The New York Times - USA (2020-10-16)

(Antfer) #1


Tracking an OutbreakNew York City

A group of mostly young men
began descending on the Brook-
lyn home of a Hasidic journalist
just before midnight on Sunday.
The men, who were fellow ultra-
Orthodox Jews, were shouting
that the journalist, Jacob Korn-
bluh, was a snitch, an informer
who had betrayed his own by pub-
lishing reports on how devoutly
religious Jews in the city had been
ignoring coronavirus guidelines.
The group got all the way to Mr.
Kornbluh’s doorstep, where a line
of police officers kept them at bay.
The tense scene spoke to what
many Orthodox leaders said they
had been seeing for weeks: a
growing, raucous faction of young
men in the community, tired of
pandemic guidelines and resent-
ful of the secular authorities, who
are taking their cues from the
broader right-wing movement in
society, including from President
For months, misinformation
and rumors about the virus, some
inspired by Mr. Trump, have
spread widely in forums like
WhatsApp that are popular with
ultra-Orthodox New Yorkers, ac-
cording to numerous interviews
with Hasidic leaders and commu-
nity members.
Now, a new shutdown in Ortho-
dox neighborhoods in Brooklyn
and Queens, ordered last week by
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, appears
to have inflamed sentiments fur-
ther. Mr. Cuomo closed nonessen-
tial business and schools, and lim-
ited attendance to 10 people at a
time in houses of worship in the
hardest hit areas, including syna-
Mr. Cuomo was spurred by spik-
ing caseloads in the Orthodox
community and concerns that
health rules were not being fol-
lowed. But some Orthodox voices
have responded by arguing that
their community’s religious life
was being targeted by the govern-
The Orthodox Jewish commu-
nity in the New York region in-
cludes Hasidic and other ultra-Or-
thodox groups. There are as many
as 500,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in
the New York region, and they
have long tended toward conser-
vative politics. In 2016, Hasidic
neighborhoods in Brooklyn voted
overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump.
But the pandemic may have
also emboldened more extreme
elements, complicating efforts to
curb the virus and frightening
normally outspoken Hasidic ac-
tivists and writers.
“There is a mistrust in media, a
mistrust in government, and peo-
ple don’t check the facts,” Mr. Ko-
rnbluh said in an interview. “In the
years since Trump came onto the
scene, people are more engaged in
politics, and follow Trump and his
conspiracy theories.”
After the virus devastated Ha-
sidic neighborhoods in the early

days of the pandemic, many resi-
dents began to believe that safety
precautions were unnecessary
because they had developed herd
immunity, according to communi-
ty leaders.
That attitude, which health offi-
cials say has no basis in fact, has
been a primary reason for a recent
surge of cases in Brooklyn and
Queens that has raised the city-
wide positivity rate to levels not
seen in months.
On the first night after the gov-
ernor announced the restrictions,
a group of mostly young men in
the predominantly Orthodox
neighborhood of Borough Park
took to the streets in protest.
They were led by a local radio
host and viral video personality,
Heshy Tischler, a Trump follower
and a candidate for City Council
who was once convicted of con-
spiracy to commit immigration
fraud and sentenced to a year and
a day in federal prison.
Mr. Tischler identifies as Ortho-
dox, but is not part of a Hasidic
sect. Still, he has gained popular-
ity during the pandemic, in part
because he has gone after critics
of the Hasidic community.
The ultra-Orthodox communi-
ties in New York are an insular
world that distrusts outsiders and

disdains members who speak up
in public about sensitive issues,
like education or public health.
Since March, Mr. Kornbluh, a
reporter for Jewish Insider who
has lived in Borough Park for 18
years, has been posting on Twitter
about the disregard for coronavi-
rus safety measures in these com-
On the second night of protests
— where some waved pro-Trump
banners — the crowd spotted Mr.
Kornbluh, who was covering the
events, and pointed him out to Mr.
Mr. Tischler, unmasked, ap-
proached Mr. Kornbluh, and be-
gan calling him a traitor. Soon Mr.
Kornbluh was surrounded by men
and teenagers who shoved him
against a wall, punched, kicked
and struck him with objects, and
then chased him for two blocks.
Videos of the attack quickly ap-
peared on social media.
Mr. Kornbluh said many in the
group told him that he deserved to
die and called him “Nazi” and
“They were saying I am not
part of this community and I
should leave,” Mr. Kornbluh said.
Mr. Tischler was arrested on
Sunday in connection with the at-
tack. After he was taken into cus-

tody, a group of men showed up at
Mr. Kornbluh’s home.
Mr. Tischler was arraigned on
Monday on charges including in-
citing a riot and was released
without bail. He returned home,
where a boisterous crowd of
young Hasidic supporters
awaited him.
Standing on his porch, he
plugged his candidacy for City
Council and declared that he did

not condone violence.
“We’re going to continue our
fight,” he said. “We’re going to
beat that Mayor de Blasio, we’re
going to knock Cuomo out!”
The turmoil is also revealing a
fault line through ultra-Orthodox
New York over the question of
how much the government — and
the pandemic — should be al-
lowed to intrude on religious life.
In March and April, rabbis vig-
orously debated about whether

