By: Elyanna Saperstein  | 

Ultra-Orthodoxy in a time of Corona

I live in Passaic, a community known for its thriving black-hat life. There has been a lot of discussion, especially by people external to the community, about how the coronavirus has impacted the ultra-Orthodox or “yeshivish” communities. As a resident of Passaic, I have had a courtside seat to the communal response to this pandemic and want to reflect on this topic from my own experience inside the community. 

One major underlying principle of ultra-Orthodox life is the importance of unity. Thus, in our close-knit enclave, community is an integral and continual part of our lives, both religious and secular; whether its services on Shabbat, shiurim, book clubs or simply lending a hand to someone in need, members of my community are constantly in contact with one another. The social distancing that has slowly forced people into their own households has been a dramatic shift for a community in which it is not unusual to find each other popping in and out of each other's houses and praying together. By decimating our social norms, the coronavirus has targeted the heart of the community. 

Besides for a strong emphasis on interdependence within the community, ultra-Orthodoxy also has a strong differentiation between the public and private spheres. The public sphere is encouraged for men, while the private sphere is thought of as the woman’s domain. This is because the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle celebrates women as the mainstay of the home and men primarily responsible for things external to domestic life. For example, usually on Friday night, men go to shul while most women stay home. Since the coronavirus has infected the world, Kabbalat Shabbat is davened at home; in a sense, shul davening has come to the women.  Watching my father lein with no mechitza between him and my mother, I am privy to an experience that is entirely new to me. Despite the memes going around showing men’s worry about increased responsibilities at home, men are actually being given a chance to spend more time with their families. This has created a heightened appreciation for the space in which their wives have invested so much time and effort. 

The coronavirus has other silver linings for women as well. As religious resources shift to the internet, many doors have been open to those of us with internet access. I now have access to previously all-male religious spaces. While in the past I may not have joined an all-male class to learn daf yomi, once it’s being given on Zoom, I can just click in without entering that previously uninviting physical space. The wonderful thing about the internet is that everyone has the same access to information — with the click of a button you can reside in anonymity in a space that would have not necessarily allowed you in. 

Contrary to popular belief, ultra-Orthodox attitudes towards the internet and external sources of information vary greatly. This has generated very diverse reactions to the pandemic. While some communities who embrace a more open approach to information (particularly the internet)  shut down communal spaces very quickly, other communities have had much slower reactions. (For example, in Lakewood, some institutions stayed open until the very last minute.) In my experience in a community where there appears to be a heavy or varied reliance on internal sources to gain insight on the world, medical information is often obtained through word of mouth, as opposed to official sources. For example, people who have a strong skepticism of the internet and media often rely on shared emails and WhatsApp messages more than official news sites. This mistrust of the “establishment” can lead to a misinformed populace. However, my community is blessed with hard-working local doctors, experts and people with more exposure to the world who make it their mission to disseminate correct and accurate information. As we’ve learned with last year’s measles outbreak, the best way to fight faulty information is with truth. By supporting local medical authorities in disseminating information, there will be a higher success in informing people who inform themselves differently. 

The mistrust of the internet also hits another point that is near and dear to the community’s heart: education. As most schools across the country have moved educational resources online, without access to the internet, the local Ultra-Orthodox school has tried to continue classes via telephone. Eschewing the internet has left both children and adults without educational resources that might be more easily available online. Not being able to see fellow classmates or teachers, students miss out on an integral learning experience. Research has shown that over 50 percent of communication is nonverbal. In addition, teachers cannot demonstrate a lesson in any other way than talking about it. For many other students doing online learning, if they feel the teacher has not adequately explained a concept, they can look online for answers. From Khan Academy to Youtube, the internet is full of experts on every topic. Students using only audio devices are not able to rely on this as a backup plan if they don't understand something the teacher has taught. Of course, this does not negate the excellent and hard work the teachers of Passaic have been doing. From original source packets to individual phone calls, Passaic teachers have been going above and beyond to make sure their students are still learning the best they can.  

The lack of easy access to the internet has consequences in the field of healthcare. I work in a doctor's office where we encourage any patients with respiratory symptoms to book an appointment with the doctors over Zoom in order to minimize the health risk to staff and anyone who might be in the office. I have received calls from people who do not have internet access for ideological reasons and do not wish to obtain it. These people cannot access particular medical resources and are forced to either venture into public spaces, such as doctors’ waiting rooms and urgent health clinics, for advice or receive advice without the visual aspect of their medical visit. However, it is important to state that these have been exceptions as opposed to the norm. 

Another aspect of my religious lifestyle that has been impacted is Shabbat. Shabbat is a break from the relentless onslaught of COVID-19 news, watching the number of overall cases and deaths tick higher and higher. However, an ominous air still hangs over those 25 hours. Each Shabbat, I speculate about how the world has changed during my isolation from it. Has the governor announced new restrictions? Has someone I know fallen ill? The anxiety of ignorance does not measure up to the frenetic anxiety of the news cycle, but it has still changed my Shabbat experience. 

On the flip side, being able to step away from our digital devices to pray and eat together as a family is a literal godsend, now more than ever. Having faith in God, especially during a time of international suffering, is complex. While I know that everything God does is good, it is not always evident to me how. Right now, a significant part of my faith that does seem clear to me is the sense of compassion and sanctity of human life that ultra-Orthodoxy reveres. It makes staying home and washing my hands not just a good idea but a moral imperative. It reminds me that every time I forgo seeing my friends, there is a higher purpose that I am serving by doing so. It reminds me to call and check up on people who might be feeling isolated during this difficult period. It reminds me of my obligation to others instead of my own panic. 

A pandemic is a paradigmatic shift for most people, however, it affects different communities in vastly different ways. Ultra-Orthodoxy has given me a space and support system to rely on as we go through these trying times, as well as a moral obligation towards the rest of humanity. I hope people learn to be understanding of different types of communities and plan critical responses for the future that incorporate an understanding of the different cultural nuances.

Photo Caption: An ultra-Orthodox man learning by the Western Wall.
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