Hackney Council has apologised after a lockdown leaflet ordered synagogues to close until 2 December, without mentioning that they can stay open for private prayer.
The leaflet, which caused offence in Hackney’s large strictly Orthodox community, was issued in three areas with a large Jewish population and only mentioned synagogues as an example of a place of worship.
Now amended, the leaflet was sent out in the first week of November to all homes in the wards of Cazenove, Springfield and Stamford Hill, home to the UK’s biggest strictly Orthodox Jewish community.
It read: “Until at least 2 December, the Government has put England under a national lockdown, which means places of worship such as shuls must close unless they are being used for certain exempt activities such as a funeral. Weddings will not be permitted to take place. No communal worship or study groups are permitted.”
Jewish councillors were quick to point out that the national guidance on places of worship also lists as an exemption private prayer, prompting a swift U-turn.
Hackney’s Conservative Group leader, Councillor Michael Levy from Springfield ward, said the leaflet contained “mistaken information distributed on Shabbos to targeted households” and called it “a serious error”.
Hackney said the three wards were leafleted because they were “the top three for positive cases of coronavirus, while also containing a high proportion of people who are digitally excluded due to cultural reasons”.
It said: “These people may not be able to access news of the lockdown via mainstream media channels or the internet. The intent of the leaflet was to let people know that England had entered another lockdown and give information on the new laws around this as well as highlighting where people could access support.”
Asked about listing only synagogues in a multicultural area, and omitting a crucial exemption, a Hackney spokeswoman said: “We are sorry for the oversight. It will be corrected for future communications.” She added that the updated version of the leaflet “will be published in Heimishe news sheet this week”.
Dr Sandra Husbands, Hackney’s director of public health, said: “Throughout the pandemic we have been working closely with representatives from the Orthodox Jewish community to ensure key communications on Covid-19 are distributed to ensure all local residents can stay safe and do not breach the regulations.
“This partnership work is key to effectively tackling the spread of the virus and I am very grateful for the continued support and widespread adherence to the coronavirus guidelines within the Orthodox Jewish community.”
The furore over Hackney’s communications comes after police officers were reportedly called to a synagogue on Casenove Road in Stamford Hill on Saturday to disburse worshippers.
Ben Tzion Nussbaum, who was in the shul at the time, said: “People were praying privately when the police came in and threatened to fine us. It left us shocked.”
He said: “After [Hackney Mayor] Philip Glanville’s leaflet, it has left us questioning the motive. Telling us to close shuls but not mentioning mosques or churches, then omitting individual prayer from the exemptions, I think shows his true colours.”
The mayor’s office has been approached for comment.
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