Ultra-Orthodox Borough Park residents protest religious gathering restrictions

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Talk show personality Heshy Tishler, who is running for City Council, organized a demonstration against the new COVID-19 restrictions limiting religious gatherings in COVID-19 hotspots.
Photo by Todd Maisel

Crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents took to the streets of Borough Park on Tuesday night to protest new COVID-19 restrictions that they believe unfairly target them.

Borough Park is one of nine ZIP codes in Brooklyn and Queens where COVID-19 rates have surged in recent weeks. Hoping to avoid another deadly outbreak, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have moved to restrict activity in the nine hot spots — closing schools and limiting religious gatherings to 10 people in the hotspots. Non-essential businesses in these districts must close by Friday, Cuomo announced on Tuesday. 

Radio talk show personality Heshy Tischler, who recently heckled Health Department officials about mask mandates, helped organize the demonstration, which quickly spread to other parts of the neighborhood.

The busy 13th Avenue commercial strip was closed for nearly two hours as an unmasked Tischler led crowds up and down 49th Street and 50th streets. Tischler vowed to oppose government efforts to limit attendance in synagogues.

“You are my soldiers! We are at war!” he told the crowd.

On Monday, police and government agencies raided a large synagogue where up to 500 people were gathered to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Borough Park has the highest rate of COVID-19 positivity in the city, with more than 10 percent of daily COVID-19 tests coming back positive as of Oct. 6, according to Cuomo’s office.

During the demonstrations, residents lit a large pile of face masks on fire on 14th Avenue, blocking vehicle traffic. Police made no arrests and reported no injuries in the fire.

Protesters later attacked a 34-year-old Hasidic man, Berish Getz, who was filming the crowd while standing on a perch. The mob beat him unconscious, his brother said on Twitter. Emergency responders took the victim to an area hospital in critical condition. He was later listed in stable condition.

Tischler, who plans to run for City Council, said that Cuomo should leave religious gatherings out of the new COVID-19 rules.

“They are violating our rights so we will do civil disobedience just like the BLM [Black Lives Matter] — we will fight back,” he said.

Councilman Kalman Yeger, who stood beside Tischler, issued a more measured opposition to the restrictions.

“We have the right to observe our religion,” he said. “When government issued an edict that a 5,000-square-foot piece of property and a 200-square-foot piece of property, both houses of worship, are both limited to 10 people, it makes no sense.”

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Radio personality and anti-masker Heshy Tischler puts his arm around Councilman Kalman Yeger at the Oct. 6 protest.Photo by Todd Maisel

Several locals pushed back against Tischler’s COVID-19 skepticism and his anti-mask rhetoric.

“He doesn’t represent us. We wear masks and we have had people in our family die from COVID. That guy is a clown,” one local said.

Another man, who also would not give his name, said he agreed that religious gatherings should be left alone “as long as people are wearing masks – that’s one way to keep people safe. We need to be able to pray without anyone bothering us.”

The protest came only hours after Yeger and three other local officials issued a statement to Cuomo decrying his restrictions as “a choice to single out a particular religious group.”

“We will continue to encourage total compliance with mask-wearing and social distance guidelines in our communities,” wrote Councilman Yeger, Councilman Chaim Deutsch, Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, and state Senator Simcha Felder. “That said, it is disgraceful that Governor Cuomo would impose these restrictions targeting our community in the midst of our Jewish holidays.”

Yeger condemned the attack on the Berish Getz in a tweet on Wednesday morning. Eicehnstein, Felder, and Deutsch did not issue statements by press time. 

This story first appeared on AMNY.com.

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Hundreds of Borough Park residents took to the streets in protest of the new COVID-19 restrictions.Photo by Todd Maisel