Boro Park Leaders Silent As Residents Protest COVID-19 Restrictions

A fire that demonstrators started last night. (Photo via Citizen app)

BORO PARK – Hundreds of Orthodox Jewish residents gathered in Borough Park near 46th Street and 13th Avenue late last night to protest Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new restrictions on houses of worship, schools, and businesses after a spike in coronavirus numbers. Protesters set fires and burned masks. One Orthodox man who was against the anti-mask crowd was beaten unconscious.

It all happened after four leaders—Council Member Kalman Yeger, Council Member Chaim Deutsch, Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, and State Senator Simcha Felder— sent a statement to Cuomo saying, “It is disgraceful that Governor Cuomo would impose these restrictions targeting our community in the midst of our Jewish holidays.” This seemed to have instigated a “war” against the government and residents were out after midnight without masks and no social distancing in place.

We reached out to Deutsch, Yeger, Eichenstein, and Felder for comment on the protest but they were all silent and did not respond. None of them except Yeger have Tweeted out anything since yesterday’s statement to Cuomo. Yeger wrote, “I’m disgusted by the attack in the early morning hours on a member of our community. There is never ever a reason to raise a hand to a fellow human. We are better than that. I hope the attackers realize how wrong this was. NYPD will investigate violent crimes in our community.”

We asked our Orthodox Jewish neighbors and residents of Boro Park how they felt about the protest last night.

One, who declined to go on the record, said what happened was the fault of the four elected officials. He said those who consider themselves leaders in this community need to take the heat for “this nonsense,” as they were the instigators, he said.

A resident from Kensington, who is often at Boro Park, told Bklyner he is curious why the NYPD didn’t show any force at last night’s protest, “like they do with the Black Lives Matter protests. If BLM protestors started a fire last night in the middle of Boro Park and were not socially distanced, the cops would’ve shut that down so fast. Why is there a different treatment?”

Miri, 50, who works in Boro Park, said that while she knows that there are “bad apples” in every group, she thinks Borough Park is not being treated fairly. 

“When the mayor says it is not the time for protests but then describes the need for ‘historic change’ in explaining away large protests down 5th Avenue, it is painfully clear that politicians are prioritizing gatherings at their discretion,” Miri told Bklyner.

Last night’s protest also sparked an online debate about the lack of leadership within the Borough Park community. 

“I think the ones to blame for the protest would be the government and city councils,” said Llefri Aviles, 23, a Boro Park resident. He added that he has seen many in the community without masks and there needs to be a better way to bring awareness to the community. 

“I think the government should have better announced the dangers of COVID-19,” Aviles said. “Especially after being one of the most heavily hit neighborhoods during the beginning. There’s a lot of miscommunication and misinformation between the government and specifically Jewish neighborhoods.”

Meyer Labin, an outspoken Jewish man in the community, voiced much concern online for last night’s events stating he is “sad, infuriated, broken.” 

“What we saw tonight in BP [Boro Park] is the culmination of a long time leadership void,” he tweeted. Labin added that councilman Kalman Yeger should resign for associating with a well-known instigator in the community, Heshy Tischler. 

Yeger also addressed the protesters as seen in a video posted by Boro Park News. In the video, he is joined by Tischler. 

“We are not going to be deprived of the right that we have in America, like everybody else in America, to observe our religion,” Yeger said in the video. “I don’t care who in government thinks that they can stop us. They are wrong. Let them try.”

Labin went on to call out Tischler, who is seen on video instigating the young men at the protest. Tischler is seen by his critics as destroying the community, with Labin calling him a “thug and criminal.”

Tischler tweeted that he is “proud” that his mission was successful. He also tweeted that the protest was “peaceful” and that there will be another one tonight, “hopefully without fires.” During last night’s protest, Tischler called out the media covering the event, calling them “fake news,” while not wearing a mask. 

“They wanted to be heard and they wanted to be listened to and in the end they got it,” Aviles said. “It got the message across.”

Yesterday morning, Cuomo ordered the shutdown of non-essential businesses and new gathering restrictions on four regions in the state where COVID-19 cases were increasing. In Brooklyn, the red areas are located in South Brooklyn and include Borough Park, though the boundaries aren’t so clear.

“To the extent there are communities that are upset, that’s because they haven’t been following the original rules and that’s why the infection spread – because they weren’t following the rules and the rules weren’t being enforced. The rules weren’t being enforced because the communities didn’t want to follow them,” Cuomo said this morning at his press conference.

“I understand that but that’s why we are where we are – make no mistake. And this can’t be just, we come up with a new rule because if it’s just another rule and the rule isn’t enforced, then we’ll be right where we were. So a rule is only as good as the enforcement and if we had enforced the first rule we wouldn’t be here in the first place so let’s not make the same mistake twice.”

“This is about all New Yorkers, and when you look at the communities in Brooklyn and Queens, it’s lots of different kinds of people,” he continued. “Remember, we’re talking about two of the most diverse places on earth, Brooklyn and Queens. So, within these areas are many kinds of people and we want to protect everyone. This is based on data and science.”

“I’m aware of the protest that occurred,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said this morning at his press conference. “I spoke to Commissioner Shea and his team this morning. Again, very clear that we are dealing with a health emergency. The State has laid down very clear rules. Everyone must follow those rules. The NYPD will be enforcing those rules. We want to be respectful, but I want to be very clear when the NYPD issues an instruction, as with any other situation in the city or any other protest, if the NYPD issues and instruction, people must follow the instruction. If they don’t follow the instruction, then they are liable for whatever consequences occur.”

In a letter following the new restrictions, the four elected officials wrote that Cuomo “has chosen to pursue a scientifically and constitutionally questionable shutdown of our communities.” They went on to write that Cuomo had informed Jewish community leaders in a conference call that synagogues in “red zones” would be permitted to operate at 50%. They were angry that he changed it to 10%.

“Governor Cuomo’s choice to single out a particular religious group… was outrageous. His language was dangerous and divisive, and left the implication that Orthodox Jews alone are responsible for rising COVID cases in New York State,” the letter states. “We will continue to encourage total compliance with mask-wearing and social distance guidelines in our communities.”

But the protest where hundreds of people were maskless and not social distancing, showed otherwise.

“Because of his unilateral and irresponsible acts, our community is rightfully shocked, angered, and highly frustrated,” they continued. “Americans are constitutionally permitted to worship freely, and Governor Cuomo may be assured that we intend to exercise that right without his interference.”

Amber Adler, who’s running for City Council District 48 to replace Deutsch, to tell us how she felt about the Boro Park protests. She said, “Real leadership isn’t about making noise, it’s about producing measurable results. The needs of New Yorkers are time-sensitive. We should be unifying our voices in harmony in order to end the restriction by zip code model and demand the implementation of proactive data sets. This is why I have called for data tracking of Prevention Measures to be added to the NYS DOH ‘COVID-19 Report Card.’ Adding data related to prevention methods such as types of PPE required by students, teachers, and essential school staff, product usage, and brand information is an equitable approach.”

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