JN Investigation: ‘For months they’ve broken every rule in the book’
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JN Investigation: ‘For months they’ve broken every rule in the book’

Lookouts hired, cash set aside for fines, a bride with Covid and another large wedding THIS WEEK – the extent of potentially deadly lockdown breaches in Stamford Hill revealed.

Strictly-Orthodox weddings with more than 300 guests have continued apace throughout lockdown, including one that took place this week, an investigation by Jewish News reveals 

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several whistleblowers have told this newspaper that laws designed to protect people from coronavirus by limiting or banning weddings are being routinely flouted. 

Angered by reports that police were called to break up a large wedding at Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Stamford Hill last week, people close to – and inside – the Orthodox wedding industry have now revealed that it was far from a one-off.

“One took place last night,” a source told Jewish News earlier this week. “Another took place on the 17th also at Yesodey Hatorah, another wedding will take place tomorrow. It’s happening all over.”

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THE ALLEGATIONS

A source intimately involved in the Orthodox wedding scene, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “These illegal weddings have been going on for 10 months. We’re not talking about one or two. We are talking multiple weddings every day. All have 150-200 guests. At one wedding the bride was Covid-positive.”

THE VENUES

There are four venues that are used regularly, several sources confirmed – “anything that has a hall”. One is the taxpayer-funded Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Stamford Hill. “It’s the one that was caught,” said one person.

The school’s long-time principal, Rabbi Avroham Pinter, died from Covid-19 last spring. The new principal is his son, Chaim, who became a director of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations in July last year.

These illegal weddings have been going on for 10 months. We’re not talking about one or two. We are talking multiple weddings every day. All have 150-200 guests. At one wedding the bride was Covid-positive

Another is Belz Hall at 98 Clapton Common. There, two floors below ground, is a new, purpose-built banqueting space for simchas of up to 350 people.

“There are up to four weddings a week there, Monday to Thursday,” another source said, in a claim later corroborated by three other people.

“There are many entrances to the building, with smaller halls upstairs for Jewish studies, security guards on all the doors. They confiscate your phones as you go in so photos don’t get out. There’s literally a table with a mountain of mobiles.”

Another person familiar with the shifting set-up said: “At one point they were taking over warehouses in the countryside, warehouses in Canvey Island, trying to do it behind closed doors… I think that’s what will happen now.”

Two separate sources said there had been several large weddings at the Lismirrane Industrial Park in Elstree over the spring and summer.

At one point they were taking over warehouses in the countryside, warehouses in Canvey Island, trying to do it behind closed doors… I think that’s what will happen now.

Yet another venue cited as hosting lockdown simchas is Beis Ruchel D’Satmar School in Stamford Hill, an 840-pupil girls’ school that was raided by police in October for breaching number restrictions in place at the time.

A Charedi source based in Stamford Hill said: “There are 20-30 venues [for weddings] in Stamford Hill, almost all tied to a community centre with [a] wedding hall, school, synagogue, mikveh, such as [the] Bobov [centre] on Egerton Road.”

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THE SUPPORT INDUSTRY

As might be expected in such an insular community, there are a limited number of caterers, florists, photographers, videographers, musicians, organisers and security teams who are trusted to supply and support these large Orthodox weddings.

For instance, the same florist was quoted by five different sources as supplying flowers to big Orthodox weddings during lockdown in London and, in recent months, Bournemouth. One informed source said: “She has 85 percent of the market, at least.” The florist denied all knowledge and involvement.

Several also named a videographer as having filmed many of the weddings during lockdown, while Jewish News understands that there are three Israeli photographers who regularly fly in from Israel to take the snaps – and have done since March. One covered nine big Orthodox weddings in under four weeks.

There are 20-30 venues [for weddings] in Stamford Hill, almost all tied to a community centre with [a] wedding hall, school, synagogue, mikveh, such as [the] Bobov [centre] on Egerton Road

 Another photographer is reported to have contracted Covid-19 at one of the London weddings, subsequently forcing an entire El Al flight into quarantine on its return to Israel.

 An Israeli involved in the set-up of weddings later said: “The mother of the chatan [groom] called me to tell me that she also had corona. She came to the wedding on Monday and she also had corona. She feels she got it at the wedding. You understand what happened in Stamford Hill now? Unbelievable. Unbelievable.”

Yet the increased risk is not leading to decreased incidence but only increased cost, with several sources telling Jewish News that some organisers of big Orthodox weddings are now asking for a £10,000 payment upfront specifically for the purpose of paying the fines if the wedding is raided by police.

