With Israel's surging number of new coronavirus cases showing no sign of declining, the situation in densely populated ultra-Orthodox communities grows dire by the day and might become entirely out of control by the time the holiday period ends.
The Haredi community has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19, with the majority of Israel's "red" cities and towns having an ultra-Orthodox majority population. The latest data shows 514 out of 817 newly-infected within the community are below the age of 26, indicating they most likely became infected at yeshivas and other religious institutions.
Thousands of yeshiva students are set to go on a study break during the holiday of Sukkot and visit their large families in "red", virus-hit ultra-Orthodox communities, after spending the last 40 days under strict social distancing conditions. Health officials worry that many of the students going on holiday might be unknowingly carrying and spreading the virus.
In addition, Yom Kippur likely to become a trigger for unauthorized gatherings and public prayer services, which could also lead to an outbreak.
According to a recent IDF Military Intelligence Directorate report, 33% of all coronavirus tests conducted in Beitar-Illit – an ultra-Orthodox settlement near Jerusalem – yielded a positive result, meaning one of every 3 individuals tested in the community is carrying the virus.
Beitar-Illit is then followed by a host of ultra-Orthodox communities or localities, such as El'ad with 31.5% positive tests, Bnei Brak with over 25%, Modi'in-Illit with 24.5% and Beit Shemesh with 22%. Rounding up the top 10 is Jerusalem, where over 15% of tests conducted returned positive.
For comparison, the average rate of positive tests nationwide in the past week stood at 12.8%. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization states that a country must keep positive test results under 5% over an extended period of time to consider its outbreak to be under control.
The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox sector are aware of the situation, and despite a hard-fought public and political battle to keep synagogues open on Yom Kippur, they call on worshipers – both implicitly and explicitly – to pray outdoors or at private homes.
Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri, who threatened last week to resign from the government if synagogues were to close on Yom Kippur, also joined the campaign and called on worshipers to adhere to health regulations and pray outdoors.
The leaders of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community released a public statement, calling to adhere to the recommendations of doctors and professionals, joining other prominent rabbis from various ultra-Orthodox denominations who also called on worshipers last week to refrain from going to synagogues.
Some communities within the Hassidic movement appear to continue disregarding the Health Ministry guidelines and hold unauthorized public gatherings.
In contrast, Israel's largest Hassidic dynasty, the Ger dynasty, decided to cut the number of worshipers in its center in Jerusalem, and called on their followers from all across the country not to come to the city for prayer alongside the Rebbe, as they did on Rosh Hashanah.
Additionally, over half of the dynasty's yeshiva students have left the Jerusalem center, some returning home to their families and some transferred to specially designated isolation hotels after contracting the virus.
However, it seems that much like during the country's first wave of coronavirus, the sector leaders' response to the outbreak may be too little, too late.
A Health Ministry official told Ynet that the "capsule outline", which saw yeshiva students divided to smaller study groups in an effort to prevent mass coronavirus infections, was a disaster and hundreds of students in various religious institutions ended up contracting the pathogen.
"The formula simply doesn't work," he said. "We learned the hard way that there is no way to outsmart coronavirus. Even the rabbis are starting to realize that it won't be possible to resume studies in yeshivas after the High Holidays."
The Health Ministry estimates the outbreak among Ger followers is much greater than reported despite high adherence to the ministry's guidelines.
"The situation over there is catastrophic," the source said. "Entire families have contracted the virus due to yeshiva students who participated in the Rosh Hashana service."