More than 2,000 jammed the streets of Brooklyn Tuesday night for a funeral for a venerable rabbi who died at the age of 73 from complications of COVID-19, apparently ignoring their own risk of contracting the illness.
The gathering of Orthodox Jewish residents went on even as scores of hundreds of police officers and volunteer patrol members trying to convince them to go home.
Some of those in attendance at the Williamsburg funeral blasted the police for breaking up the crowd, with a few saying to this reporter, “It’s a big fake,” and “The virus is not so bad.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio condemned the gathering as dangerous, prompting a war of words between Jewish leaders and the administration.
The thousands of Satmars massed for the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, 73, also known as Tolaas Yakov, a well-respected rabbi in the community.
Police moved in on the synagogue, Congregation Kahal Tolath Yakov at Bedford Avenue and Lynch Street at about 7:30 p.m. on April 28 when the crowds inside refused social distancing. The funeral was cut short by police after about 30 minutes.
Mourners, surrounded by a chaotic throng of people, carried the coffin to a waiting funeral van, with numerous police trying to keep the crowds back so that the van could be rushed out.
Police and volunteer patrol members then got behind the van and led the vehicle, followed by a large number of vans and police cars, through the mass of people and to the cemetery for a burial within the required 24-hour period.
Police were forced to use metal gates to push back masses of people, many with children in tow. While many wore surgical masks, some did not.
The area has seen more than 1,600 people test positive for COVID-19, though residents say most people didn’t get a test until they had to go to a hospital.
Police say no arrests were made and no injuries were reported despite the chaotic scene.
The massive street presence of members of the Satmar community, many wearing surgical masks, brought condemnations from Mayor Bill de Blasio and other elected officials who blasted the gathering as dangerous and a risk of spreading the coronavirus.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio said in a tweet. “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.”
The mayor and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, whose department lost 37 members so far, showed up on the scene of the gathering where hundreds of masked cops worked to disperse the crowd. It was not immediately known if arrests were made.
“We have lost so many these last two months + I understand the instinct to gather to mourn. But large gatherings will only lead to more deaths + more families in mourning,” de Blasio added. “We will not allow this. I have instructed the NYPD to have one standard for this whole city: zero tolerance.”
But a number of crowd members dismissed the warnings.
“You get me the numbers of how many you say died, I don’t believe you,” one young man said through his surgical mask. A few others said they refused to wear masks and insisted that the coronavirus information was “not accurate,” and said the city should “mind its own business.”
Some of the young people said they had gotten COVID-19, one saying, “ok, you get sick a few days, then you get over it.” Another said, “you don’t have any numbers of people who died. It’s not true.”
To the contrary, more than 40,000 New Yorkers have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 since the first case in New York City was detected back on March 2. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that more than 157,000 New Yorkers have tested positive for the illness, and at least 11,820 residents have died from it. The agency further indicated that another 5,395 deaths might be attributed to COVID-19.
Councilman Chaim Deutsch criticized the mayor, who he said allowed people to gather to watch yesterday’s Blue Angels and Thunderbirds fly over to honor health care workers.
“This has to be a joke,” Deutsch said in a Twitter statement in reaction to the mayor. “Did the mayor of NYC really just single out one specific ethnic community (a community that has been the target of increasing hate crimes in HIS city) as being noncompliant?? Has he been to a park lately? (What am I saying – of course he has!)”
But he also said, “Obviously everyone should be social distancing and being extremely careful – and almost everyone has been! With data trending in a positive direction, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel IF – and only IF – people continue to be vigilant.”
He also cautioned in another statement that condemning an entire community for the gathering was “inviting anti-Semitism.”
“But singling out one community is ridiculous. 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 antisemitism. I’m truly stunned.“
It was unclear whether the police would continue with the same strategies to stop the gatherings, pending a press conference this morning with the mayor and commissioner.
Congregation Kahal Tolath Yakov issued a statement on Williamsburg News Twitter page that said in part, “We understand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frustration and speaking out against the gathering. As said, we thought the procession was in accordance with the rules and we apologize that it turned out otherwise.”