This wedding took place before the pandemic but similar weddings are being held every day among some strictly-Orthodox communities

THE PLAYERS

The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC) is an umbrella body representing more than 100 strictly-Orthodox synagogues around the country. It gets up to £500,000 per year from Kedassia Supervision Ltd, which approves kosher food for suppliers and caterers. Kedassia pointedly did not deny that it provides kosher supervision for the food at these weddings – a religious requirement if food is being prepared on the premises.

The mother of the chatan [groom] called me to tell me that she also had corona. She came to the wedding on Monday and she also had corona. She feels she got it at the wedding. You understand what happened in Stamford Hill now? Unbelievable. Unbelievable

The UOHC also has a close relationship to Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School. At least four board members are also governors of Yesodey. The UOHC vets prospective pupils, and its own Rabbinate is officially listed as the authority by which the school is guided. The relationship stretches beyond that, however. The UOHC says it “provides a range of facilities for the Orthodox Jewish community. These facilities include Simchas Nissuin.”

On marketing material, Simchas Nissuin is described as “a subsidised wedding scheme offered in conjunction with the UOHC”. Two venues are offered for a “total package”. One of them, Yesodey Hatorah, for £7,495. The school earns £750 for each wedding it hosts. 

THE ENFORCERS

Privately, Hackney Council says claims of regular weddings at Jewish venues in Hackney are “not reflected” in their records of Covid-19 breaches, adding that enforcement is a matter for the police.

Since March, 114 warning letters and 21 community protection notices have been issued in Hackney to businesses breaching the guidance. The council declined to say how many were issued to Jewish individuals, organisations or businesses.

Multiple sources questioned why the police had not done more to stop the large weddings taking place. “Police have been told about them on numerous occasions, via 101 and 999,” said one. “Why are they turning a blind eye?”

On one occasion, Jewish News understands, police were called to a venue known among locals as Belz Hall on reports of a wedding. “When they arrived, they were shown the small study halls upstairs to see there was no wedding,” said one. “They didn’t go downstairs.”

Two people said large wedding parties often employed spotters or lookouts. “They stand outside. If someone comes, all the lights go off.”

Another said they too had reported a wedding at Belz Hall to police. “I even told them -2 [that it was taking place two floors below ground]. When I called for an update, they said an officer rang the hall manager the next day, who told him, ‘Weddings? They’re illegal, we don’t do them.’ So, they never even went!”

They added: “I even told them [the police] how to tell if they [strictly-Orthodox] are going to a wedding, the special fur hats, that it’s the only reason [why a fur hat would be worn in Stamford Hill]. They weren’t interested.”

Another said: “I told them they were going on from nine at night until midnight. When I called back to get an update, they said an officer attended at 9.30am.”

One senior local rabbi even suggested that weddings were so common in Stamford Hill that there was a perception among Orthodox Jews from across London that big weddings were being permitted there. “They come with guests from all over north-west London because they aren’t allowed in their own area,” they said.

THE REASON

Many strictly-Orthodox Jews in north London believe that they have collective antibodies, we were repeatedly told. “They think they have herd immunity,” said one, echoing a sentiment voiced by others.

A well-known figure in the Charedi world offered another explanation for holding of the events. “Most people don’t understand that in the Charedi community, without a wedding there is no relationship,” he said. “It’s not like you can move in with your girlfriend and postpone the wedding for two years. That’s why weddings take on a completely different meaning in the Charedi context.”

Another told us about how social norms exert their own pressure. Having attended two large weddings during lockdown, they told Jewish News that they were “very uncomfortable” doing so. “No masks, no distancing, nothing,” the source said. “I walked round thinking, ‘Seriously?’ No Covid prep. None.” They explained that they felt compelled to go at first but had more recently “made excuses”.

Others felt there was an air of untouchability. A bridal wear boutique owner who caters to Charedi brides said: “They’re a law unto themselves. They come in saying ‘I want a dress,’ ‘I want a fitting,’… It puts us at risk, but they feel they are exempt from the rules. Their attitude is, ‘We’ll find a way.’ ”

PRIVATE ANGER

A respected Charedi figure reflected the level of feeling. “I’ve been taking calls on this since Friday,” he said. “Trying to explain, justify or mitigate [the large weddings] doesn’t work. People feel too strongly about it. No one is going to back down. It has already generated an unprecedented amount of negative coverage of the Stamford Hill community, in some cases well-deserved. But it is what it is.”

