, led to street protests Tuesday night. Videos posted on social media showed hundreds of Orthodox men gathered in the streets of Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood, in some cases setting bonfires by burning masks, and a crowd attacking a man who filmed the unrest. On Wednesday night, crowds of men returned to the streets as police watched.

As the protests made headlines, and the Orthodox group Agudath Israel led a Thursday federal court challenge seeking to halt the constraints, some Orthodox Jews in New York urged officials and fellow believers to find a way to communicate better.

“We need partnership. We need government and the community to work together” on an approach to fighting the virus that can “respect the culture” of the faith, said Rabbi Abe Friedman, an Orthodox leader and law enforcement chaplain in Brooklyn.

Friedman said he hoped the government would understand that Orthodox Jews are not “gathering careless of the pandemic,” but rather returning to cherished customs of communal prayer, celebration and mourning.

“We congregate together, we pray together, and this is why social distancing is even more hard at times, and it has a greater effect,” said Friedman, lauding community members who are heeding public health guidance.

Orthodox Jews in the U.S. have no single faith-based governing structure, but leaders at six major groups representing different sectors signed onto a unified statement in March urging their faithful to heed social distancing rules.

In the view of many Orthodox Jews in New York whose areas were hit hard and early by the pandemic, city and state officials stoked tension with their handling of restrictions on houses of worship and schools in hot spots. On top of feeling singled out as a religious community, some Orthodox Jews can lack sufficient, reliable public health guidance, given often infrequent access to TV and the internet — all while confronting curbs on faith practices built on social engagement that have sustained them for generations.