Reign of Inspection and Terror Descends on Boro Park

Inspectors swarming through dozens of Boro Park yeshivos and filming students screaming in terror. Armed sheriffs threatening to bust open yeshivos’ front doors. Inspectors sneaking into schools through backyards, or stopping children in the street and asking where they’re going. Members of the media flying drones or hiding to catch Jews without masks or the open yeshiva.
The Jew hunt is in full swing, egged on by a stream of false allegations by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that has already led to an uptick in anti-Semitic acts. FedEx and UPS drivers have said they do not want to deliver in zones marked by Cuomo as red or orange. Visibly Orthodox Jews have been ordered out of stores or had slurs directed at them.
One person videotaped himself driving through Boro Park and yelling at a bochur walking on a deserted street to put on a mask, posting it online with the caption that he was “trying to help the neighborhood,” followed by five laughter emojis. Frightened, the youth hurried to oblige. The man who taunted him identified himself as Sonny Luciano of Brooklyn.
Cases of Covid-19 in Orthodox areas have lowered to percentages Cuomo had said in the past would mean they can open, yet they remain shut, while rates in dozens of other counties or neighborhoods have risen and there is no closure. The war of words between the governor and Jewish activists, once close allies, has risen to the harshest in his 10-year term.
“Let’s be frank and candid,” Cuomo told reporters on Shabbos, “…the community we are talking about today is a politically powerful community. You know it and I know it. I understand they don’t want to incur the wrath and the political downside.”
“Some of the complexity in the enforcement here,” Cuomo said two days earlier, “especially with members of the ultra-Orthodox community—they have never complied with the rules.”
You read here on the pages of the Yated how the entire frum lifestyle shut down in March, April and May; how shuls closed, people davened at home or on porches, yeshivos bolted their doors, businesses went offline, chasunos were held with a bare minyan, and levayos were by Zoom or telephone. This has left people scratching their heads at Cuomo’s rhetoric.
“This is outrageous and divisive language,” Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein said in a video distributed to the media on Thursday. “He’s shamelessly stoking the embers of anti-Semitism. There’s no other way to put it. Let’s be honest—had President Donald Trump been the one saying those words, Andrew Cuomo would’ve been the first one out of the gate condemning him. Mr. Governor, maybe it’s time to take a real long look in the mirror.”
Eichenstein added that the Orthodox community was getting caught in a battle of wills between Cuomo and de Blasio.
“For years, our city has suffered the fate of an ego contest between our two executives who control it,” Eichenstein, a former senior aide to de Blasio. “Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have been at each other’s throats for as long as they have been in office,” adding that “there is so much they could learn from how nicely my two-year-old gets along with my six-year-old.”
Even the State Department anti-Semitism czar criticized Cuomo, with Elan Carr telling JNS on Thursday that “there has to be a balance between allowing the fair and free exercise of First Amendment rights on the one hand and maintaining public health on the other. … And I think that singling any one community is deeply troubling.”
Two weeks ago, Cuomo imposed a harsh lockdown on primarily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, closing yeshivos and nonessential businesses and limiting shuls to a 10-person limit. The closure primarily affects Boro Park, Flatbush, Monsey and Kiryas Joel, among others. Cuomo’s office distributed complicated maps of the areas divided into red, orange and yellow zones depending on how many positive coronavirus infections the neighborhood has and how severely they must lock down.
Enforcement in the beginning was generally minimal, with inspectors showing up at stores sporadically and issuing fines if customers were caught not wearing a mask. Yeshivos by and large closed, with some transferring to remote classes and others moving out of the red zone or even out of state.
Many yeshivos established childcare centers so that at least some children could have stability. Cuomo derided the childcare as an end run around his rule, and state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker issued a letter banning any childcare in school facilities. Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, said that city lawyers were not convinced it ran afoul of the order and was allowing it for the time being.
One incident that caused yeshiva administrators to break off negotiations with the state came on Thursday, when an armed undercover state trooper accompanied an inspector from the Health Department into a school by climbing over a gate from a neighbor’s backyard. The two entered a classroom filled with frightened preschool-age girls in a legal childcare program and began filming them. The teacher, horrified, screamed for help.
The school’s administrator arrived and was served with a violation, despite the legality of the childcare program.
On Monday, a full-blown crackdown began, with hundreds of inspectors crowding the streets of Boro Park, peering into school buildings and even threatening one school to break down its front door if it wasn’t opened.
This warrantless entry, as Soviet-esque as it may sound, was legal under Cuomo’s unique emergency order, one yeshiva administrator from Monsey confirmed to the Yated.
“I spoke to my lawyer,” the administrator said, “and he said that Cuomo put this whole red zone issue under the New York State health law, which means that any inspector does not need a warrant to get into any school building or shul or place where he suspects people are inside, because it falls under a health emergency. If you block access to them, it means that you’re obstructing government action and you can be charged criminally.”
Nearly every yeshiva reported having inspectors come in on a nearly daily basis and stick around for hours. About half a dozen received the maximum $15,000 fine based on the word of the inspector who said he heard children through the windows or observed people congregating outside.
