An amazing video clip was making the rounds of the internet when Yom Kippur ended. It showed police officers arriving at the main synagogue of the Vizhnitz Chassidim in Bnei Brak and breaking up a mass indoor gathering. In the clip, the Vizhnitzer rebbe himself, Yisroel Hager, is seen coming out of the front door, dressed in white holiday robes, flanked by two of his Chassidim.

Vizhnitz is one of the three largest Chassidic sects in Israel, and their rebbe is one of the most important spiritual leaders in the Chassidic world.

In another clip, Vizhnitz Chassidim are seen waiting for buses, packed closely together, without masks.

It sounded almost incredible that six months into the COVID pandemic such a senior spiritual leader would be violating the rules. So I looked into it. I spoke with Chassidim, Vizhnitz and others, as well as with close associates of a few other Chassidic leaders, and it turns out that we—the general public—are spitting nails and demanding that the Chassidim follow the same public-health guidelines as the rest of us, while they have adopted a completely different policy. They want herd immunity; let everyone get sick, and be done with it.

The Vizhnitzer rebbe, Yisroel Hager, speaks to followers in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat, Aug. 14, 2020. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.

The way they see it, this is not a disregard for the regulations, and they have no trouble understanding the explanations about simple instructions such as wearing masks, avoiding gatherings, and washing hands. So what is going on? It seems that a number of Chassidic leaders have decided on a policy according to which the elderly and members of other high-risk groups will be careful, but young people and the Chassidic sect as a whole will carry on as usual.

The haredi public in Israel comprises Lithuanian, Sephardi and Chassidic Jews. Most of the first two groups are taking care to follow COVID rules, but when it comes to the Chassidim, things are more complicated.

It started in the first wave. Belz Chassidim held a huge wedding, and smaller sects such as Toldot Aharon, based in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, continued to pray as they always did. These Chassidim think that everyone, in effect, has already been infected and that COVID is “behind” them.

Belz Chassidim celebrate Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the “rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing,” in their sukkah in Jerusalem on Oct. 15, 2019. Photo by Aharon Krohn/Flash90.

In the second wave, the rest of the Chassidic sects followed suit, including the ones that until now followed public health regulations.

There are a few reasons why the Chassidim in Israel have given up fighting COVID. First, their lives revolve around community. The most important thing for them is to be close to their spiritual leaders, at prayers, on Shabbat and at tish celebrations and gatherings. If you ask a Chassidic Jew if he would prefer to keep his distance from his rebbe for six months or contract COVID, the answer (to him) will be obvious: that COVID is less scary. You can’t tell a Chassid to stay away from his rebbe or not pray with him for months on end. It’s simply a no-go.

People in the Chassidic world understand that they can’t win the war on COVID right now and have accepted that. The large families and crowded neighborhoods won’t allow COVID to skip anyone. The way they see it, it’s just a matter of time before everyone catches the virus.

Israeli police officers clash with haredim during a protest against the enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations, in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, Oct. 4, 2020. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.

Meanwhile, the rebbes see the price of following the health regulations as being too heavy. COVID has wrought havoc in the Haredi world. There is fear that thousands of yeshiva students will be lost because sitting at home with nothing to do will push them “outside,” a situation they call “spiritual death.” Men and women are stuck at home for months on end, and matchmakers and rabbis are saying they’re busier than ever dealing with marital problems and families that are breaking up.

What about the lives of the elderly? They are instructed to be very careful about their health, but there is also the idea and religious belief that anyone destined to pass on to a better world will do so with COVID or without it. It’s true that a few young people have died, but the rebbes aren’t willing to let a handful of tragedies lead to thousands of lost spirits.

Israelis protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on Oct. 3, 2020. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Meanwhile, the final nail in the coffin of the rebbes’ decision to give up and give into COVID is all about politics and a lack of unity. The Chassidim, too, saw the contradictory instructions, the preference for a lockdown during the High Holidays rather than in August, and above all, continue to complain about the protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. “If they can, why can’t we?” they say.

The Chassidic decision to adopt a policy of herd immunity is a fait accompli. Anyone who thinks it can be reversed it wrong. The only question that remains is whether, when and for how long it will affect the rest of the country.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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