The controversy surrounding the massive funeral for Brooklyn rabbi on Tuesday night spilled into the mayor’s press conference Wednesday morning, with Police Commissioner Dermot Shea bluntly saying the crowds were “putting my cops at risk” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thousands of Orthodox Jews have suffered from and have also died from coronavirus, including Rabbi Chaim Mertz, 73, for whom the funeral was held the night of April 28 at Congregation Kahal Tolath Yakov on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. More than 2,000 people attended the funeral, with cops breaking up the throngs of attendees at the synagogue and street ceremony after only 30 minutes.
Shea said Wednesday that 12 summonses were issued for the illegal gathering and failure to socially distance themselves. Cops herded the attendees, including children and elderly residents, out of the area after rushing the coffin out of the small three story synagogue near Lynch Street.
Both Shea and Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the scene of the funeral to personal observe the melee.
De Blasio took some heat for his Twitter statements this morning from some elected officials, some saying he stirred up words of hate and possibly instigated anti-Semitism among the public over the incident.
On Wednesday, the mayor apologized for his “passionate statements done in the heat of the moment,” but he said further violations of illegal gatherings “would not be tolerated.”
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: The time for warnings has passed. 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,” de Blasio said.
Shea was more pointed about the gathering. insisting that it was “endangering his officers” and said “there would be zero tolerance” for future large gatherings while the pandemic persists. He reminded listeners on the mayor’s press conference that he has lost 37 members of the department to COVID-19, and thousands of others in the force have been infected.
At one point in April, close to 20% of the NYPD had to call out sick because of coronavirus.
“Everyone knows what is acceptable and what is not,” Shea said of Tuesday night’s funeral. “Members of Jewish community have been extremely helpful in the past, but we have had incidents. Planning for what shouldn’t happen should in no way equate with condoning an event – it shouldn’t have happened. And it better not happen again. Putting my cops lives at risk, unacceptable.”
Some elected officials, including Brooklyn Councilman Chaim Deutsch, criticized the mayor for inflammatory remarks that he believes might spark “anti-Semitic behavior.” Anti-Semitic attacks were a huge problem during the past year as the number of attacks on many ethnic and religious groups were on the rise – most notably the attacks in Jersey City and Monsey, NY.
“I heard about the situation and was very concerned about a large gathering and how NYPD approached it,” de Blasio said. “I understand when people are mourning there is real pain, so you have to understand what it means to hold large gathering, but unfortunately, some will get sick with this disease, and this is a fact. Some will spread the disease to others and some will die as result. I have a long, deep relationship with Jewish community and have a lot personal relationships and respect. But this just can’t happen.”
De Blasio and Shea vowed to issue summonses and make arrests when necessary in any future gatherings that violate public health laws. Commissioner Shea vowed “stern consequences.”
“We look back at past incidents and people most overwhelming comply, but then there are a lot of incidents where people don’t comply,” Shea said. “What we saw last night, as time unfolded, several thousand people, came in and around that location, and so we added officers, and 12 summonses were issued for refusing to disperse.”
Even members of the Jewish community condemned the gathering and called for action. Dov Hikind, former Assemblymember, called on the mayor to order arrests.
“The mayor spoke about closing these down, and making arrests, but the mayor hasn’t done that,” Hikind said. “It’s the only way that people will get it.”