“They came in and asked if we’re closed and we said yes,” the administrator of a Boro Park yeshiva said. “They asked if the childcare is closed and we said yes. ‘Can we come in and see?’ We said sure. They came into one classroom and took a picture, went into another classroom and took a picture, said that they have enough material already and wished us a good day.”
Seeking to stanch a growing feeling of siege in the community, eight askonim held a frank two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Mayor de Blasio on Monday night. They explained that the community was feeling that the city was targeting them for selective enforcement and in a manner unprecedented in the Covid-19 era.
“He listened,” one of the participants told the Yated. “Nothing was off the table. We discussed everything the community was going through.”
The mayor acknowledged the meeting at his press briefing on Tuesday, expressing regret at the overzealous enforcement and his tone-deaf treatment of the community since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I did express my regrets,” de Blasio said. “I look back now and understand there was just more dialogue that was needed. I certainly got very frustrated at times when I saw large groups of people still out without masks. But I think more dialogue would have been better. So I certainly want to express my regret that I didn’t figure out how to do that better.”
He also apologized for his infamous tweet in April with his “message to the Jewish community, and all communities,” that “the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest.”
A group of Boro Park rabbonim declared a yom tefillah for Tuesday morning, during which people would call into a number and recite Tehillim and Kabbolas Ol Malchus Shomayim together.
The program began at 11:30 a.m., with Rav Mechel Steinmetz, the Skverer dayan, reciting Tehillim, followed by Avinu Malkeinu by the Skulener Rebbe and Kabbolas Ol Malchus Shomayim led by the Kossover Rebbe.
Compounding the problem was the media, which descended on Boro Park by the dozens, taking intrusive pictures of media-shy people and disturbing a neighborhood they know so little about.
The media even made up a story of a Satmar chasunah in Williamsburg scheduled for Monday night that would have “10,000 participants.” No one knows where the number 10,000 came from, but Zucker, the state health commissioner, on Cuomo’s instruction, issued a rare emergency injunction on Shabbos banning the kehillah from holding the event for more than 50 people. This is despite Williamsburg being out of all three zones that limit crowds.
The kehillah issued a statement signed by the gabbai that the chasunah, for the rebbe’s grandson, was never meant for the public. It was to have been for a socially distant family, with the public invited inside for a short time to wish the rebbe mazel tov.
“The unwarranted attacks on this event, originated by those besmirching the community, are detached from the facts,” the statement read. “The publicity will turn this wedding to a paparazzi and will draw spectators that may make it impossible to control the crowds to comply with social distancing. It will also deter from the celebratory and spiritual atmosphere fit for such an affair.”
Indeed, about a dozen television cameras began showing up at the Satmar shul on Rodney Street, videoing everyone who entered, with a news helicopter circling overhead. They had no idea where the chasunah was scheduled to be, with neighborhood children sending them on a wild goose chase around town. When reporters attempted to give their reports, they were drowned out by a cacophony of dozens of blaring car horns.
The three-zone method was imposed on the community three weeks ago with little instruction on how to comply to either the community or the inspectors, leading to much confusion. The original system had tied infection rates to zip codes, but the new system—while claimed by Cuomo to be based on a detailed block-by-block threshold—was unclear and confusing.
“The way we know the speed limit on the highway is because they post signs to put everyone on notice of the rules,” noted Joel Petlin, the superintendent of the Kiryas Joel School District, which is one of the red zones, on Twitter. “If only we had clarity on the reopening rules for red zones, in order to get our children back to school, and for our businesses and houses of worship to open safely.”
Additionally, Jews were dismayed to hear this week that their neighborhoods would not be removed from the red zones despite areas such as Boro Park and Kew Gardens falling from six to eight percent to two or three percent—and several non-Jewish areas having their rates rise drastically. There was a double standard here, they insisted.
Infection rates in Rockland dropped from 12.2 percent at the end of September to 4.5 percent last week, which Kiryas Joel dropped from 24.6 percent three weeks ago to 4.6 percent last week. Meanwhile, seven counties with no measurable Orthodox Jewish community had infection rates than any of the red zones on Shabbos.
“Imagine how bad red zones would be in those counties if Cuomo made zones there,” said Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council. “He is selling his book now as to how great he handled Covid-19, so he’s pretending that the coronavirus resurgence is some local Orthodox Jews’ issue and not something that is popping up in many counties across the state.”
Making things more complicated was New York City’s Health Department ceasing to make available positive tests based on zip code data, with de Blasio saying it was on account of Cuomo changing the metrics. So there was no way to know how Cuomo was getting his information that a certain neighborhood had a given percentage of positive infection rates.
“We’ve got an unusual situation here and we’ve been open about it,” de Blasio said on Monday. “The state determined a different approach that certainly made it important to be careful about the information we put out, so it doesn’t create confusion, and it doesn’t create a situation where there are two different interpretations going on publicly that make it hard for people to know where to go.”
Cuomo acknowledged on Shabbos an accusation that has dogged him for days—that he, not the health department, drew up the zones and decided which areas would be included. But he defended the move as one needed to calm “fears” people had that a second wave would engulf the state, which once had the largest outbreak in the country.
