New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio oversaw the dispersal of a large, tightly packed Hasidic Jewish funeral Tuesday and lashed out at the mourners who had gathered in defiance of social distancing rules intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio tweeted after police dispersed the funeral in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
Video from the procession appeared to show most of those attending, though not all, wearing masks.
In another tweet, de Blasio said, “Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic.” He said he went there to ensure that the crowd was broken up and added, “what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.”
Images posted on social media show hundreds of people on the street for what was reportedly a funeral for a rabbi who had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Some but not all of the mourners wore face coverings.
A police spokesperson said Wednesday that the crowd was dispersed without arrests.
We have lost so many these last two months + I understand the instinct to gather to mourn. But large gatherings will only lead to more deaths + more families in mourning. We will not allow this. I have instructed the NYPD to have one standard for this whole city: zero tolerance.
Critics accused de Blasio of singling out the Orthodox Jewish community for censure when others have violated social distancing rules as well.
“This has to be a joke,” City Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who represents a large Orthodox Jewish constituency, tweeted. “Did the Mayor of NYC really just single out one specific ethnic community being noncompliant??”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted that generalizing about the whole Jewish population of New York City “is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews.”
Others noted the crowds that gathered earlier Tuesday to watch a flyover by the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds to honour health-care workers.
“Only bigots have a problem when a few 100 Hasidim do what thousands of people in the same city have done the same day [not social distance],” the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council tweeted.
Putting police at risk: NYC commissioner
At a news briefing Wednesday morning, de Blasio expanded on his tweets.
“I regret if the way I said it in any way gave people a feeling of being treated the wrong way, that was not my intention,” de Blasio said. “It was said with love, but it was tough love.”
But, he said, the city had given warnings and guidance for community leaders across all ethnic and religious groups concerning funerals and places of worship.
New York City’s guidelines during the pandemic don’t ban funerals but state that observers must practise physical distancing precautions, including remaining at least six feet apart from others. Funerals should be limited to immediate family and as few people as possible, the guidance also states.
“That event last night should not have happened. It better not happen again,” said New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, appearing alongside de Blasio.
“You are putting my cops’ lives at risk,” said Shea, adding that a funeral for an officer felled by coronavirus took place last week with a limited audience, when police funerals normally draw hundreds.
In the months since the virus began spreading across the world, adherence to social distancing guidelines has been a challenge in some Orthodox Jewish communities, where large families often live in crowded neighbourhoods and trust in secular authorities is low.
Leaders of several U.S. Orthodox organizations issued a statement last month urging their members to heed social distancing rules after the Fire Department had to break up a large Orthodox wedding in Brooklyn. That effort was an unusual step among disparate groups to help shut down multiple daily prayers and other traditional practices that are central to many Orthodox Jews’ daily lives.
However, the New York “Jewish community” that de Blasio addressed in his tweets is significantly larger than the Hasidic groups that live and pray in large numbers in Williamsburg as well as the Crown Heights and Borough Park neighbourhoods of Brooklyn.
New York’s Jewish population is estimated at more than one million, including non-observant Jews. Among American Jews, 10 per cent identify as Orthodox, according to a 2013 study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. The majority of Jews identify with the Reform Jewish movement or do not identify with any specific Jewish group.
The Israeli city of Bnei Brak became a coronavirus hot spot after some ultra-Orthodox community members flouted orders to stay home, while a cluster of cases also hit a Hasidic Jewish community in Boisbriand, Que., last month.