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COVID-19: In Israel, desert town provides model of unity against virus


Israel’s social fabric is being strained by the politicization of the pandemic. The country has gone from crushing the curve of the coronavirus outbreak in the spring to having one of the highest rates of infection and new deaths per capita in the fall. In late September, as Israel celebrated Judaism’s High Holy Days, ultra-Orthodox communities accounted for 40% of new Israeli coronavirus cases.

“Political and social divides have worsened, most of all the divide between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else,” says author Yossi Klein Halevi. That’s “a problem for Israeli society in normal times. It becomes an acute danger in a time of medical crisis.”

But the Negev Desert town of Yeruham and its young mayor, Tal Ohana, who boot-strapped a local contact-tracing operation, stand out as rare bright spots, becoming celebrities in Israeli media. The country has taken notice. “We took responsibility from the get-go,” Ms. Ohana says. “I realized we needed to manage on our own.”

“The mayor and I spoke personally with all of the rabbis, prayer leaders, and congregants,” says Yeruham Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Shalev. “I’m not interested in the guidelines. I care about saving lives. That is a religious imperative that takes precedence over everything else.”

TEL AVIV, Israel

When Israel reimposed a lockdown ahead of the Jewish new year last month to rein in a runaway second wave of COVID-19, the government made a controversial exception – allowing large groups of worshippers to congregate inside synagogues for High Holy Day services against the advice of public health experts.

But in the tiny desert hamlet of Yeruham, which had become a pandemic hotspot following a party thrown by high schoolers, Mayor Tal Ohana opted for stricter limitations, teaming up with the town’s chief rabbi in an appeal to the religious community to shutter synagogues and move services outside.

The outreach was one piece of a homegrown public health operation spearheaded by Ms. Ohana that successfully stemmed an outbreak in just a few weeks, turning a small town into a model for the rest of the country.

“The mayor and I spoke personally with all of the rabbis, prayer leaders, and congregants. Our message to them was that we don’t want to prohibit prayers, we are just moving prayers to another place,” says Yeruham Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Shalev. “I’m not interested in the guidelines. I care about saving lives – that is a religious imperative that takes precedence over everything else.”

Yeruham’s cooperation on worship stands out as a rare bright spot at a time Israel’s social fabric is being strained by the politicization of the pandemic. The story of a boot-strapped contact-tracing operation helmed by the 36-year old mayor is the mirror opposite of that of a national government accused of mismanagement and a sluggish response even as the leaders themselves violated the rules.

“We took responsibility from the get go,” Ms. Ohana says, explaining why local authorities can do better in reining in community spread, where outsiders from the national government are at a disadvantage. “I realized we needed to manage on our own. There’s a lot of local wisdom and nuance, that one who isn’t familiar wouldn’t understand.”

Beyond Ms. Ohana’s remote Negev town of fewer than 11,000, Israel’s pandemic malaise plays out nightly on two fronts.

Mass protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his corruption trial and his handling of the coronavirus have turned into violent clashes with police trying to enforce lockdown restrictions on demonstrations. Protesters accuse the government of exploiting the pandemic to crush democratic dissent, while Mr. Netanyahu has accused them of spreading the virus.

Worsening divides

On the other front, police have used force to attempt to crack down on mass gatherings in cloistered ultra-Orthodox communities that have flouted lockdown restrictions. That defiance comes even though the coalition government, bowing to the influence of religious parties, made an exception to a 10-person limit on indoor gatherings, allowing synagogues to be subdivided into “capsules” of 10 to 25 worshippers separated by plastic dividers.

“Political and social divides have worsened, most of all the divide between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else on the other side,” says Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli American author.

“Ultra-Orthodox separatism is a problem for Israeli society in normal times, it becomes an acute danger in a time of medical crisis,” adds Mr. Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research and education institute based in Jerusalem.

“The other divide in Israeli society is over Netanyahu himself,” he says. “One side sees him as indispensable, the only one who can keep them safe, while the other side sees him as a danger. The corona crisis has intensified the rage of the latter group, who accuse the prime minister of playing with the lives of Israelis for his own political needs.”

Celebrants recite prayers for the Jewish harvest and pilgrimage festival of Sukkot, or Feast of the Tabernacles, while waving fronds of palm, willow, and myrtle at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem’s Old City, Oct. 5, 2020.

The government has been widely criticized for reopening the economy and schools too quickly, dropping the ball on scaling up contact tracing, tolerating lockdown violations by its own members, and letting political considerations delay implementation of a plan by public health experts for selective closures and restrictions instead of a nationwide shutdown. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party has accordingly plummeted in the polls in recent months.

Fasting in 100-degree heat

Rising frustration with the government along with the mutual recriminations among the country’s various political tribes made it more difficult ahead of the recent lockdown to get buy-in from local residents, says Yeruham’s Rabbi Shalev.

“We are in an emergency,” he says. “It’s as if all of Israel is together on a ship at sea. And one person wants to drill a hole in their cabin, but it endangers everyone. There is a feeling among the public that if my neighbor is drilling a hole, then it’s OK for me to do it as well. And that’s a very big danger.”

While Mayor Ohana road-tripped to army bases to borrow camouflage netting to create shade for outdoor worship on Rosh Hashana, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Shalev gave out guidelines on adjusting the timing and duration of services to avoid prayer and fasting in 100-degree heat.

Though there was ample debate over how to modify the solemn services for outdoors, the experience of worshipping in the public space was hailed as uplifting and inclusive.

“Togetherness is a very good word for it. It was an even bigger opportunity for neighbors to be part of it, and it was more accessible for women,” says Rabbi Yonatan Wolff, a yeshiva teacher in the town, referring to the gender separation in Orthodox synagogues. “It was a nice way to compromise and have a special prayer atmosphere.”

Media celebrities

Yeruham, normally known as a dusty, lower socioeconomic “development town” of immigrants, and Mayor Ohana have become celebrities in the Israeli media. The national government and big cities have taken notice as well. Prime Minister Netanyahu held a Zoom meeting Wednesday with Israeli mayors to discuss improving coordination.

“He has centralized management of the pandemic, and now that it’s not working he convened mayors and said let me give you more power,” says Tal Schneider, a columnist for the financial daily Globes who profiled Ms. Ohana. “It’s too little too late.”

Israel has gone from crushing the curve of the coronavirus outbreak in the spring to having one of the highest rates of infection and new deaths per capita in the fall. When Israel imposed its first lockdown in March, about 60% of Israelis thought the restrictions were appropriate, while only 32% thought the same about the restrictions that took effect Sept. 18, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Ultra-Orthodox individuals accounted for 40% of new coronavirus cases in late September, stoking criticism that authorities have permitted ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods to operate as autonomous entities.  

Ms. Ohana also spearheaded outreach to Yeruham’s ultra-Orthodox community, which makes up a little less than 10% of the city’s population. She credits rabbis with enforcing quarantines through communal sanctions and says parents agreed to get tests for kids returning from religious boarding schools in hot spots. “They did things that were out of the ordinary,” she says.

From the high school students who sparked Yeruham’s September outbreak, Mayor Ohana required a dose of community service: staffing the town’s contact-tracing operation and outreach to the city’s older adults.

Taking a cue from Yeruham, Tel Aviv this week announced its own contact tracing and outreach operation. Asked by a public television reporter for some advice to encourage a frustrated country, Ms. Ohana’s advice was surprisingly simple.

“Enough of the infighting. Everyone does to the best of their ability,” she said. “Listen to the experts. Every guideline is etched in blood. If we all have faith, and take personal responsibility, everything will work out.”

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