On Monday, Cuomo said that he would be announcing a new system on Wednesday. By then, he had at least six lawsuits filed against him by Orthodox Jews, Catholics, business groups and private citizens.
On Friday, a federal judge refused to block Cuomo’s order limiting worship to 10 congregants, rejecting a lawsuit brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. US District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said that even though the rules harm religious groups, it is not in the public interest to block them if they are helping prevent a wave of new infections.
“In fact, if the court issues an injunction and the state is correct about the acuteness of the threat currently posed by hotspot neighborhoods, the result could be avoidable death on a massive scale like New Yorkers experienced in the spring,” Garaufis wrote.
The ruling doesn’t end the lawsuit, but denied the church’s request for a temporary injunction.
Garaufis said it was conceivable the diocese could end up ultimately winning the case, but that the worst that could happen in the meantime to the diocese’s churches is that 26 of them would have to curtail in-person ceremonies for several weeks.
“That is not meant, in any way, to downplay the seriousness of that constitutional harm,” the judge said. But he said the potential to save lives outweighed the damage the church would suffer.
Another lawsuit was brought by a group of Orthodox Jews who claimed that their religious rights were at stake. They pointed to a ruling in March by US Judge Gary Sharpe that Cuomo had no right to limit how many people could attend religious worship.
“Because it affects me as an Orthodox Jew, because it affects me as the president of a synagogue,” said Mordy Avigdor, an attorney who is one of the plaintiffs, explaining to the Yated why he was suing.
The case was filed on Thursday in Albany federal court by the same judge. Sharpe, however, said he would not be revisiting the emergency powers Cuomo received from the legislature as he did last time, just the facts of the case. He gave the state until Tuesday morning to respond, and Wednesday for a rebuttal by the plaintiffs, with a ruling expected shortly after that.
“We could point to many, many facts on the ground that they have violated in a wholesale way,” Avigdor said. “If Judge Sharpe gives us a favorable ruling, it will be a game changer.”
The war of words between Cuomo and the Orthodox community escalated last Wednesday, when Cuomo announced he was modifying his executive order to take away state funding from schools that ignore orders to shut their doors.
The governor, who has for weeks lamented the failure of some local governments to enforce coronavirus restrictions, also said that the state would send a letter to local governments warning that they would lose state funding if they didn’t enforce limits on public gatherings and schools. Cuomo said the letter would go to New York City, Orange County, Rockland County, the Town of Ramapo and the Village of Spring Valley.
“I guarantee if a yeshiva gets closed down and they’re not going to get state funding, you’re going to see compliance,” Cuomo said. He added that all funding was potentially at risk in the standoff. “We have the ability to impound all funds from a locality,” he said. “All of the funding. Which is significant. How much would we penalize them? It depends and it would be in our discretion. Because we could impound all funds.”
De Blasio brushed off Cuomo’s threats to pull funding, calling it “bluster.”
“I’m very used to bluster from Washington and from Albany. I’ve heard a lot of it,” de Blasio told reporters during a City Hall press briefing. “I understand bluster when I see it, but here we have a job to do—the job is to protect New Yorkers. That’s what I’m focused on every day.”
Cuomo responded, reminding de Blasio that he was calling the shots, not the mayor. “So we stop playing this game where local officials speak about things they have no authority over and then confuse people,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo added that de Blasio’s suggestion the lockdown could go on for several more weeks was interfering with his prerogative. “It’s too early to tell whether or not the 14 days will need to be extended,” Cuomo said. “When we know, I will tell you any speculation or guessing beyond that is just speculation or guessing. It’s not up to the City of New York, it’s not up to the mayor.”
A phone conference Cuomo held with several Jewish activists later that day did little to break the logjam. The three people allowed to speak praised the governor’s leadership and urged him to allow schools to reopen as soon as possible noting the severe effect it was having on families and teenagers.
The governor played good cop/bad cop, framing himself as the one trying to keep things open against local officials such as de Blasio in New York City and Ed Day in Rockland County. A promised follow-up meeting in person he promised has yet to materialize.
One theory why Cuomo was so aggressive in enforcing the rule despite the relatively low infection rate was his new book that came out last week. Titled American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, it portrays him as the man who held the virus at bay as it ravaged his state in spring, and a rise in positive rates messes with the book’s schedule. Cuomo has planned a nationwide tour to sell his new book.
He also addresses a frequent criticism of his leadership style: that he is a bully. “You show me a person who is not controlling, and I’ll show you a person who is probably not highly successful,” he wrote.
As for his mistakes, Cuomo concedes only a few. Among them, he said, he waited too long to mandate that New Yorkers wear masks. Other problems with New York’s virus response get less ink, including the thousands of deaths in nursing homes blamed on his policies.
On Sunday, a Republican group held a unique protest, wheeling a casket filled with 6,500 copies of the book’s cover—one for each nursing home patient who died from the coronavirus—into a nursing home in Cobble Hill, in Brooklyn.
“The families in front of you deserve to know the truth,” said protest organizer Peter Arbeeny, whose 89-year-old father Norman was among the at least 56 people to die from Covid-19 at the facility.