By Lianne Kolirin
Who are Haredi Jews?
Strictly Orthodox Jews are often referred to as Haredi, which stems from the Hebrew word hared, meaning to tremble.
Added meaning is drawn from a verse in Isaiah, in which God says: “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my word.”
Something of a catch-all term, it usually refers to a broad range of groups who are socially conservative Orthodox Jews but of varying practices and traditions. Sometimes spelt Charedi or Chareidi, they are united, however, in their absolute adherence to the Torah in determining every aspect of their lives.
What’s in a name?
Defining people as Orthodox is a comparatively modern thing that did not come about until the advent of Reform Judaism in the 19th century. Many who are orthodox in their practice, therefore, prefer not to be termed as such. The term “ultra-Orthodox” is frowned upon, as the “ultra” is thought to suggest extremism. While some may refer to themselves as Haredi, others may use the term heimishe Yidden meaning traditional Jews in Yiddish (the word is pronounced with a long i rather than a short one, as in the racial slur).
The Haredis are loosely divided into Hasidic and Mitnagdim which literally means opponents, though they are also referred to as Litvish or Yeshivish. Started in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s by the Baal Shem Tov, Hasidism stressed joy in worship and de-emphasised the study of sacred texts. Hasidim tend to be more dedicated to their rabbis, while Mitnagdim may express concern about such devotion.
Hasidim come in sects, who follow a rebbe (rabbi), usually named after the place in Eastern Europe where they came from. It is often a Yiddish version of the name, so Satmar hasidim are named after Satu Mare in Romania.
Traditions and outlook
The men wear dark suits and white shirt and a velvet or cloth skull cap, generally with a hat. Women dress in formal rather than casual clothes that are considered to be “modest”. While modern orthodox women may wear head scarves, most Haredi women will wear wigs.
In terms of strict adherence to the Halacha (or Halakha) — Jewish religious law — the various groups are virtually identical, but their customs, attitudes and modes of dress vary.
Overall, however, Haredis prioritise Torah learning over secular study so that most do not go to university. Most groups also follow gender segregation in religious, educational and social settings.
To minimise contaminating their values and practices, Haredis aim to minimise contact with the outside world — including non-Haredi Jews. As such, the internet and other media sources are often forbidden or restricted so as to prevent any dilution of their lifestyle and value system.
Each community has its own synagogues, yeshivas (religious seminaries), schools and community-oriented organisations. With such a strong sense of caring for their own, the community has been praised for its excellent charities and community aid groups.
Marriage is usually by way of introduction, though many prefer not to use the term “arranged”, which some feel suggests an element of coercion. Couples often tie the knot between the ages of 18 and 21, tending to have larger families than the average.
Where are they based?
Britain’s largest Haredi community is in Stamford Hill in north London, which straddles the boroughs of Hackney and Haringey. Other big communities are based in the London borough of Barnet — Hendon and Golders Green — as well as in Manchester and Gateshead.
The US Haredi community is centred largely on New York City, while the two largest Haredi communities in Israel are in the city of Bnei Brak and in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim district. There is also a sizable community in Antwerp in Belgium.
According to a report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research In 2010, less than 10 per cent of Britain’s Jewish population were Haredi in 2010 but that proportion is on the rise due to high birth rates and low mortality. Five years later, the institute found that Britain’s strictly Orthodox Jewish population possessed the highest fertility of all religious groups in the UK (a total fertility rate of more than six children per woman), leaving not only mainstream Jews far behind, but also the Muslim and the Hindu populations.
Similar demographics are reflected in other Haredi communities around the world.
The pandemic and the community
Haredi communities around the world have been in the news for high rates of Covid infection and apparent lack of social distancing.
In Britain, during the third lockdown (which started on 6 January 2021), news emerged of police breaking up a wedding party of 150 people in the Stamford Hill area, while footage surfaced of another large celebration. Weddings are limited to six people. An investigation by the Jewish News revealed that such illegal gatherings had been taking place for months.
Meanwhile the community has one of the highest rates of Covid in the world. A study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) working with University College London’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, was instigated by Mars, the Medical Advocacy and Referral Service.
Researchers invited more than 1,750 individuals to complete a demographic and medical information survey and provide a blood sample between November and early December 2020. The lowest rate was found to be in children aged under five years (28 per cent), and the highest in secondary school children and adults (75 per cent).
Dr Michael Marks from LSHTM, who co-led the study told Hamodia, an international newspaper for the Haredi community: “Our work has revealed the extremely high rates of infection in this very interconnected population. Working in tandem with the community we are conducting further work to understand the potential factors involved. These findings could support potential new interventions that may help reduce infection in the community.”
Certain factors that may affect the Haredis, in common with other ethnic and religious minorities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, are deprivation, larger household sizes and the reduced ability to work from home.
That said, images of mass weddings and funerals have also emerged from other Haredi communities. In Israel the gatherings have led to clashes with police, while the media has also highlighted large Haredi events in the United States with no social distancing.
Prayer is a key part of the daily routine of Haredi Jews, with worshippers attending synagogue several times a day — so potentially increasing the risk of transmission. There are those within the communities who are working closely with the authorities to reinforce the social distancing message, while also encouraging uptake of the vaccine.
Rabbi Herschel Gluck, president of Shomrim, a neighbourhood watch group in Stamford Hill, told the BBC: “Weddings are very central in Judaism. In the Torah the first commandment is ‘be fruitful and multiply’. It goes to the very core of the Jewish experience. Therefore, there is a great need and a great urge to have weddings — but we need to put the brakes on.”
Joel Friedman, director of public affairs at the Interlink Foundation, a representative body for ultra-Orthodox organisations, said: “We have worked consistently throughout lockdown with local authorities to promote the guidance and are all disappointed when we hear about actions that put lives at risk.”
In a recent opinion piece for The Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Boyd, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, revealed that many Jewish communities around the world — not just Haredi — were disproportionately affected by the first wave of the virus, but in Britain it was “particularly acute”.
He wrote: “No one part of the community was significantly more affected than another at that time. It hit everyone — secular and religious, progressive, Orthodox and Charedi.”
The problem, he said, was down to not acting quickly enough. The institute’s research revealed that one in four Jewish people had travelled abroad in February or March 2020 before the first lockdown, while two in five attended a bar mitzvah, wedding, large communal gathering or Purim celebration over the same period.
He wrote: “All such events — with celebrants tightly packed indoors, sharing food, hugging, kissing and dancing — are an ideal breeding ground for a virus. In short, we picked it up early — at least in part through widespread international travel — and then we shared it among ourselves doing what Jews love to do, even have to do: spending time together.”
Lianne Kolirin is a freelance journalist
Joel Friedman leader of Orthodox Jewish community on Canvey Island, Essex; Director of Public Affairs, Interlink Foundation, a membership organisation for Orthodox Jews [email protected] @MrJoelFriedman
Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE, a leader within the Orthodox community in Stamford Hill , north London [email protected]