Thursday, December 10, 2020

De Blasio Threatens To Close Famed Williamsburg Synagogue Over COVID Noncompliance 

A Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox sect that's openly flouted coronavirus public health measures for months could soon lose its Williamsburg headquarters "once and for all," Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened on Tuesday.

On Monday, the funeral of a 94-year-old rabbinic judge — Yisroel Chaim Menashe Friedman — drew hundreds of largely unmasked observers to the Satmar community's main Williamsburg synagogue at 152 Rodney Street.

Asked about the gathering during his daily briefing Tuesday, de Blasio said he'd initiate a "clear dialogue" with Jewish community leaders — with the possibility of more drastic action if that outreach failed.

"If we see another confirmed situation in which an inappropriate event is happening in that same building, then we're going to have to move to shut down the building once and for all," the mayor warned. "That would be next step if we see non-compliance."

Ahead of this week's indoor funeral, City Hall officials requested the synagogue hold the event outdoors and to ensure all participants were wearing masks, according to a source familiar with the conversation, who was not authorized to speak on the record. The Satmar leadership largely ignored the appeals, the source said.

Several high-ranking NYPD officers monitored the event, passing out masks on the bustling street outside the synagogue, but declining to intervene.

"There was actually just a Supreme Court case, and there's no restrictions," Captain Michael Sambriski told Gothamist, shrugging. "I wish I had more masks," he added.

The recent court ruling does not impact houses of worship outside of emergency COVID colored zones such as Williamsburg, where attendance is still capped at 50 percent of a building's occupancy. The Williamsburg synagogue's maximum occupancy is 1,600 people. While it's unclear if more than 800 people attended the service, a brief look inside the synagogue showed that most attendees appeared to be in violation of a state mandate that religious worshippers must wear masks when less than 6 feet apart.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly blamed the mayor for failing to enforce COVID restrictions in Orthodox neighborhoods.

In October, a wedding for the grandchild of Satmar Grand Rebbe Zalman Teitelbaum was expected to bring tens of thousands of guests to the building — but was ultimately cancelled after a state shutdown order. Teitelbaum also held an indoor, unmasked ceremony at 152 Rodney Street on Sunday night to commemorate his father's escape from the Holocaust, telling congregants "we are not Americans," according to the Jerusalem Post.

Last month, Teitelbaum's brother, the leader of the Satmar community in Kiryas Joel, managed to host a wedding for his grandchild in a separate Williamsburg synagogue, reportedly attended by some 7,000 people.

"I do think there's an ideological factor that's making things a lot harder," the mayor said on Tuesday, referencing the ultra-Orthodox community's overwhelming for President Donald Trump.

While de Blasio has previously threatened Jewish yeshivas with shut downs, he has stopped short of ordering the closure of major synagogues. A source in Brooklyn's Hasidic community, who declined to be named for fear of backlash, called the threat "laughable."

"These tactics were available to him the entire time," the source said. "I don't see any reason to think he's going to do it this time."

Inquiries to the Satmar leadership were not returned.


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