synagogues should close in com-
pliance with Covid-era restric-
tions or whether communal pray-
er must continue, according to
Yochonon Donn, a Hasidic jour-
But in recent months, as the
pandemic has ground on and a
new outbreak has brought re-
newed restrictions, the question
of how to respond is playing out in
the street and online, forums
where the influence of rabbis is
limited but where Mr. Tischler’s
theatrical videos have been
shared widely.
While local leaders and elected
officials have denounced the vio-
lence at last week’s protests, rela-
tively few have condemned Mr.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, ex-
ecutive vice president of Agudath
Israel of America, an Orthodox
umbrella group, said Mr. Tischler
was a fringe figure who had
“made an idiot of himself.”
“I don’t think anybody really
knew him or had heard of him un-
til he decided to turn himself into
the wonderful spokesman he
thinks he is,” Rabbi Zwiebel said.
“This guy is supposed to be a com-
munity leader? Please. It is an
Mr. Tischler first gained popu-

larity in June when he used bolt
cutters to unlock city playgrounds
— at least 14 in his telling — that
had been closed by the authorities
as part of Covid-19 restrictions.
The move was celebrated by Or-
thodox parents, many of whom
had been crowded in small apart-
ments with many children.
In an interview in Crown
Heights last week, Mr. Tischler
said he believed the newly im-
posed restrictions were singling
out Orthodox Jews because “the
Jews don’t fight back, the Jews
take things lying down.”
“We will not be sheep any-
more,” he said.
He called Mr. Trump one of the
“greatest presidents we’ve ever
had” and said he thought Mr.
Cuomo was exaggerating the
threat of the coronavirus because
the governor planned “to create
martial law.”
As he spoke, a small circle of
young men gathered on the side-
walk to listen. One of them, Mendy
Freidman, 23, shrugged when
asked if he supported Mr. Tischler
but said that he understood his ap-
“Nobody else is willing to do
what he does,” he said. “Nobody
else is willing to go to jail.”
But Mr. Tischler’s public stunts
often contain a hint of menace.
Last month, when city health offi-
cials held a news conference in
Brooklyn to discuss the virus up-
tick, he disrupted the event while
not wearing a mask, shouting at
top health officials that the virus
uptick was fake, and called them
“Jew haters” and “garbage.”
And his messages have carried
racist undertones. Some of the
city health workers sent to con-
duct outreach in Orthodox neigh-
borhoods have been people of col-
or. In one video, Mr. Tischler
shows himself calling them out-
siders who are “ready to come af-
ter us.”
“I’m sure most of them are from
just the projects, picked off the
street with not even proper train-
ing,” he said.
The criminal charges against
him stem from his actions during
the protests, which lasted for two
nights last week and resulted in
attacks on at least three men. Two
of them, a photographer and a Ha-
sidic man accused of disloyalty to
the community, were attacked on
After those episodes, Mr. Korn-
bluh sent Mr. Tischler a late-night
WhatsApp message, which was
shared with The New York Times,
calling the violence Mr. Tischler
was stoking a “chillul Hashem” —
a desecration of God’s name.
The next morning, Mr. Tischler
filmed a video of himself in a
graveyard threatening Mr. Korn-
bluh, which soon spread in popu-
lar Hasidic WhatsApp groups.
That night he confronted Mr.
Kornbluh at the protest, setting off
the mob attack that resulted in Mr.
Tischler’s arrest on Sunday, pros-
ecutors say.


Inspired by Trump, Backlash Over Virus Rules Grows Among Hasidim


Ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered last week in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest against coronavirus restrictions.


A raucous faction of

young men resents

secular authorities.

Hunter College High School in
Manhattan is one of the nation’s
most prestigious high schools,
with a famously rigorous curricu-
lum and alumni like Justice Elena
Kagan and the Broadway com-
poser Lin-Manuel Miranda. But
the elite school is also known for
one other thing: its strange,
fortresslike building.
The structure on the Upper
East Side was designed to look
like the armory that was once on
its site. Many classrooms have
windows so narrow that they only
let in slits of sunlight. Some class-
rooms have no windows at all,
which is why students often call it
“The Brick Prison.”
In other words, it’s a very prob-
lematic place to hold classes dur-
ing the pandemic.
Before the school reopened last
month, teachers were so con-
cerned about the school’s airflow
and ventilation that they took
school administrators to court and
staged a protest. The entire cam-
pus, known as Hunter College
Campus Schools, serves kinder-
garten through 12th grade. Well
before the pandemic, there were
problems with asbestos and black
mold in the building.
School officials assured the
teachers and worried parents that
the school was safe. But on Mon-
day, the family of a kindergartner
reported to the school that the
child had tested positive for the
coronavirus. On Wednesday, Lisa
Siegmann, director of the campus,
sent an email to parents saying
that two more kindergarten stu-
dents in the same class had tested

