Crowds of Orthodox Jewish residents in Borough Park, Brooklyn jammed the neighborhood streets on Tuesday night angry at Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for taking actions aimed at containing the COVID-19 outbreak that they believe unfairly targets them.
Borough Park is one of nine ZIP code hot spots across Brooklyn and Queens where COVID-19 rates have jumped in recent weeks. Hoping to avoid the deadly outbreak that peaked in March and April, Cuomo and de Blasio have moved to restrict activity in the hot spots — including severely restricting large gatherings and limiting capacity at houses of worship.
Radio talk show personality Heshy Tischler, who recently confronted city Health Department inspectors against mask mandates, helped spur the demonstration, which quickly spread to other parts of the neighborhood.
The busy 13th Avenue commercial strip was closed for nearly two hours as an unmasked Tischler led crowds up and down 49th Street to 50th Streets, vowing to oppose government efforts to limit attendance in synagogues — saying “there is a court order that people can pray in their shuls.”
On Monday, police and government agencies raided a large synagogue where up to 500 people were gathered to celebrate the Jewish holy day of Succoth. Many holiday services were still ongoing Tuesday night in numerous locations as the demonstration occurred.
In one area, on 14th Avenue, residents lit a large pile of trash in the street, blocking vehicle traffic. No arrests or injuries were reported in this incident.
However, some protesters objected to being filmed by an unidentified man on top of a car where crowds dragged him down and beat him until police could intervene. No arrests were made in this incident, and the victim was taken to an area hospital.
Tischler was later joined by Councilman Kalman Yeger who concurred that Cuomo should leave religious gatherings out of any new restrictions. The call came even as many of the worst cases of COVID-19 were contracted during religious observances, beginning in March during Purim, where thousands became ill and some prominent rabbis died of the virus.
“They are violating our rights so we will do civil disobedience just like the BLM (Black Lives Matter) — we will fight back,” said Tischler, who told hordes of Orthodox Jewish men that he was running for City Council.
Yeger was more measured in his opposition to the prohibitions of gatherings in his community for prayer services.
“I took an oath of office – it was an affirmation that I would support the Constitution of the United States. I took the same oath when I entered the practice of law and the oath to the Constitution means something and not just for some people. We have the right to observe our religion,” Yeger said. “When government issued an edict, that a 5,000 square foot piece of property and a 200 square foot piece of property, both houses of worship, are both limited to 10 people, it makes no sense. They could’ve done better, they could’ve done smarter — we’ve been talking to them since yom tov (the holiday).”
Yeger accused the mayor of making a bad decision on religious observances and said that Cuomo “failed us” in not stopping that order.
“I understand, the numbers are going up, this is not a joke, the disease is real. This neighborhood has seen it, my family has seen it, but they have to be reasonable of what they are demanding of us,” Yeger said.
Not everyone agreed with Tischler. One man said, “he doesn’t represent us – we wear masks and we have had people in our family die from COVID. That guy is a clown.”
Another man, who also would not give his name, said he agreed that religious observances should be left alone “as long as people are wearing masks – that’s one way to keep people safe. We need to be able to pray without anyone bothering us.”
The morning after the unrest, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the NYPD would investigate the reported assault and hold the suspects accountable. He also urged every community in the city to follow COVID-19 restrictions, and reiterated that state and city agencies would enforce them.
“We are dealing with a health emergency,” de Blasio said. “Everyone must follow those rules, the NYPD will be enforcing those rules. … The state has laid down very clear rules. We want to be respectful, but I want to be very clear that when the NYPD issues an instruction, as well with any other situation in the city or any other protest, if the NYPD issues the instruction people must follow the instruction.”
“If they don’t follow the instruction they are liable for whatever consequences occur,” de Blasio added.
With reporting by Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech