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NYC mayor takes heat after lashing out at Jewish funeral

April 30, 2020 Karen Matthews Associated Press
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NEW YORK (AP) — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his tweets criticizing a large Jewish funeral on Wednesday at a briefing at which he also announced a program to provide 150,000 coronavirus antibody tests for health care workers and first responders.

Orthodox Jewish funeral targeted

De Blasio oversaw the dispersal of a large, tightly packed Hasidic Jewish funeral Tuesday night 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.

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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.

There were no arrests, but Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Wednesday that a dozen summonses were issued citing social distancing violations and refusal to disperse.

Critics accused de Blasio of singling out the Orthodox Jewish community for censure when others have violated social distancing rules as well.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said Wednesday he was recommending that the group formally censure de Blasio for his response to the funeral.

“I agree with the Mayor that social distancing is vitally important — and last night’s gathering was not appropriate,” Lauder said in a statement. “But to blame the entire Jewish community is the type of stereotyping that is dangerous and unacceptable at any time, and particularly pernicious while the world is gripped in fear and the worst among us are looking for scapegoats.”

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 honor 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.

De Blasio said Wednesday that he was sorry if his words hurt anyone’s feelings but he didn’t regret calling out what he characterized as a dangerous violation of social distancing rules.

“If you saw anger and frustration, you’re right. I spoke out of real distress,” the mayor said at his daily coronavirus briefing.

De Blasio said he wasn’t singling out the Orthodox community because of its religion, just cracking down on a massive gathering that put the community’s own members and police at risk. “It’s not like people gathering in the park. This was thousands of people,” he said. “What I saw, I have not seen anywhere else.”

The coronavirus causes only mild symptoms in many, but it can cause serious illness or death for some, particularly older adults and those with certain health conditions.

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 neighborhoods 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 neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

New York’s Jewish population is estimated at 1 million-plus, including non-observant Jews. Among American Jews, 10% 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.

Antibody tests for frontline workers

De Blasio announced Wednesday that antibody testing to show whether a person has already been infected with the coronavirus will be offered to 150,000 health care workers and first responders under a partnership with the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The testing will begin next week and will take place at the frontline workers’ workplaces, the mayor said.

De Blasio noted that a positive antibody test does not guarantee that a person is immune to the virus, and he said health care workers and first responders who test positive for antibodies should not let down their guard or shed protective equipment such as masks. Still, he said, a positive antibody test should offer some reassurance.

“Anyone who has been infected and came through obviously had the ability to beat this disease,” de Blasio said. “Knowing you’ve been exposed to it is powerful information.”

Associated Press writers Elana Schor and Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

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