Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Community in Covid Crisis

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Times Insider

In His home country of israel, a Rare View of a Community within Crisis

Photographing the influence of Covid on an ultra-Orthodox team there required unusual access. Yet that was just the first step.

Credit… Dan Balilty for The New York Moments

  • February. 18, 2021

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When the outbreak reached Israel last year, I understood that the photographer who managed to get within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community would look for a gripping story. Their extremely insular way of life — of regular plea, collective religious study, and bulk weddings and funerals — will be incompatible with social distancing. We feared that this would make them specifically vulnerable to the coronavirus, and might worsen the tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and secular worlds.

But I in no way thought that this photographer would be me personally. My daughter had just already been born. I was moving to another home. And access to the Haredim, since the ultra-Orthodox are also known, is extremely rare. They don’t usually allow outsiders in.

But in the last several months, I slowly managed to capture a glimpse of their lives by means of this pandemic. The resulting pictures and video had been published online Wednesday, accompanied by reportage from The Times’s new Jerusalem agency chief, Patrick Kingsley.

Credit… Dan Balilty for The New York Periods

Credit… Dan Balilty for The New York Periods

The process began last October, while i heard about a Haredi charity which was delivering medical supplies to coronavirus patients in the ultra-Orthodox community, a lot of whom are wary of hospitals and so are treated at home. I covered the charity briefly during the time with Times correspondent Isabel Kershner, but not in a deep way. I just went with its volunteers to the patients’ front doors, and then waited on their behalf until they emerged a few minutes later on.

Nevertheless I saw them go inside, We became curious. What was it similar to those houses? And what would it show about how the Haredim were coping with the pandemic?

Over the next few months, I actually repeatedly called the head of the charitable organisation, Yitzhak Markowitz, asking him merely could accompany his volunteers because they entered people’s homes. But he or she kept saying that they were too hectic, that the pandemic was too much. As soon as, we arranged to meet, and I also brought all the protective equipment I might need for the process — hazmat fit, visor, gloves. But then he terminated.

Ultimately, in January, I got another contact from Mr. Markowitz. He decided to let me accompany his team because members drove from house to accommodate — and to go inside using them. And so began some of the most intense couple weeks of my life.

Volunteers removing their protective fits after visiting a Covid-19 individual in Jerusalem.
Credit… Dan Balilty for The Ny Times

The first days were hard. We felt unwelcome by the team. As well as the families didn’t seem to want me personally there. I began to think it was an impossible mission. But Jesse Furst, the international photo publisher, kept pushing me, as do one of his deputies, Craig Allen.

So every day, I might drive from my home within Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, car parking in one of the ultra-Orthodox areas of the city, Mea Shearim. I would arrive at about nine a. m., buy lots of espresso and snacks, and start calling people of Mr. Markowitz’s team. I might beg them to let me join all of them. And once in a while, often right after waiting several hours, they would call as well as say: “Come to this place today. ” Then I might follow all of them for most of the night, before duplicating the same process again the next day.

There were a lot of families and so many moments which i could not photograph. Families and individuals, many of whom wanted to maintain their own privacy (I asked for permission just before entering each home), often questioned me to put my camera aside, or told me to leave completely. So what you see in these photographs is usually striking — but it doesn’t show everything about what life was like within those homes.

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I think it helped that I was not completely alien to them. I have invested many days in the synagogue. I don’t believe it is strange to pray or to search for spiritual purpose in life. I understand exactly where they come from.

Credit… Dan Balilty for The New York Times

But at the same time, We still don’t know them thoroughly. I was just observing them. I actually didn’t really know what was going on concealed from the public view.

The process, which Mr. Kingsley also experienced when he became a member of me for a few days, was difficult. Before we entered each home, we had to rush to get presently there, then find parking — that is not easy in a crowded neighborhood such as Mea Shearim — and then wear a new hazmat suit before the volunteers entered the homes without all of us.

Probably the hardest part was working with the camera. Usually I bring several cameras, but for this project, it had been too complicated. Cameras were not included in the hazmat suit. They could possibly carry the virus. After leaving a house, I would think: If I touch the particular camera, will I get infected? Even with cleaning it, I still concerned.

I think of my camera as a buddy. But during this assignment, it grew to become a threat.

Even now, I don’t let the baby play with it.

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