A Time to Build – Not Burn — Bridges

A man walks past NYPD officials stationed in Williamsburg. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters/ File)

Few words are as overused and misused as “unprecedented” and “historical.” Yet there are times when these terms are needed. One would be hard-pressed to find a historical parallel on American shores to the trials and tribulations our community is currently facing from within and without.

It doesn’t take deep wisdom or statesmanship to understand that a positive working relationship between governmental authorities and residents is vital when it comes to dealing with a public health crisis. When a population senses that they are being treated in a duplicitous and capricious manner, a total breakdown of trust is bound to follow.

As detailed elsewhere in this edition, on Tuesday, October 6, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo held a conference call with the leadership of the Orthodox Jewish community in what he described as “hot spot” areas and urged them to adhere to a 50%-occupancy maximum in shuls, clearly implying that if they did, further restrictions would not be enacted.

“The current rule … in any indoor gathering … it’s 50% of capacity,” the governor said. “Fifty percent is okay. And no more than 50 people at an outdoor gathering, that’s the current rule.”

Only hours later, at a press conference, in what local Orthodox officials describe as “a duplicitous bait-and-switch,” Governor Cuomo shocked and angered the community by announcing that occupancy in houses of worship in zones that include much of the observant Jewish community in Brooklyn and Queens would be limited to no more than 10 people.

Coming on the eve of Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, this draconian and irrational step thrust a knife through the collective heart of the community.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also elicited justified criticism for the way he has mishandled this crisis. As the former City Councilmember representing Boro Park, one would expect a far greater level of familiarity and understanding emerging from City Hall.

Exacerbating a complex situation is the longstanding feud between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. de Blasio. The Jewish community has been caught in the crossfire of this personal fight as the governor seeks to exert his authority over the mayor, outdoing him in targeting the Jews with ever-harsher restrictions.

At the same time, our communal reputation has been besmirched by the reprehensible actions of a small number of individuals. In what can be referred to as the “RR” or “Rabble-Rouser Syndrome,” a tiny minority who are ostensibly part of our community but answer to no one have tarnished our image.

Rejecting the calls of responsible activists and refusing to listen to reason, they have made social media clips their mentors and chosen to emulate repugnant rioters in a manner that is antithetical to Torah values. It is imperative that we make it clear that we wholly disassociate ourselves from their actions and give them neither credibility nor the publicity they crave and thrive on.

In addition, regardless of how supportive or appreciative our community may be towards President Trump, the attempts to score political points or to confuse campaigning on his behalf with our response to the governor’s actions is foolish and counterproductive.

As a people blessed with a rich tradition, we have a paved path how to deal with elected officials. Since the governor’s refusal to have any real dialogue with our representatives blocked the traditional route for shtadlanus, dedicated askanim at Agudath Israel of America felt compelled to go to court to fight for our basic rights. While we respect those who differ with the decision to undertake this legal battle, using the court system is a most appropriate and legitimate recourse in such a situation.

Finally, while the frustration being felt by so many in our community is understandable, we should not allow this emotion to influence our decisions when it comes to wearing masks or adhering to social distancing. In addition to the health benefits doctors and officials assert, as Jews in galus, we must be extra careful not to give ammunition to those who seek to discredit us. We must also bear in mind that in a world of instantaneous communication, when nearly every phone doubles as a camera, actions — and most notable, non-actions — can reverberate and directly affect the lives of Jews in other areas.

It is not too late for the governor and the mayor to reverse course and enter into a meaningful dialogue with our community, to really listen to our needs and feelings and work together with our representatives to find realistic and reasonable solutions that benefit all parties.