More than 2,000 attend funeral for rabbi in Williamsburg despite COVID-19

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More than 2,000 people flooded the streets of Williamsburg Tuesday for the funeral of a well-known rabbi.
Photo by Todd Maisel

More than 2,000 Satmar Hasidic Jewish residents jammed the streets of Brooklyn Tuesday night to attend a funeral for a venerable rabbi  — ignoring social distancing guidelines and increasing their own risk of contracting the virus.

The funeral was for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, also known as Tolaas Yakov, a well-respected rabbi in the community who died at age 73 from COVID-19 complications. 

Police — who were originally working with residents to organize a “socially distant funeral,” according to former Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield — entered the synagogue, Congregation Kahal Tolath Yakov at Bedford Avenue and Lynch Street, when the crowds inside allegedly refused to stay six feet apart from each other in accordance with city guidelines. Police cut the funeral short because of the unsafe conditions at about 7:30 pm, after just 30 minutes.

Mourners, surrounded by throngs of people, carried the coffin to a funeral van as numerous police officers tried to keep the crowds back so that the van could be rushed out.

Photo by Todd Maisel

Police and volunteer patrol members then led the vehicle, followed by a number of vans and police cars, through the crowd and to a cemetery for a burial within the 24-hour period required in Jewish tradition.

Police used metal gates to push back masses of people, many with children in tow. While many wore surgical masks, some did not.

Some mourners blasted the police for breaking up the crowd. One told this outlet that the COVID-19 pandemic is “a big fake,” and another said, “The virus is not so bad.”

“You get me the numbers of how many you say died, I don’t believe you,” another young man said through his surgical mask. A few others told this reporter that they refused to wear masks and insisted that the coronavirus information was “not accurate,” and said the city should “mind its own business.”

Photo by Todd Maisel

Others admitted to having gotten COVID-19, but downplayed its severity. “Okay, you get sick for a few days, then you get over it,” one mourner told this reporter. Another said, “You don’t have any numbers of people who died. It’s not true.”

Since the current health crisis began in mid-March, the Williamsburg area has seen more than 1,600 people test positive for COVID-19, according to city data, though residents say most people didn’t get a test until they had to go to a hospital. Across the city, more than 40,000 New Yorkers have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 since the first case on March 2, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that more than 11,820 residents have died from the virus.

Police made no arrests and reported no injuries, although authorities did issue 12 summonses to people at the funeral, according to Police Commissioner Commissioner Dermot Shea.

Mayor Bill de Blasio condemned the gathering as dangerous in a series of controversial tweets.

The mayor and Police Commissioner Shea, whose department has lost 37 members since the onset of the virus, visited the scene near Rutledge Street and Bedford Avenue to help disperse crowds themselves.

We have lost so many these last two months + I understand the instinct to gather to mourn. But large gatherings will only lead to more deaths + more families in mourning,” de Blasio added in another tweet. “We will not allow this. I have instructed the NYPD to have one standard for this whole city: zero tolerance.”

Local Jewish leaders have sharply criticized the mayor’s response.

“This has to be a joke,” said Chaim Deutsch, who represents a large swath of southern Brooklyn, in a tweet. “Did the mayor of NYC really just single out one specific ethnic community (a community that has been the target of increasing hate crimes in HIS city) as being noncompliant?? Has he been to a park lately? (What am I saying – of course he has!)”

Photo by Todd Maisel

Greenfield, who now heads the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, noted in a series of tweets that de Blasio’s “blaming of all Jews” for flouting social distancing rules came just hours after he allowed New Yorkers to gather to watch a military flyover in honor of healthcare workers.

“Almost none of those New Yorkers were socially distancing and so that set the stage for the group of chasidic mourners to justify leaving their homes later that day,” the former pol tweeted, adding also that no one party is solely to blame.

“So in short: everyone screwed up. Yes, everyone,” Greenfield said, pointing to a Jewish saying: “One bad deed precedes another.”

It was unclear whether the police would continue with the same strategies to stop the gatherings, pending a press conference this morning with the mayor and commissioner.

Congregation Kahal Tolath Yakov issued a statement to Williamsburg News that said in part, “We understand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frustration and speaking out against the gathering. As said, we thought the procession was in accordance with the rules and we apologize that it turned out otherwise.”

This story first appeared on AMNY.com