Some of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox leaders are demanding an end to ongoing prayer services, funeral processions, and other illicit gatherings in parts of the community, as COVID-19 continues to rip through the tight-knit religious neighborhoods at disproportionate rates.

Over the weekend, the NYPD broke up multiple Jewish funerals in Williamsburg and Borough Park, where mourners were not observing social distancing guidelines. The Borough Park procession was held for Rabbi Meir Rokeach, who reportedly died of COVID-19 on Saturday at the age of 78.

Helicopters circled overhead during another funeral that continued late into the night on Sunday in Williamsburg, as some participants allegedly refused to disperse. A spokesperson for the NYPD could not immediately say whether any summonses were issued.

Frustrated by what they say is a continued dismissal of the threat of the virus, some members of the community have taken it upon themselves to ensure compliance from their neighbors. On Saturday, Dr. Stuart Ditcheck, a physician at NYU, called the police on the Chabad of Marine Park, one of the few synagogues that’s remained open in that section of Brooklyn.

“They’ve been having minyan every day, 20-30 guys behind the building, facing the yard of a very high risk patient of mine,” Ditchek, who is Hasidic, explained in one of his widely-shared daily Facebook briefings. He urged his followers to call out Rabbi Hendel directly, and to boycott his wife’s playgroup. “Stay away from people like that and make sure we don’t welcome them into our community in the future,” he said.

The aggressive condemnation comes amid growing anxiety in the city’s ultra-Orthodox enclaves, which have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic.

According to data released last week by the city, Borough Park and Midwood have tallied the highest numbers of cases throughout Brooklyn, with 771 and 631 cases respectively. Both Williamsburg and Crown Heights have especially high rates of infection as well.

A sign seen in Williamsburg storefront

A sign seen in Williamsburg storefront

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A sign seen in Williamsburg storefront
Scott Heins/Gothamist

According to Rabbi Abe Friedman, a community leader who helped set up testing sites, there have been at least 300 coronavirus deaths over the last ten days in the Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, Rockland County and Orange County. “Every family has been affected by this,” he said.

Despite city orders to shut down religious services, dozens of synagogues and mikvahs — baths used for ritual immersion — have remained open throughout parts of Brooklyn. Some rabbis have restricted entrance to no more than ten people at a time. Hasidic medical professionals say such measures are not sufficient.

“You have ten people now, and then ten people in 30 minutes, and pretty soon you have dozens leaving their germs in their same spot,” a doctor in Midwood, who requested anonymity so as not to incur a backlash from his neighbors, told Gothamist. “That’s not in the spirit of the directive.”

He called on elected officials to be “more forceful” in shutting down the worship spaces, adding that there were “pockets within the community that are still trying to live as if nothing is different.”

The Khal Beis Yakov Burshtin Shul in Borough Park, which was open on Sunday

The Khal Beis Yakov Burshtin Shul in Borough Park, which was open on Sunday

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The Khal Beis Yakov Burshtin Shul in Borough Park, which was open on Sunday
Scott Heins/Gothamist

On Monday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he planned to speak with Jewish leaders about the gatherings, promising the NYPD would be “very aggressive” in their enforcement. He added that it was “not easy for people to give up traditions, especially when they're in mourning."

Some in the community have blamed the current spike in cases on last month’s Purim festivities, a celebration that brought together large groups of people just days before the city and state ordered more substantial restrictions. Hasidic leaders have voiced concerns about additional transmissions during this week’s Passover holiday, a time in which families traditionally travel to elderly relatives’ homes.

A sidewalk in South Williamsburg

A sidewalk in South Williamsburg

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A sidewalk in South Williamsburg
Scott Heins/Gothamist

In recent days, rabbinical leadership have been holding emergency conference calls discouraging Jewish observers from traveling for seders, according to Rabbi Friedman. The ban, he noted, is made more challenging by the fact that Hasidic adherents cannot use technology during the holiday to communicate with their families.

Still, Rabbi Friedman said he'd been heartened to see a drastic shift in the community in recent weeks, claiming the "vast majority" of Hasidic Brooklyn had given up their closely-held prayers rituals to help stop of the spread of the virus.

“It’s taking a real toll on all of us,” he added. “Because of a few incidents, maybe it seems that the community is not abiding by rules. That’s absolutely wrong.”