Illegal weddings hosted during lockdown have unfairly masked the sacrifices made by London’s Orthodox Jewish community in the coronavirus pandemic, local leaders have said.
Stamford Hill in north-east London hit headlines earlier this year when authorities said around 400 people had gathered inside one of the area’s schools, Yesoday Hatora, for a wedding.
These figures were eventually revised down to 150, prompting anger among some locals.
Levi Schapiro, a founding director of the Jewish Community Council of North London, said circulation of the initial figures by authorities had “damaged” and “created hate” towards the community.
Schapiro condemned those who had thrown the wedding, but said their actions were not representative of everyone.
He told the PA news agency: “We are very, very upset with those two families who did that wedding.
“But as a community, the vast majority of us have sacrificed a lot. We have sacrificed seven or eight different celebrations and holidays.
“Look at Christmas — Chanukah is in the same month, and we asked the Government for the ability to celebrate Chanukah, but we were told no.”
Following the high-profile wedding, a Jewish News investigation revealed the extent of lockdown rule-breaking. This paper reported that there had been more than 50 Charedi simchas across London during lockdown, with lookouts used to raise the alarm if police were arriving, and money set aside to pay hefty fines.
Research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates 64% of the Orthodox Jewish community may have had Covid-19 in 2020, rising to 75% in working-age adults and secondary school children.
The high infection rate does not necessarily indicate that the community has not been following the rules and the reason behind it is not yet known.
Local MP for Stamford Hill, Diane Abbott, said this may be due to those from ethnic minority backgrounds being more likely to live in overcrowded housing conditions and work in jobs that leave them liable to infection.
She said: “These things aren’t random, they’re to do with race and ethnicity.”
Last month, Diane Abbott MP attended a mass vaccination in Hackney, organised by emergency response group Hatzola, along with minister for vaccinations Nadhim Zahawi.
Rabbi Herschel Gluck, president of Shomrim, told PA: “People should be aware of all the positive things being done in the community. There are good stories that should be celebrated, but they are often ignored.”
He said the internet has enabled the community to stay connected with those who are homebound and over 30 volunteers patrol the area with Shomrim, providing voluntary support.
The community would usually mark the holiday of Purim at the end of February, but for many, celebrations were “put on hold”, Rabbi Gluck said.
“It was very difficult for the community because it’s certainly one of the real highlights of the Jewish year,” he added.
With Passover in April, Rabbi Schapiro said he feared many would be unable to celebrate again.
“We need to be able to buy religious items,” he said.
“We have asked the Government to give us a bit of flexibility and allow some of the essential stores to be open as soon as possible so people can celebrate properly, but we got a negative response.”
Many of these small stores do not have the infrastructure to set up an online presence.
Schapiro also said he was “surprised” when last week Boris Johnson’s spokesman did not directly answer a question about whether Jewish people were an ethnic minority, which stemmed from a televised panel discussion on the issue.
“If we are not an ethnic community, what are we?” he said.
“There are times when (the Government) simply don’t get our community and they simply don’t want to get it.”
He added: “We have come a long way, we have suffered a lot and we are doing our best and we contribute to society, to British values, to British lives.”
Schapiro helped launch a food programme to feed families who had lost their income or been bereaved and arranged a successful plasma donation drive for members of the Charedi community who had recovered from Covid.
He said: “In the Orthodox Jewish community it’s the husband who usually brings home the money to be able to feed the children, and unfortunately there are many cases where the father passed away, and there is no income now for those families.
“In some cases, they are leaving behind a family of 10 children or eight children.
“They are dependent on our services.”
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