Hunter’s 94th Street campus
would be closed on Thursday for a
deep cleaning and the building
would reopen on Monday, Ms.
Siegmann said.
The anxiety over the building is
a striking example of the unfore-
seen complications that so many
schools across New York City and
the country are experiencing.
Suddenly, a student’s academic
success is dependent on Wi-Fi ac-
cess at home. A tablet or laptop is
no longer an accessory; it is a ne-
cessity. Now, every window at a
school counts.
Barbara Bowen, president of
the Professional Staff Congress,
which represents the Hunter Col-
lege teachers, said staff members
were concerned about a possible
increase in virus cases.
“Obviously, a person can con-
tract Covid in any way, and the
school can’t control that,” said Ms.
Bowen, who is also a professor at
the City University of New York.
“But they can control transmis-
But Deborah Raskin, a spokes-
woman for the school, said the re-
turn to classrooms had been
marked by cheers from children,
parents and administrators.
“We would never put the safety
of our faculty, staff or students in
jeopardy,” Ms. Raskin said. “We
made every effort and completed
extensive work to provide for a
safe reopening of the campus
Derek Wessler, parent to a sixth
grader, said his family had long in-
tended for his daughter to return
to in-person classes, citing the im-
portance of socialization.
Mr. Wessler said he was not
swayed by complaints about the
school’s preparation.
“The thing I got from parents

was that this was really a labor is-
sue, and I think the parents felt a
fair amount of resentment about
being put in the middle,” he said.
He added that the school’s tem-
porary closing was unfortunate,
but “that’s the reality of what
we’re living in.”
New York City’s 1,600 public
schools are also navigating myri-
ad challenges. About 100 class-
rooms and four schools were
listed as closed on a city website
on Thursday.
Those numbers did not include
the closings of 169 schools in the
state-defined “red” and “orange”
zones in neighborhoods where
positive cases had been steadily
The schools are receiving guid-
ance, even if frenzied, from Mayor
Bill de Blasio and the city’s De-
partment of Education.
But Hunter is the only public
school building not controlled by
the Education Department; in-
stead, CUNY governs it. Its fac-

ulty and staff members have con-
tended that the safety measures
adopted there have fallen short,
and teachers held a protest in late
September, demanding protec-
tions similar to those offered at
other New York public schools.
Sympathetic parents began a
petition in solidarity. Union mem-
bers floated the possibility of a
strike and took CUNY to court. A
New York Supreme Court judge
granted a temporary restraining
order against CUNY that barred
teachers from working in class-
rooms that did not have air filters
that could block over 99 percent of
particles like dust, mold and bac-
CUNY and Hunter officials said
the 94th street campus was safe to
reopen. But to provide more space
for social distancing, students
who are in ninth and 10th grades
are being taught at the Silberman
School of Social Work on Third Av-
enue in Harlem Students who are
in 11th and 12th grades are being

taught remotely.
Ms. Bowen said teachers and
some parents and students re-
mained worried about their health
because the building had already
been flagged several times. In the
spring of 2019, workers found as-
bestos in the school’s basement
during a boiler renovation, which
resulted in the relocation of two
kindergarten classes. Before the
school shut down this past spring,
black mold was discovered during
an HVAC renovation.
Teachers and students reported
suffering from irritated eyes and
throats, cough and strange odors
from vents.
“My son has always had sinus
issues, and got sinus infections for
the first time of his life when he
started school,” said Juliana Sohn,
parent of a ninth grader and a 12th
grader. “They only happened dur-
ing school, so I always thought
there was some air quality issue.”
But as the school prepared to
reopen, the filters being placed in

the HVAC did not meet the level of
air filtration that the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention
recommend, some teachers said.
Correct filters were installed af-
ter the teachers filed the restrain-
ing order, though school adminis-
trators attributed the delay to the
high demand for the filters and a
low supply of them.
Ms. Sohn and Meika Mustrungi,
both parents of 12th graders,
started a parent petition in sup-
port of the teachers. According to
Ms. Sohn, parents were not in-
formed that teachers were wor-
ried about the reopening plan, as
teachers had no access to their
contact information.
Ms. Sohn has said that the only
channels for information are
Zoom meetings, and that emails to
the administration and the par-
ent-teacher association, which
has expressed a desire to remain
impartial, have largely gone unan-
swered. The P.T.A. did not return a
request for comment.
The fight over the filters and
other safety measures stretched
nearly two months before CUNY
and the teachers’ union agreed to
an independent inspection of the
ventilation system. The inspec-
tion cleared the school for reopen-
But since the school first wel-
comed back students this fall, a
WhatsApp chat of elementary
schoolteachers, shared with The
New York Times, has been filled
with claims of disorganization and
confusion: Hand-sanitizer sta-
tions have been unfilled. Tents
where students eat lunch have not
been cleaned. Teachers are miss-
ing equipment, like laptops to al-
low them to teach remote learn-
Asked about the teachers’
WhatsApp chat, Ms. Raskin, the
school’s spokeswoman, said, “Any
issues or concerns that are re-
ported are addressed. And we are
really proud of the work we have
done. We hear from parents and
students who continue to express
their gratitude for the immense ef-
forts that have been made to begin
in-person education.”


Can a Fortlike Building

Function in a Pandemic?

Parents and staff are concerned about ventilation at Hunter College High School in Manhattan.


J. David Goodman and Dana Ru-
binstein contributed reporting.

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