Religious Life Is No Less Important Than the Right to Protest

Only hours before Shabbos began, disappointing news spread quickly throughout the community. A late afternoon news dump, included a statement by State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker that overnight camps will not be permitted to function this year in New York State.

The decision was particular jarring, coming at a time when, baruch Hashem, the number of Covid-related deaths, new hospitalizations, and new cases, had decreased dramatically. It also comes after state and local authorities have allowed mass protests and civil unrest on the streets — with nary a mask nor any sign of social distancing in sight.

The camp issue was only one of several where a disconnect between allowing mass protests to proceed unfettered while hampering the norms of essential aspects of day-to-day life is evident.

Religious and educational gatherings are also being severely limited, and not just in New York. In Maryland, for instance, a federal First Amendment challenge was recently mounted to force Montgomery County officials to ensure regulations and their enforcement respect equally the right of assembly as well as the right to practice one’s faith.

In a letter to county executives, Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband wrote, “During a crisis, it is important for people of faith to be able to exercise their religion. Montgomery County has shown no good reason for not trusting congregants who promise to use care in worship the same way it trusts political protesters to do the same. The Department of Justice will continue to take action if states and localities infringe on the free exercise of religion or other civil liberties.”

As to the unfortunate summer camp decision, the state authorities were notified repeatedly by Jewish organizations’ dedicated askanim that such camps are critical to children’s mental and physical health, and especially important after months of young people sheltering at home and interacting with friends and teachers only remotely.

All of the efforts, sadly, were to no avail.

Which is particularly disappointing, in light of the fact that social justice demonstrations have been ongoing for weeks, with protesters gathered together in close quarters for long periods of time without any special precautions. We would have hoped that the state would have given the green light to any effort to meet — with all necessary measures taken — the social, educational and physical needs of our children.

In New York City, that extends to banning them from playgrounds, which remain off-limits to the families who desperately need them. It has been 10 weeks since the city shuttered recreational spaces around the city’s five boroughs.

Last Thursday, Governor Cuomo announced that the decision to open or close playgrounds and public pools is now up to “the discretion of local governments.” But even with New York City’s cases of COVID-19 at their lowest level since the advent of the outbreak, Mayor de Blasio has not chosen to allow children to use local playgrounds.

Asked by Hamodia’s Reuvain Borchardt about that, the mayor, while insisting that he does not “lack compassion for those parents” whose children need to get out and play, insisted that the time for reopening play areas is “not here yet.”

Pressed by our correspondent about the inconsistency of permitting large protest marches while banning children from playground facilities, the mayor could only say that the moment has brought “something very particular, very painful, very intense, very challenging,” where “literally decades and centuries of the demand for change came forward, and real change is happening as a result.”

With all due respect to that reality, it does not excuse causing, even with good intentions, harm to children. As State Senator Simcha Felder wrote in a letter to the mayor: “With current [infection] numbers hovering around zero, we can no longer tolerate the excessive restriction of closed playgrounds…

“Barring children from play spaces for even one additional, unnecessary minute is unhealthy, dangerous and cruel…. With everything going on in the world, let’s not make criminals of good parents and small children at play in the park.”

None of us want to foster, chalilah, a resurgence of the coronavirus that has so hampered our lives for months. But, with adequate precautions and monitoring, there is little reason to continue to prevent our children from having access to playgrounds and camps, or to hamper our educational and religious institutions.