Each year during the Jewish religious festival of Sukkot, New York City shuts down Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights to allow thousands of local residents the opportunity to safely celebrate in dance and song.
But this past week—under the guise of fighting COVID-19—New York City attempted to shut down this religious gathering by using physical intimidation, screeching sirens, and loud megaphones.
The display of force was jarring. The crowd refused to surrender their First Amendment religious liberties, and the police ultimately backed down.
Confrontations will continue so long as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio target Jewish religious gatherings. Cuomo has limited religious gatherings to 10—regardless of indoor synagogue capacity and regardless of whether services are held outside—and shut down all schools (including the yeshivas used by many Jewish families) in so-called red zones encompassing Orthodox Jewish communities.
Cuomo, like de Blasio a Democrat, explicitly warned Monday: “I have to say to the Orthodox community tomorrow, if you’re not willing to live with these rules, then I’m going to close the synagogues.”
The governor said he intended to coopt local police to bar entry to local houses of prayer. Days later, the mayor cracked down on First Amendment freedom even more severely, limiting outdoor gatherings to five people, effectively outlawing Jewish prayer services (known as minyans) that require at least 10.
The governor’s visual presentation at his press conference distinctly conveyed the notion that Orthodox Jews are to blame for recent increases in COVID-19 cases.
As Omri Ceren, national security adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, says: “After a summer of embracing riots in which people traveled from all over the country into New York and then mass-marched, Cuomo has discovered the real disease vector: Jews getting together to pray.”
Cuomo and de Blasio repeatedly suggested that jumps in COVID-19 cases stem from Jews praying together, eating together, learning together, and living together.
The Jew-blaming is becoming common across New York. On Tuesday, the nearby town of Newburgh announced closure of a park frequented by Orthodox Jewish families, so it could undergo “deep cleaning.”
This park contains more than 5 miles of hiking trails and a pond. Yet, city officials chose to exclude families from enjoying the beauty of the outdoors by closing acres to families in the middle of a Jewish holiday week.
A park ranger was unable to provide information regarding any prior closures and the rationale behind placing the entire grounds off-limits. A picture of Orthodox mothers with their children at the park accompanied the announcement. The very presence of Jewish children on a playground requires extreme sanitation, apparently.
In centuries past, governments placed blame for outbreaks of plagues and disease on the Jewish people. These accusations prejudiced society against their Jewish neighbors while deflecting anger and criticism away from those in power.
Using public health as an excuse to shut synagogues, stifle community gatherings, close yeshivas (religious schools), and chase Jews from public spaces is nothing new.
Numerous members of the New York City Council and State Assembly representing these communities condemned the governor’s orders as “unilateral” and “irresponsible.” They assured the governor of their intent to “worship freely … without his interference.”
Agudath Israel—one of the nation’s most prominent Jewish advocacy organizations—filed a lawsuit to block the orders. But a federal judge refused Friday to grant a temporary restraining order against the state.
The prayer services, shared meals, and outdoor singing of Jews in the streets of New York over the past several weeks commemorate a series of religious holidays comprising the beginning of the Jewish new year. This unbroken tradition began 3,000 years ago.
The weeklong holiday of Sukkot, which ends Friday evening, commemorates the encampments of Jews during their 40 years wandering in the desert after their exodus from Egypt en route to the Promised Land.
Jews construct temporary shelters in their yards, on their balconies, and in parks to recall the experience of their ancestors thousands of years ago. Gathering with family and friends within the confines of these structures to eat and to drink over eight days is an essential religious observance.
During this week, the ancient and sacred Simchas Beis Hashoeiva celebration occurs—a night filled with dancing and song. So joyous an experience was this in Jerusalem in ancient times that the sages say one who has not seen the celebration “never saw celebration in his life.”
The festival of Simchas Torah immediately follows Sukkot. This commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people and involves jubilant singing and dancing with Torah scrolls.
Although the nature of today’s persecution at the hands of New York City does not threaten one’s life, it certainly infringes the ability to live freely and practice one’s faith. Blaming Jews for New York City’s current state of misery is but a modern permutation of the age-old practice of blaming societal problems on the Jews.
New York City lies in shambles. Thousands of restaurants, bars, theaters, and stores are permanently shuttered. More than 400,000 residents have fled. Crime is soaring and drug-addicted vagrants are displacing tourists.
Many elderly residents died from COVID-19, largely due to Cuomo’s forcing assisted living centers to accept COVID-positive patients from local hospitals early in the crisis.
Although some precautions with mass gatherings are warranted given the continuing hazards of the new coronavirus, draconian edicts shutting down these important community observances are an affront to human dignity.
If public health were at issue, the government would curtail even the politically favored Black Lives Matter block parties. But it’s not about health or safety.
In New York City, crowding into Washington Square Park this past summer for a dance party is fine so long as it celebrates a left-wing political cause. But dancing and singing outdoors in celebration of a religious tradition invites criminal sanction.
Americans must not tolerate criminalization and prohibition of religious observances. Many thousands will choose to attend their synagogues, eat meals together, and dance during this season of religious festivals. Lawyers from across the nation stand ready to defend the Jewish community of New York City against this affront to their freedom.