Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Covid-19

Fresh from completing her PhD at Durham University, Dr Heather Munro joined us for her debut talk at the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre on Tuesday 26 October 2021. Following two and a half months of research in the Greater New York area in summer 2021, Dr Munro presented her findings based on interviews with 10 Hasidic men and women. The findings of her  anthropological study are, Dr Munro confirmed, representative of what other larger studies are showing. 

We learned that the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities were hit especially hard by Covid, especially in the early days of the pandemic. 70% of those interviewed had confirmed cases of Covid in their households. The severity of the first wave in the Hasidic community was due in part to some bad timing: Purim fell on 9-10 March 2020, with large numbers of people mingling, parties, gifts being exchanged, and weddings with vast numbers of guests from around the world. At a time when the world’s understanding of Covid was in its infancy, the virus was able to spread rapidly among the community.   

The situation was dire in New York more generally, with hospitals and morgues overwhelmed. We heard some suggestions as to why the death rate among those infected with Covid in the Hasidic community was lower than in the general population. Hatzalah, community-run emergency response, did all they could to keep Covid patients at home, supported by the communal Gemach, which lent out oxygen tanks and pulse oximeters so people could monitor their conditions at home. WellTabs were also instrumental in supporting ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, providing tablets to those taken to hospital by Hatzalah – a vital lifeline for people who typically have limited access to such technology. These tablets allowed families to connect with their loved ones in hospital and monitor their condition and treatment. The swift and robust community responses to the pandemic certainly go some way to explaining the lower death rates among New York’s ultra-orthodox community.  

The early infection of a large proportion of Hasidic Jews in New York has, however, resulted in some reluctance to receive the Covid vaccine. Since many individuals have confirmed antibodies, there has been some questioning of the necessity to receive the vaccination. In June 2021, only two of those interviewed had received their vaccine: one of whom was high risk and the other had kept their vaccination a secret from friends and family. 

An enthusiastic audience asked Dr Munro many questions and this fascinating presentation can be viewed on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vszO3mhaFPI&t=1950s