Inspired by Trump, Hasidic Backlash Grows Over Virus Rules

Protesters gather in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on Oct. 7, 2020, to denounce a new set of coronavirus restrictions in areas where the positivity rate had increased. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — A group of mostly young men began descending on the Brooklyn home of a Hasidic journalist just before midnight Sunday.

The men, who were fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews, were shouting that the journalist, Jacob Kornbluh, was a snitch, an informer who had betrayed his own by publishing reports on how devoutly religious Jews in the city had been ignoring coronavirus guidelines.

The group got all the way to Kornbluh’s doorstep, where a line of police officers kept them at bay.

The tense scene spoke to what many Orthodox leaders said they had been seeing for weeks: a growing, raucous faction of young men in the community, tired of pandemic guidelines and resentful of secular authorities, who are taking their cues from the broader right-wing movement in society, including from President Donald Trump.

For months, misinformation and rumors about the virus, some inspired by Trump, have spread widely in forums like WhatsApp that are popular with ultra-Orthodox New Yorkers, according to numerous interviews with Hasidic leaders and community members.

Now a new shutdown in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, ordered last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, appears to have inflamed sentiments further. Cuomo closed nonessential business and schools and limited attendance to 10 people at a time in houses of worship in the hardest-hit areas, including synagogues.

Cuomo was spurred by spiking caseloads in the Orthodox community and concerns that health rules were not being followed. But some Orthodox voices have responded by arguing that their community’s religious life was being targeted by the government.

The Orthodox Jewish community in the New York region includes Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox groups. There are as many as 500,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York region, and they have long tended toward conservative politics. In 2016, Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

But the pandemic may have also emboldened more extreme elements, complicating efforts to curb the virus and frightening normally outspoken Hasidic activists and writers.

“There is a mistrust in media, a mistrust in government, and people don’t check the facts,” Kornbluh said in an interview. “In the years since Trump came onto the scene, people are more engaged in politics and follow Trump and his conspiracy theories.”

After the virus devastated Hasidic neighborhoods in the early days of the pandemic, many residents began to believe that safety precautions were unnecessary because they had developed herd immunity, according to community leaders.

That attitude, which health officials say has no basis in fact, has been a primary reason for a recent surge of cases in Brooklyn and Queens that has raised the citywide positivity rate to levels not seen in months.

On the first night after the governor announced the restrictions, a group of mostly young men in the predominantly Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park took to the streets in protest.

They were led by a local radio host and viral video personality, Heshy Tischler, a Trump follower and a candidate for City Council who was once convicted of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison.

Tischler identifies as Orthodox but is not part of a Hasidic sect. Still, he has gained popularity during the pandemic, in part because he has gone after critics of the Hasidic community.

The ultra-Orthodox communities in New York are an insular world that distrusts outsiders and disdains members who speak up in public about sensitive issues, like education or public health.

Since March, Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider who has lived in Borough Park for 18 years, has been posting on Twitter about the disregard for coronavirus safety measures in these communities.

On the second night of protests — where some waved pro-Trump banners — the crowd spotted Kornbluh, who was covering the events, and pointed him out to Tischler.

Tischler, unmasked, approached Kornbluh and began calling him a traitor. Soon Kornbluh was surrounded by men and teenagers who shoved him against a wall; punched, kicked and struck him with objects; and then chased him for two blocks. Videos of the attack quickly appeared on social media.

Kornbluh said many in the group told him that he deserved to die and called him “Nazi” and “Hitler.”

“They were saying I am not part of this community and I should leave,” Kornbluh said.

Tischler was arrested Sunday in connection with the attack. After he was taken into custody, a group of men showed up at Kornbluh’s home.

Tischler was arraigned Monday on charges including inciting a riot and was released without bail. He returned home, where a boisterous crowd of young Hasidic supporters awaited him.

Standing on his porch, he plugged his candidacy for City Council and declared that he did not condone violence.

“We’re going to continue our fight,” he said. “We’re going to beat that Mayor de Blasio! We’re going to knock Cuomo out!”

The turmoil is also revealing a fault line through ultra-Orthodox New York over the question of how much the government — and the pandemic — should be allowed to intrude on religious life. In March and April, rabbis vigorously debated about whether synagogues should close in compliance with COVID-era restrictions or whether communal prayer must continue, according to Yochonon Donn, a Hasidic journalist.

But in recent months, as the pandemic has ground on and a new outbreak has brought renewed restrictions, the question of how to respond is playing out in the street and online, forums where the influence of rabbis is limited but where Tischler’s theatrical videos have been shared widely.

While local leaders and elected officials have denounced the violence at last week’s protests, relatively few have condemned Tischler.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group, said Tischler was a fringe figure who had “made an idiot of himself.”

“I don’t think anybody really knew him or had heard of him until he decided to turn himself into the wonderful spokesman he thinks he is,” Zwiebel said. “This guy is supposed to be a community leader? Please. It is an embarrassment.”

Tischler first gained popularity in June when he used bolt cutters to unlock city playgrounds — at least 14, in his telling — that had been closed by authorities as part of COVID-19 restrictions. The move was celebrated by Orthodox parents, many of whom had been crowded in small apartments with many children.

In an interview in Crown Heights last week, Tischler said he believed the newly imposed restrictions were singling out Orthodox Jews because “the Jews don’t fight back, the Jews take things lying down.”

“We will not be sheep anymore,” he said.

He called Trump one of the “greatest presidents we’ve ever had” and said he thought that Cuomo was exaggerating the threat of the coronavirus because the governor planned “to create martial law.”

As he spoke, a small circle of young men gathered on the sidewalk to listen. One of them, Mendy Freidman, 23, shrugged when asked if he supported Tischler but said that he understood his appeal.

“Nobody else is willing to do what he does,” he said. “Nobody else is willing to go to jail.”

But Tischler’s public stunts often contain a hint of menace. Last month, when city health officials held a news conference in Brooklyn to discuss the virus uptick, he disrupted the event while not wearing a mask, shouting at top health officials that the virus uptick was fake, and called them “Jew haters” and “garbage.”

And his messages have carried racist undertones. Some of the city health workers sent to conduct outreach in Orthodox neighborhoods have been people of color. In one video, Tischler shows himself calling them outsiders who are “ready to come after us.”

“I’m sure most of them are from just the projects, picked off the street with not even proper training,” he said.

The criminal charges against Tischler stem from his actions during the protests, which lasted for two nights last week and resulted in attacks on at least three men. Two of them, a photographer and a Hasidic man accused of disloyalty to the community, were attacked Tuesday.

After those episodes, Kornbluh sent Tischler a late-night WhatsApp message, which was shared with The New York Times, calling the violence that Tischler was stoking a “chillul Hashem” — a desecration of God’s name.

The next morning, Tischler filmed a video of himself in a graveyard threatening Kornbluh, which soon spread in popular Hasidic WhatsApp groups.

That night he confronted Kornbluh at the protest, setting off the mob attack that resulted in Tischler’s arrest Sunday, prosecutors say.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company