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Why ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals persist: Coronavirus mistakes are the result of years of politicians’ indulgences

Why ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals persist: Coronavirus mistakes are the result of years of politicians’ indulgences
Hundreds of members of the Orthodox Jewish community attend the funeral for a rabbi who died from coronavirus in Borough Park, Brooklyn on Sunday.
Hundreds of members of the Orthodox Jewish community attend the funeral for a rabbi who died from coronavirus in Borough Park, Brooklyn on Sunday.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community have, over the years, discovered the power they wield through coordinating a “bloc vote.” Politicians were quick to pick up on it, and in each election, a competition takes place to secure this bloc vote, which in a divided Democratic primary can often seal the deal.
Needless to say, it doesn’t come cheap; In addition to goodies like voucher funding, ultra-Orthodox leaders demand maximum autonomy for their communities in return.
While many factors probably play a role in why ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, the years-long transfer of authority from government to clerical and community leaders with little knowledge of science and much hostility to anything “secular” could not have helped.
In his campaign speeches when he ran for mayor, Bill de Blasio boasted of his relationship with the ultra-Orthodox community leaders, and promised a steady relationship based roughly on the deal outlined above.

In one 2013 campaign speech in Williamsburg, a Hasidic leader, in the presence of de Blasio, said that the candidate had promised to do away with any restrictions on metzizah b’peh, a controversial post-circumcision practice that has been linked to the transmission of herpes to infants, should he get elected with the help of the Hasidic community. He was elected and soon weakened the standards.
Gov. Cuomo has played the same game. In his most recent re-election campaign, Cuomo met with the grand rabbi of Satmar of Kiryas Joel and, after touting his and his father’s close relationship with the Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel, he pointed to Robert Mujica, his budget director, and said “he is the man who has the checkbook, so I thought he was the most important one to bring,” a rather unsubtle reminder of what the community stood to benefit from should they give him their vote.
At another Satmar rabbi’s house, Cuomo reportedly promised to go easy on education requirements for yeshivas as well.
Both the mayor and the governor kept their promises to the community leaders.
These are just a handful of recent examples; similar pandering goes back decades. It’s doubtful de Blasio really approves of the possibility of a mohel with herpes putting his mouth on an 8-day-old baby’s circumcision wound. It’s also safe to say that Cuomo doesn’t approve of thousands of children being denied an education. But to them, this was the price of politics.

And so, over the years, a kind of implicit arrangement was established whereby elected officials deferred to ultra-Orthodox leaders as a matter of course. When Sen. Simcha Felder held up the budget to ram through an amendment to weaken education standards in yeshivas, Cuomo called his buddy, the Satmar rabbi, in Kiryas Joel. De Blasio, when facing criticism about his handling of the infant deaths from herpes, or the measles spread in the Hasidic community, or the lack of secular education in yeshivas, he claimed leaders were cooperating with the city, even if the evidence was clearly to the contrary.

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