BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (JTA) — “Do you want trouble?” the Hasidic man asked, leaning toward me intimidatingly.
“Are you threatening me?” I asked, turning to look at the lean man in a flat black hat and long caftan.
“No. But if you stay here, everyone will come and there will be a mess,” he replied, gesturing across the street.
We were standing as we faced Torah V’Yirah, a haredi boys school in the insular religious enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, just west of Jerusalem, where hundreds of young Hasidic boys were studying on Wednesday despite Israel’s increasingly severe limitations on public gatherings.
Several minutes earlier, walking into the school affiliated with the Satmar Hasidic sect, I had seen dozens of children crammed into classrooms, many of them lacking supervision. None of the adults I encountered in the building would admit to working there in any official capacity.
When I asked one of the men to direct me to the school administrator, he began to follow me, alternating between demanding that I leave and making phone calls.
I left the building, only to find myself surrounded by a small crowd of Hasidim demanding to know if I was a government inspector. I again identified myself as a journalist, and they accused me of making trouble and attempted to physically prevent me from taking a picture of the school building.
As I walked away, I noticed posters on the side of the building blaming the coronavirus pandemic on Orthodox women wearing wigs made from non-Jewish hair.
Last week, Israel ordered a nationwide closure of schools and universities in an effort to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, trying to prevent the country’s health care system from being overloaded. While most secular and national-religious educational institutions have shuttered, some in the haredi sector have stayed open.
This week, evidence has come to light that the virus spreads quickly through haredi neighborhoods and communities. In the haredi Jerusalem suburb of Telzstone, for example, nearly one in four residents has been ordered into isolation. And in New York, at least 100 people in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn have tested positive.
Despite this, appeals made by law enforcement representatives directly to Kanievsky and other influential rabbis earlier this week failed to change their minds.
“Rabbi Kanievsky says canceling Torah study is more dangerous than corona,” Shmulik Woolf, a member of the rabbi’s inner circle, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Wednesday.
But Woolf added that aside from the issue of yeshiva closures, in all other matters it is important to listen to the directives of the Ministry of Health.
Back in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, after beating a hasty retreat from Torah V’Yirah, I walked down the street to another synagogue and struck up a conversation with an 18-year-old yeshiva student who identified himself only as Natan.
“The Torah protects us and saves us. We’re not scared,” he told me, echoing a widely held belief in his community. “I’m young. People in the yeshivas aren’t afraid because we won’t get sick and anyone with a fever is sent home. We learn Torah, so it won’t happen.”
At the Be’er Mordechai yeshiva only a few blocks away from Gerzi’s synagogue, dozens of students were crammed into the small study hall. When I entered the yeshiva and asked a rabbi about the government regulations, I was mobbed by students demanding to know if I was a government inspector and insisting that there was no cause for concern.
“Whoever learns is protected, the rabbis said so,” one called out.
“God loves us, he won’t bring us corona,” another chimed in.
“The Torah protects us,” a third said. “We don’t need to do anything.”