No Room for Error

The reactions to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial comment about the Jewish community following the levayah of a Rebbe in Williamsburg were strongly worded — and varied.

A number of Republican and Democratic elected officials — on the local and national levels — joined a long list of organizations and public figures decrying the remarks. The critics even included a number of individuals and groups whose core beliefs are the diametrical opposite of Orthodox Judaism. They viewed as unfair and troubling the mayor’s singling out the Jewish community for criticism after people mourning the loss of their beloved spiritual leader failed to adhere to the repeated requests from their own communal leadership to follow social distancing guidelines.

The mayor’s critics pointed out that he ignored the large crowds who thronged together in waterfront parks and other venues to watch a flyover by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels. They also stressed that the mayor has failed to acknowledge the fact that Orthodox leadership has consistently called for full compliance with the regulations, and that the community has played a key role in organizing blood plasma donation centers and establishing food banks.

Ironically, it was the Tolaas Yaakov kehillah whose revered, humble Rebbe’s levayah was at the center of the storm, and the large Satmar kehillos in Williamsburg, who sought to distance themselves from the tone of much of the condemnation directed toward the mayor. Without defending the mayor’s actual comment, these groups rejected the notion that it was motivated by malice, and sought to emphasize the need to reduce rather than exacerbate tensions between the community and the city government.

For his part, de Blasio said that he was sorry if his words hurt anyone’s feelings.

“I regret if the way I said it in any way gave people a feeling of being treated the wrong way. That was not my intention. It was said with love — but it was tough love,” he told the media.

The larger and more important question is where to go from here.

The wrong choice of words can have very painful repercussions even in a private conversation between two people. How much more so is it incumbent upon public officials to be extra careful in how they express themselves when making statements that will be potentially spread to millions of people.

In every era, it is vital that the working relationship between the city’s various communities and the mayor is a positive and productive one. How much more so at this time.

We urge the mayor to open a direct dialogue with the Orthodox Jewish community. Since many of its members shun the use of television, it is imperative that he use media that will offer them the opportunity to clearly hear him delineate his position, and express empathy and sensitivity for a grieving community.

At the same time, it is imperative that every member of the community recognize that each of us is an ambassador for the entire community. Each of us has a special responsibility to ensure that wearing a face covering and keeping the guidelines of social distancing are stringently followed.

As the events of the past weeks have illustrated, there is no room for error.