Harold "Heshy" Tischler strolled onto 13th Avenue in Borough Park at 9 p.m. Wednesday night, bare-faced and hoarse from days of screaming, and into the arms of an adoring crowd. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators chanted his name, waving Trump and Thin Blue Lines flags as they jockeyed for a chance to meet the brash right-wing radio host leading the campaign to stop the new COVID-19 lockdown measures.
“We are at war!” Tischler shouted to the crowd of protesters. “You are my soldiers!”
An hour later, Tischler directed an angry mob of young Hasidic men as they surrounded and attacked Jacob Kornbluh, a veteran reporter with Jewish Insider. At Tischler's urging, the group hissed and spit at Kornbluh, labeling him a Nazi and a “moser” — a term for a Jewish person who informs on their own community.
As NYPD officers attempted to extract Kornbluh from the ugly scene, the group pinned their target against a wall, lunging and kicking at him.
“They all ambushed me,” Kornbluh told Gothamist afterward. “They attacked me because I’m a reporter.” He said on Twitter that he planned to file charges against Tischler, who is running for City Council, over the “brutal assault.”
It was the second straight night of rage and violence in Borough Park overseen by Tischler, a heavyset local agitator who spent a year in prison for immigration fraud. During his demonstration on Tuesday, protesters beat up the brother of a well-known Hasidic whistleblower, swarmed a photojournalist documenting the scene, and set fire to surgical masks in the street.
There were no arrests or summonses during either night of unrest, according to an NYPD spokesperson. Despite efforts to disperse the mass gathering late Wednesday, police eventually retreated from the street, allowing thousands of people to take the roadways.
“No way we were breaking that up,” an officer with the Community Affairs Unit was overheard admitting.
The chaotic street scene marked the latest escalation in the fight over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new coronavirus restrictions, which will shut down schools and non-essential businesses in Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods with spiking COVID rates beginning on Thursday. Local Hasidic lawmakers who represent the area have come out against the rules, accusing the governor of singling out Jewish people by limiting capacity in houses of worship to only 10 people in the most restrictive "red" zones.
Agudath Israel of America, an international religious group that represents the ultra-Orthodox community, called the shutdown orders “appalling,” and hinted at a possible lawsuit.
But Tischler has gone a step further, vowing to stop the restrictions by force, while peddling conspiracy theories that Democratic officials are deliberately misleading the public about the virus for political reasons. Several people in attendance on Friday said they now believed that the lockdown measures were a ploy to interfere in the upcoming election.
“Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo are trying to destroy Donald Trump’s election,” said Heshy Friedman, a 57-year-old Borough Park resident. “They’re using COVID to try to close off all the neighborhoods that are pro-Trump.”
Filmed by Andrew H. Walker for Shutterstock
According to the latest city data, more than 8 percent of those tested in Borough Park returned positive results for coronavirus, the highest rate across the five boroughs.
A woman named Bracha told Gothamist that she was certain the numbers were fake — and that she was grateful that Tischler was alerting the community. “Cuomo’s straight up lying,” she said. “Heshy’s honest. He’s open. He’s waking people up.”
On Thursday morning, Borough Park Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein released a statement "imploring the handful people within the community to end the violence." Eichenstein has previously boosted Tischler, and attended his event this past June to cut the bolts off a playground.
City officials said that Tischler has been harassing Test & Trace Corp volunteers — primarily people of color — at testing sites throughout the neighborhood. “How has this man not been arrested yet?” wondered one source in the Mayor’s Office.
Echoing Trump — and Tischler — many in the crowd directed their anger at the “fake news” media. After roughing up Kornbluh, members of the group encircled and threatened an ABC-7 news crew. Later on in the night, as the crowd took over larger swaths of 13th Avenue, a desperate scream would occasionally pierce the wall of sirens and music.
“You kicked him so well,” a young boy was overheard saying at around midnight, as dozens of people hurried away from what appeared to be another group beating.
For the most part, NYPD officers avoided confrontations with the unruly elements of the protest. Deputy Chief Charles Scholl, the highest ranking officer on the scene, assured the group earlier in the night that they would be largely left alone. “These are my friends, they’ll listen to me,” he told Gothamist. “Go have a good time! Go.”
The offer of respect went both ways. “I want to thank the police officers who helped us so much tonight. Blue Lives Matter,” Tischler told his supporters, to loud cheers.
Cuomo has repeatedly faulted the mayor and the NYPD for failing to properly enforce social distancing guidelines. The Mayor’s Office revealed this week that police have not issued a single summons for failure to wear a mask.
Others contrasted the police approach in Borough Park with the department’s far more violent strategy of dispersing Black Lives Matter protesters who've blocked streets this summer. Police sources told the Post on Wednesday that it was long understood among cops that City Hall wanted them to take a “hands off” in Hasidic enclaves, for fear of offending the powerful voting bloc.
For some in the ultra-Orthodox community, the widespread denial of the virus — and meager efforts at social distancing enforcement — has dredged up memories of the spring, when the coronavirus battered New York’s Jewish communities.
Blima Marcus, an ultra-Orthodox nurse practitioner in Borough Park who worked in a COVID ward during the peak of the pandemic, said the state’s guidance wasn’t anti-Semitic, but rather “an act of desperation and exasperation.”
“When your leadership doesn't step forward it leaves a vacuum for the fringe people to step up. That’s where this Heschy Tischler comes in," she said.
Marcus pointed out that Simchas Torah, an important Jewish celebration that includes crowds of dancing and singing, is scheduled to take place this weekend. It wasn’t clear if local leaders would set up restrictions to prevent the usual festivities or allow them to continue uninterrupted.
“It’s going to be like the apocalypse,” she said. “I don’t see how that can end well. I think it can be cataclysmic.”
Additional reporting by Gwynne Hogan.