Coronavirus

Mayor Bill de Blasio breaks up a rabbi’s funeral in Brooklyn and lashes out over virus distancing

“When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed."

Local residents look on after police broke up a crowd of hundreds of mourners who had gathered for the funeral of a rabbi who died of the coronavirus, in Brooklyn on Tuesday night, April 28, 2020.

NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio lashed out at Hasidic residents of the Williamsburg section in Brooklyn late Tuesday after personally overseeing the dispersal of a crowd of hundreds of mourners who had gathered for the funeral of a rabbi who died of the coronavirus.

In a series of posts on Twitter, de Blasio denounced the gathering, which the police broke up, and warned “the Jewish community, and all communities” that any violation of the social-distancing guidelines in place to stop the spread of the virus could lead to a summons or an arrest.

“Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic,” the mayor said in one post. “When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed. And what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.”

The authorities have dispersed several well-attended religious gatherings since restrictions on such events were enacted in the face of the outbreak. The events that were broken up included weddings and funerals in New York neighborhoods with large Jewish populations.

But the episode Tuesday, which, according to Yeshiva World, involved the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, appeared to be the first time the mayor had directly participated in a dispersal.

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio said in another post. “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”

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Jewish groups and leaders reacted to the mayor’s warning with outrage.

Chaim Deutsch, a City Council member who represents a section of Brooklyn with a large Orthodox Jewish population, expressed anger and disbelief on Twitter, writing: “This has to be a joke.”

“But singling out one community is ridiculous,” he added in another post. “Every neighborhood has people who are being non-compliant. To speak to an entire ethnic group as though we are all flagrantly violating precautions is offensive, it’s stereotyping, and it’s inviting anti-Semitism. I’m truly stunned.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said the mayor’s remarks were unfair to the more than 1 million Jewish people who live in New York City.

“The few who don’t social distance should be called out — but generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews,” he wrote on Twitter. “This erodes the very unity our city needs now more than ever.”

Other people noted the size of the crowds that had gathered earlier in the day across the region to watch a military flyover by pilots from the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds honoring essential workers.

The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council said in a post on Twitter that “people failed to social distance at a funeral the same day that thousands of New Yorkers failed to distance for 45 minutes to watch a flyover.”

On Wednesday, de Blasio defended his remarks at a news conference and said he “spoke last night out of passion.”

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“I spoke out of real distress that people’s lives were in danger before my eyes and I was not going to tolerate it,” he told reporters. “I regret if the way I said it in any way gave people a feeling of being treated the wrong way; that was not my intention. It was said with love but it was tough love; it was anger and frustration.”

But he rejected the suggestion that his comments unfairly singled out members of the Jewish community or reflected a double standard in enforcing social-distancing rules.

“It has not happened other places, let’s be honest,” he said. “This kind of gathering has happened in only a few places, and it cannot continue. It’s endangering the lives of people in the community.”

“I understand politicians, every one has said, ‘Oh look, you know, this is like people gathering in the park,’” he added. “No, it’s not like people gathering in the park; it was thousands of people. Can we just have an honest conversation here? It was not acceptable.”

A spokesman for Mertz’s synagogue, Kahal Tolath Yakov, said in a statement that it “came up with a plan to have many streets closed, so that people participate and walk the coffin while following the social distancing rules and wearing masks.”

“Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out, and NYPD had to disperse the crowds,” the spokesman, Jacob Mertz, wrote. “We shall note that everyone followed the police officers’ orders and the vast majority had masks. Yet, the confusion and chaos led to scenes of large crowds.”

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The pandemic has hit Hasidic residents of New York with devastating force, sickening and killing people at a rate that local leaders and public health data suggest may exceed that of other ethnic and religious groups.

Hundreds of Hasidic people have died of the virus, community leaders said, including influential religious figures like the Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who led the Novominsker Hasidic dynasty and Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella ultra-Orthodox organization.

Most of the Orthodox Jewish leaders who have died amid the pandemic have not had big crowds at their funerals, but some have been mourned at large public gatherings like the one Tuesday in Williamsburg.

The persistence of such events has drawn wide news media coverage. It has also generated deep unease among Hasidic groups, who feel they are being singled out for opprobrium and worry about anti-Semitism. And in any case, they argue, public health violations in their neighborhoods endanger them most of all.

Dermot F. Shea, the New York City police commissioner, said Wednesday that the department learned of Mertz’s funeral Tuesday and made plans to monitor it. Videos posted on social media showed that members of the neighborhood Hasidic safety patrol, known as shomrim, were there as well.

Shea said the department had thought it was “unlikely” a large crowd would gather for the funeral.

“As time unfolded last night, there were probably several thousand people that came in and around that location,” he added. “Additional officers were called in and in pretty short time that crowd was dispersed.”

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Shea said 12 summonses were issued for failure to disperse. And he criticized events such as the one Tuesday for “putting members of my department at risk” and said they would be met with “stern consequences.”

Gatherings of any size have been banned in New York state for more than a month as part of the sweeping orders enacted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Police Department has assigned hundreds of officers to enforce social-distancing rules, responding to calls of overcrowding at stores, parks, and other gathering spaces. Officers have made 11 arrests and issued 134 summonses to people accused of violating emergency rules, according to the department’s daily enforcement reports.

Almost half of the summonses issued and two of the arrests made stemmed from a birthday party at a barbershop attended by nearly 60 people in Brooklyn. The police also broke up a speakeasy in Brooklyn and a marijuana party in Manhattan.

Mertz, from Kahal Tolath Yakov, said in a statement that the rabbi’s death had left the community “in a period of mourning and devastated by the loss of this highly revered spiritual leader.”

“May the Almighty help that this plague should end very soon,” he wrote. “And no one shall endure any more losses to this terrible pandemic, and we shall all stay safe and healthy.”

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