No area in the world, including in Israel, is more diversely Jewish than Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway. Along its roughly five-mile course from Prospect Park to Coney Island live Jewish communities with roots in the Caucasus, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. People speak English, Yiddish, and Hebrew—but also half a dozen forms of Arabic (both Jewish and non-Jewish varieties), Russian, Persian, Azeri, and Uzbek. Some speak smaller, endangered Jewish languages such as Juhuri, Bukhori, Ladino, and Judeo-Shirazi. Many are refugees, or the children or grandchildren of refugees—survivors of persecution, displacement, and in some cases genocide. Compared to most American Jews, they are much more religiously and communally engaged, following many different traditions and leaders.
Usually this remarkable microcosm of the vanishing global Jewish diaspora, compressed into a handful of neighborhoods with an equally diverse array of non-Jews, gets on more or less like any other part of New York City—by some miraculous formula perhaps best left unquestioned. But as of last week, the “Ocean Parkway cluster,” a designated Covid-19 red zone along with two other Orthodox clusters in Queens, is in lockdown.
Citywide, cases have doubled from where they were a month ago, and positivity rates in the red zones are pushing 5 percent. After the nightmare of March and April, the city’s phased reopening looks increasingly in peril. Fears of a second wave, worsening in winter, are growing. For Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and many New Yorkers, a targeted lockdown—more or less a return to the spring for the red zones and lesser reversals for the adjacent orange and yellow zones—seems like common sense. Although it’s not clear whether you can shut down individual neighborhoods when residents can still walk or ride to a nearby area where everything is business as usual.
When the virus struck in the spring, wealthy New Yorkers fled and working-class New Yorkers kept things running and disproportionately fell ill and died. The impact on heavily minority outer-borough neighborhoods was a tragedy, connected to structural inequalities around health, housing, language, and other factors. Likewise epidemiologically vulnerable, Orthodox neighborhoods—overcrowded, mixed-income, and at times with limited or delayed access to good information in the relevant languages—suffered grievously and adjusted heroically. Many subsequently believed that herd immunity had been achieved.
“Pandemic fatigue” is to varying degrees everywhere now, and Orthodox Jews—from many different backgrounds, though Hasidim are always the most visible—are the local face of a global problem. For a still-traumatized city, there is no sympathizing with packed mass gatherings, secret yeshivas, masks under the nose (if on at all), and most recently the antics of a scary self-promoter inciting violence. Beyond the city, the pattern is similar in other, linked Orthodox communities in Rockland, Orange, Nassau, and Ocean counties. (There is no clear evidence of a spike, however, in more liberal or “centrist” Orthodox parts of the city like Washington Heights and Riverdale.) In recent months, Israel too has been struggling with one of the world’s worst and most contentious outbreaks, centered on Haredi areas like Bnei Brak.
The problem is not religious but political. Large weddings and religious gatherings may well be playing a role in transmission, especially around the High Holidays, which many liberal and secular Jews observed virtually or very cautiously. Orthodox lifeways are intensely face-to-face and driven by community priorities, often with scant respect for “outside” political or scientific authorities. But if Orthodox Brooklyn is now a red zone, with wavering community commitment to stopping the spread and a vocal minority of anti-maskers, the reason is that it is a de facto red state in the making.
For New Yorkers and for American Jews, there are serious long-term implications to an Orthodox red state of half a million people and counting in the tristate area. There are all sorts of ways that an Orthodox red state can steer politics in the region. Consider how the Christian right calls the shot in red states, and is now pushing for a champion on the Supreme Court, and then consider how “the evangelicalization of Orthodoxy” is installing a similar, albeit smaller, force in the middle of the nation’s largest metro area.
The multigenerational demographic, material, and affective ties that bind most secular American Jews to liberalism were only ever marginally operative for the post–World War II arrivals who dominate Orthodox Brooklyn and its satellite communities. But over the last few decades, places like Midwood and Borough Park have turned decisively into right-wing strongholds, with the process only accelerating under Donald Trump. Some of it is about Israel, but the Republican fetish for a hypermilitarized ethno-state heralding the apocalypse doesn’t explain why even many anti-Zionist Hasidim vote Republican. Some of it is social conservatism, though the Christian right operates from much deeper political and theological roots.
