A rabbi accused of advising strictly-Orthodox Jews how to bypass Covid-19 laws has been put in charge of “Covid coordination” by the community’s main umbrella group.
Rabbi Yossi Teitelbaum was handed the responsibility by the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations last month, despite his advice in December – purportedly “legal advice” – as having been described by experts as “riddled with errors”.
In a newsletter delivered to thousands of homes across the community, Teitelbaum said educational and religious gatherings, charity events, work meetings, and life-cycle events were all “permitted activities” allowing “as many guests as one likes”.
He said venue managers were “not responsible” if people refuse to wear masks inside, “extended bubbles” could allow get-togethers “as big as you like with no distancing”, shop workers could say they “work in the back” to avoid masks, and post-marriage parties were within the definition of communal worship.
In a section on the police, he wrote that officers “broke the law in many situations already and they need to be held to account,” without explaining what laws the police had broken.
He added: “They have NO powers of entry. If a door is open and they enter you should ask them polite but firmly to step outside… If the police suspect an unlawful gathering they can get a warrant.”
Teitelbaum also said: “The only time the law specifically requires us to keep proper two-metre social distancing is weddings of strictly 15 people – the type of chasineh which no-one is interested in having anyway – and funerals.”
Barrister Adam Wagner said Teitelbaum’s advice was “wrong and irresponsible” and would “lead to people getting £10,000 fines and worse”.
Teitelbaum’s most recent advice note on Covid restrictions, published two weeks ago, garnered praise for its markedly different tone and content, including his strong encouragement for community members to wear masks and avoid mingling.
A friend of Teitelbaum’s, who did not wish to be named, said: “He means well. His advice has changed a lot since December. I think he realised how it came across. His goal was to give hope and encouragement to families who had been stuck inside for the month of November, possibly with 8-9 kids.”
Told about Teitelbaum’s new Covid coordination role, however, Wagner said: “I don’t think it’s a good idea to have Rabbi Teitelbaum anywhere near Covid coordination for the strictly Orthodox community.
“In his leaflets, which have been given to thousands of people, he painted a picture that the rules are there not to protect us from a deadly virus but to be got around.”
Wagner, a top human rights lawyer who advises a Parliamentary committee on Covid-19, said: “It’s a bit like putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. Unfortunately, he [Teitelbaum] exemplifies a real attitudinal problem [towards this pandemic] in parts of the strictly Orthodox community.
“You saw that in the tone of his leaflets, as well as in the content. It’s really irresponsible. I can’t understand it and have not seen anything like that during this pandemic. It’s brazen.”
On 10 December London was in Tier 2 – “high alert” level. A maximum of six could meet outdoors, but people were not allowed to mix indoors with anyone outside their household or support bubble. Social distancing rules had to be followed “at all times” and weddings were limited to 15 guests.
Rabbi Teitelbaum has been approached for comment.
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