As the number of coronavirus cases continues to spike in certain areas of the Great Neck peninsula, efforts by residents to have constructive discussions to prevent further spread of the virus have been tainted by claims that Jews have been unfairly blamed.
According to data from the Nassau County Department of Health, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases on the Great Neck peninsula continues to increase at a higher rate than in most other villages in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the Village of Great Neck increased by 11, from 321 on Oct. 7 to 332 as of Wednesday morning, according to the data.
In the past two weeks, the Great Neck News has published stories online about the increase of cases on the peninsula. One titled “Residents irked by lack of mask wearing, enforcement as COVID-19 cases increase throughout village” featured residents who claimed there was a problem with the lack of people wearing masks indoors or outdoors in the Village of Great Neck.
The article, published on Sept. 30, received a comment from a resident of the peninsula, Nina Gordon, who criticized people holding large gatherings and cited Persian weddings as one example. Gordon’s comment was followed by one from an online user with the name “Seymore Butts” who said, “If you or whoever doesn’t like the fact that people in Great Neck don’t wear masks, put your house up for sale and move to another town or country like China that adheres to masks. If you choose to stay in Great Neck, stay indoors, and zip your mouth.”
Another online user with the name “NonPersian Observer” accused Gordon of shaming the Persian community and Village of Great Neck Mayor Pedram Bral for an alleged lack of effort.
“No other mayor in Great Neck has informed the public about how to stay safe during the Covid pandemic more than Bral,” the user wrote. “It seems that your goal is to shame the Persian community, when noncompliance is not limited to one group.”
More members of the Great Neck community outlined instances of children, adults and teenagers of varying races and religious affiliations who were not wearing masks and complying with social distancing mandates.
“It’s not just the Orthodox Jews or Iranian Jews,” one person who lives near a Great Neck North school commented. “If you single out any religion or culture you’re a racist and a moron. I have security camera footage of all the children who walk past my house to go to school. Most of the students (and adults) who aren’t wearing masks aren’t even Jewish.”
Village of Great Neck resident Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar outlined an event in May when more than 200 people participated in a celebration of the Jewish holiday Lag BaOmer at the Parkwood parking lot. Gilliar questioned why the parking lot was used for the event rather than one of the six synagogues in close vicinity.
“We live on a small peninsula, and this jamboree was a manifest indifference to the health of our entire community,” Gilliar said. “Apparently science and rational thought played no role in shaping what should have been. Perhaps what we need is IQ testing.”
Bral, in a letter to Blank Slate Media, responded to the many comments and previous stories that have been published.
“The fact is COVID-19 does not discriminate,” he said. “It infects and, unfortunately, takes the lives of many without any regard for race, creed, religion, or political agenda.”
Bral said he could not emphasize enough his frustration is “exacerbated by conflicting directives from Gov. Cuomo’s office,” but urged people to remain vigilant and proactive when it comes to the potential spread of the virus.
“I will not name and shame, but I do implore residents to not attend large weddings that take place out-of-state which, while permitted, are super spreader events that then come back to our Village and increase our numbers,” Bral said.
The spotlight has fallen on Orthodox Jewish communities as virus hot spots have arisen in the New York area.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would meet with officials from communities with “hot spot ZIP codes” over the coming days. Cuomo also said on Monday that religious institutions have been “a problem” in terms of trying to contain the spread of the virus.
“We know there have been mass gatherings going on in concert with religious institutions in these communities for weeks,” Cuomo said. “Religious institutions are mass gatherings and raise the greatest potential.”
Cuomo clarified that this applied to all religions rather than specific groups, but said he planned to meet with members of the “ultra-Orthodox” community.
“Whether it’s the Jewish community, whether we’re talking about Black churches, whether we’re talking about Roman Catholic churches, the religious community has to agree to the rules and they have to agree that they are going to follow the rules,” Cuomo said.
An article from ForeignPolicy.com highlighted the effort against the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, which in recent weeks had one of the highest rates of deaths per capita in the world.
“In New York, many claim they are being targeted due to anti-Semitism,” according to the article. “More reasonably, they say that keeping the coronavirus under control is more difficult for them than for other populations.”
The article outlined what the life of a majority of ultra-Orthodox Jewish people revolves around. Hours spent in schools and study halls, daily prayers in synagogues, mass events such as weddings and funerals that can attract hundreds or thousands of people all involved community members being in public.
The New York Board of Rabbis issued a recent statement on the matter, saying it cannot back members of the Jewish community who fail to abide by the state-mandated health and safety precautions.
“We cannot defend individuals in our Jewish community who demonstrate a blatant disregard for the COVID-19 health protocols and endanger their lives and those of other people,” the statement read. “COVID-19 is a non-discriminating disease that must be fought by all people following the rules without exception.”
Steve Markowitz, who served as the chairman of the board of directors at the Nassau County Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center for eight years, addressed the issue of the presence of religion in terms of the virus. Markowitz said the lack of mask enforcement, social distancing and limits on social gatherings is a problem throughout Long Island for many groups.
“Because of the unique demographics of Great Neck, and the Village of Great Neck in particular, it is more than likely that at least some of the non-compliance is taking place in Orthodox or Persian institutions or residences,” Markowtiz said. “I have no specific examples and have no idea what is going on in those institutions or homes, but I do know that we have a serious problem here that must be dealt with from wherever and whomever it is emanating.”
Markowitz later called on village officials on the peninsula to reach out to residents and religious institutions and explain the consequences of not adhering to the state’s guidelines.
“Rather than view the concerns expressed by residents as a threat or charge against any particular group, let’s use this crisis as an opportunity to bring everyone together,” Markowitz said.