October 7, 2020
Protests by Orthodox Jews against New York's crackdown on gatherings in their neighborhoods turned tense Tuesday night as throngs of young men demonstrated in the streets of Borough Park, setting fire to a pile of masks and at one point running a reporter out of the area.
The late-night protest in a heavily Orthodox area of Brooklyn took aim at new restrictions that would close schools, limit attendance at synagogues services and close nonessential businesses in areas with upticks in COVID-19.
The protests — as well as angry statements from leaders in the Orthodox community — gave voice to the feelings of frustration on the part of local Orthodox Jews who are now at the center of the first widespread resurgence of COVID in New York since the spring. Not only are local routines and community institutions at risk, but many in the community believe that city and state officials are unfairly targeting Orthodox Jews, who are already vulnerable to anti-Semitism, in their pandemic response.
During the protests, community leaders vowed to resist the new rules through litigation and civil disobedience. "We will not close," radio host and local celebrity Heshy Tischler proclaimed to cheers from the assembled crowds.
The protests came in response to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement Tuesday afternoon of new restrictions on a large swath of Brooklyn that is experiencing an uptick in COVID cases.
His announcement followed a similar one by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who on Sunday, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot when Orthodox Jews do not use cell phones or computers, said he would move to close schools on Wednesday, pending the governor's approval. The governor then announced Monday that he would close the schools Tuesday. (Most Orthodox schools are in fact closed this week for Sukkot.)
In a statement Tuesday evening, local Orthodox lawmakers accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of "a duplicitous bait-and-switch."
"The governor informed Jewish community leaders in a conference call that synagogues in 'red zones' would be permitted to operate at 50%, and he requested community cooperation (which he was assured would happen," they wrote, referencing a call Cuomo held with Orthodox leaders Tuesday before he announced the new restrictions.
"Outrageously, just hours later, Governor Cuomo announced a draconian return to restrictions that would shutter thousands of New York businesses and limit houses of worship to a maximum capacity of 10 (no matter the maximum capacity of the building)."
A statement from Agudath Israel, an organization representing haredi Orthodox communities, also expressed frustration with the lack of notice given about the restrictions in a call earlier in the day and suggested the new rules might be unconstitutional.
"Governor Cuomo's surprise mass closure announcement today, and limit of 10 individuals per house of worship in 'red zones,' is appalling to all people of religion and good faith," they said.
They seemed to be considering the possibility of challenging the governor's new restrictions in court. "Agudath Israel intends to explore all appropriate measures to undo this deeply offensive action," they said. A federal judge issued an injunction blocking New York State from imposing stricter standards on indoor gatherings at religious services than those imposed on other gathering places, citing religious liberty concerns. Agudath Israel filed an amicus brief in that case.
The protesters in Borough Park were joined Tuesday night by Tischler and their City Council representative, Kalman Yeger, who encouraged the crowd to stand up for religious freedom.
"We are not going to be deprived of the right that we have in America, like everybody else in America, the right to observe our religion," he said in a video posted to Twitter by local news outlet BoroPark24. "I don't care who in government thinks that they can stop us, they're wrong. Let them try."
Tischler also appeared later Tuesday night in Crown Heights, another heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood where there are no new restrictions but where de Blasio has identified a slight uptick in COVID test positivity rates. Tischler appeared at a Simchat Beit Hashoevah, a gathering on the holiday of Sukkot that is marked by singing and dancing, and addressed the crowd.