 They added: “I know Yesodey Hatorah is being used as a wedding venue and think it’s really stupid of the school, especially one that receives state funding. I think it’s a fundamental mistake, whether they outsource it or not. They should have seen this coming. There’s nothing to say in defence of that.”

Elsewhere, a member of the Orthodox community who plays a part in weddings said claims of ignorance from Yesodey Hatorah were “bull”. They said: “The ladies come in to prep the halls from 4pm with flowers and everything. The staff don’t leave until 5pm. Yet they don’t know, they have no idea.”

They’re a law unto themselves. They come in saying ‘I want a dress,’ ‘I want a fitting,’… It puts us at risk, but they feel they are exempt from the rules. Their attitude is, ‘We’ll find a way.’

The same person also poured scorn on the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. “They condemn these weddings, but for a wedding to go ahead it has to be authorised by the rabbi, and the rabbi has to go to the Union to get the certification that says the couple getting married are Orthodox Jews.”

A senior communal figure who represents the mainstream Jewish community revealed that there was a huge sense of disappointment at the top tables. “It lets the side down. Not only that, it’s downright dangerous,” they said.

 “Yes, it is important not to stigmatise a whole community, and we’re having conversations about what more can be done to avoid these breaches, but what we’re hearing is that there are far more breaches going on.

“I’m flabbergasted. We don’t hold Jewish weddings at certain times of the year because of a plague that happened 2,000 years ago, yet the plague we’re living through now doesn’t appear reason enough to postpone.

“We see some Charedi leaders do their best to distribute guidance, but we need the rabbis to take a much firmer line on this. We know how important marriage is to the community but people can’t hug their granny, their mother.”

When told about this week’s planned cover-age, they added: “Let’s hope the exposure brings some heavy downward pressure on those who are still breaching the rules. It’s the breaches we have a problem with, not the community.”

HACKNEY COUNCIL

Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville said: “Coronavirus cases remain very high in Hackney, and it is utterly deplorable that people are making an active choice to put their own lives and the lives of others at risk by hosting illegal mass gatherings.

Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville

“Staff at the Homerton and across the NHS are overwhelmed with the amount of cases. Those who are continuing to flout the rules are showing clear disregard for the tireless work of these NHS heroes and key workers.”

He added that the council was “working closely with the police to crack down on coronavirus rule-breakers through joint patrols, including our recent day of action across the borough which resulted in 66 fines and three arrests”.

POLITICAL IMPACT

Jewish News put the issue to Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer this week, telling him that in Stamford Hill and Hackney we have discovered that large weddings have been taking place, are taking place, and are planned to continue.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer

“In terms of Stamford Hill… that is not acceptable,” he said. “There is no excuse for not complying with the rules. The expressions of regret about what happened [at Yesodey Hatorah] are well made by various community and faith leaders.

“There is no excuse. Everybody who knowingly breaks the rules is putting themselves and everyone else at risk, especially in a week like this, when we reach the awful milestone of 100,000 deaths. It is inexcusable. That is the right word in relation to what we saw last week.”

OFFICIAL DEFENCE

After the police raid, Yesodey Hatorah said: “We had no knowledge that the wedding was taking place. We are absolutely horrified about last night’s event and condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

Likewise, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations said: “The Union is absolutely appalled that this event took place. We have condemned in the strongest terms any breaches of the law and we continue to work across the community to ensure everyone adheres to the lockdown.” 

Why we reported without names

The strictly-Orthodox world is a very closed place in which to live and operate. Those “breaking ranks” and reporting misdeeds externally can – at best – expect ostracism.

At one point during our reporting, we were told: “If you say [X] they’ll work out who I am and come after me – that’s how bad it is.”

We have, at every turn, sought to meticulously corroborate and verify what we have been told, and such is the anger over these breaches, we have largely been able to. Typically, it would be very rare for even one person to talk to the press.

Tellingly, a large number have done so, such is the scale of privately-held anger at the continuation of large-scale events where guests do not wear masks and do not adhere to social distancing. All sources tell the same story: of an Orthodox wedding industry that hasn’t missed a beat.

We have managed to corroborate more than 50 weddings, with dates and venues, that have taken place during partial or full lockdowns but have omitted these details from our reporting to safeguard the identity of sources. Of these, police attended two.

Editor’s note, dated 19 February 2021: An Apology: Pshevorsk Shul

 

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