During the coronavirus crisis a few months ago, with the death rate escalating in Bnei Brak, some unexpected helpers appeared—hundreds of Israeli soldiers.
Not only were they unexpected, but as uniformed representatives of the secular Zionist state whose hegemony many Chareidi Bnei Brak residents reject, they were unwelcome. For most of the soldiers, Bnei Brak, and the lifestyle practiced there, was foreign territory.
It looked like a powder keg waiting to explode—“one of Israel’s most acrimonious divides,” in the words of the New York Times.
Instead, the strangers got to know each other. Soldiers began delivering groceries, loading prepared meals into ambulances, and bringing medicine and toys to quarantined homes. And the men dressed in black-and-white bonded with those in khaki green. Captain Oriel Bibi, a commander of paratroopers-in-training, said children would smile and point at him, shouting, “Soldier, soldier!” while adults offered him candy. “It’s been so heartwarming, positive and friendly.”
One Bnei Brak resident said he saw the soldiers in a new light. “It’s not just that they’re watching the borders, they’re also coming to help us in this crisis.”
This shattering of stereotypes was another sign that this year’s plague, which forced people apart, brought the Jewish people together—in Israel and the Diaspora.
I witnessed this in my work as a writer for the Jewish Week in New York, which stopped its print publication this past July. On the Covid-19 beat nearly full-time for several months, I reported on Jews united in opposing anti-Semitism that sought to blame the Jewish community for the pandemic. And on non-Orthodox Jews coming to the defense of the Chassidic community when the mayor issued an ill-considered tweet singling out Jews when some Chareidi Jews in Brooklyn flouted anti-social distancing regulations to participate in funerals of prominent rabbis. I reported on the Chassidic-run Masbia soup kitchens offering their free food to anyone who showed up, non-frum Jews and non-Jews alike.
I had not seen this across-the-board cooperation since spending time in Israel in early 1991 during the early days of the first Gulf War. I saw it, to a lesser degree, after 9/11 in 2001 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Then came 2020. The disease that kept us apart physically brought us together spiritually, breaking down psychological barriers. Largely, online.
“We have through technology managed to stay spiritually connected,” says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “The beauty of the technology is that it enables us to see each other, making it more personal.”
Rabbi Potasnik tells of kindnesses he witnessed during the pandemic by Orthodox Jews to non-Orthodox ones, and vice versa, no questions asked about religious affiliation.
In Canada, Joseph Rosen, a self-described secular Jew who lives in Montreal’s fifty-percent-Chassidic Mile End section, wrote that coronavirus gave him an insight into his neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. “While I . . . have friendly relations with some neighbors, the Chassidim separate themselves from me and my social world.”
Came the pandemic. Rosen saw his neighbors praying on their balconies, properly socially distanced. “Their fervor infected me.” One Shabbat morning, “I decided to join their minyan . . . I put on a tie, a black jacket and my yarmulke . . . I let go of my insecurity and joined the chorus shouting ‘Amen!’ They looked at me too, smiling, and said ‘Good Shabbos!’ Infected by their communal warmth, I felt connected to these previously distant neighbors.”
In Israel, Yeshivat HaKotel, partnering with the OU and several organizations, hosted massive online “Achdus Torah Learning Programs,” featuring over eighty roshei yeshivot, chief rabbis, rebbetzins and educators from across the Orthodox spectrum, many of whom had never appeared together in any platform before. The initiative included a five-hour, virtual pre-Shavuot learning event as well which was viewed over 100,000 times.
“There has never been an event when so many Yeshivish and Modern Orthodox speakers from all over the world have all come together to speak in the same event,” Rabbi Reuven Taragin, dean of the overseas program for Yeshivat HaKotel and the organizer of the event, told the Jerusalem Post. Sensing the pandemic had created an opportunity to bring Jews together, Rabbi Taragin launched the program around Shavuot since that’s when the Jewish nation arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah “as one person with one heart.”
“The Jewish people are looking to come together right now and are looking to connect more with each other, because at a time when you are isolated and feel alone you naturally want to feel more connected,” he said.
The list goes on.
“This potential for Jewish unity is one of our greatest advantages,” wrote law professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall in a recent article in the Jerusalem Post. “Especially now, a sense of unity among the Jewish people matters more than ever.”
The residents of Bnei Brak and the soldiers who discovered what they have in common can testify to this.
Steve Lipman is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.