For post-Soviet Jews, there’s residual anti-communism; for Syrian Jews, there’s talking tough on Islamic militants; for business types, there’s tax cuts; for others, it’s the appeal of histrionics and chauvinism full-stop. In the New York context, a red-state identity can be situational, as much a declaration of difference as a Borsalino and a pair of payos. Like other white ethnic New Yorkers, many Orthodox New Yorkers are emphatically defining themselves against what they see as the dual hegemony of both white (especially secular Jewish) liberals and the surrounding minority communities.
Orthodox communities—far from being the backward relics that many outsiders like to imagine—have engineered an extraordinary survival, expansion, and transformation since the Holocaust. Many Orthodox understand their communities, understandably, as the cutting edge of Jewish life, and liberal and secular Jews as the ones rendering themselves obsolete through assimilation, intermarriage, low birthrate, and disengagement. At a minimum, the successful regeneration of the Orthodox world means neighborhoods bursting at the seams, new zones of settlement, more contact with and scrutiny from outsiders, changing community dynamics, and deepening challenges in public health and other realms.
Just to take public health: When informed, motivated, and united, Orthodox New Yorkers have had impressive achievements, from the response to Tay-Sachs to the Covid-19 plasma drives just a few months ago. Though unworkable given the highly contagious nature of Covid-19, the Orthodox practice of bikur holim, or visiting the sick, is a grassroots support system like few others. The Hatzolah ambulances, working double time this year, are a fascinating example of a highly decentralized Orthodox network that both serves specific religious needs, in a spirit of community self-reliance, and interfaces with the systems of the wider society.
To confront the rising caseload and keep New York safe, both city and state have to rebuild trust, with aid and sympathy for the affected communities in all their Jewish (and non-Jewish) diversity. Global and national failures have brought us here, to the point of shutting down individual ZIP codes, and the city has largely failed, despite some strides and good intentions, to communicate effectively across all of its complex ethnolinguistic landscapes. No community is going to like a targeted lockdown, and a pandemic is a dangerous time to generalize about groups of people, particularly in the context of rising anti-Semitism. (Last year, more than half of the city’s reported hate crimes were anti-Semitic.) The red zone may be Ocean Parkway today, but it was Corona in Queens back in April, Starrett City in Brooklyn after that, and it could be anywhere next month.
City and state need to find and support the communities’ more liberal and moderate forces, quietly if necessary. For decades, in a distant reflection of the medieval shtadln system, city politicians have counted on being able to call up a handful of well-known mediators presumed to be close to the religious leaders. In return for their support, and getting things done, Orthodox communities got a pass on everything from the lack of secular studies at many yeshivas to metzitzah b’peh.
In the current crisis, de Blasio and Cuomo appear to be taking a harder line, and many New Yorkers will agree with them. But enforcing compliance will be a nightmare; far better to find points of leverage like state funding and convince Orthodox communities, one by one if necessary, before the wails of ambulance sirens do the convincing. To do so, the city will have to confront not just the traditional mediators, who still matter, but a whole host of freelance operators and opportunists as well. In particular, the controversial and explosive impact of the Internet is giving a platform to all sorts of new voices, both dangerous and promising, as well as enabling a small but steady stream of defectors.
One liaison in the city’s Department of Health is good, but how about a minyan’s worth of liaisons? Ideally, there should be concerted, separate efforts with the many different Hasidic courts and with the Syrian, Bukharian, Juhuro, Litvish, Russian communities, to name only some of the most numerous. From Der Yid to the Bukharian Times to the WhatsApp groups and the Yiddish hotlines, there is a vast world of local Orthodox media to reach. Modern Orthodox leaders should help bridge the gap. Even secular and liberal Jewish organizations, however far removed, have a role to play, after years of protecting, funding, and at the same time privately deprecating the Orthodox world. From supporting the system of kashrut (kosher) certification dominated by groups like the Orthodox Union to letting Chabad take over communities and campuses, we are enabling the red state in our own backyard.