Think before you condemn the Charedim

Strictly-Orthodox communities have large households which makes them more vulnerable, writes Jonathan Boyd


Jewish Ultra Orthodox men pray on the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, on January 21, 2019. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP) (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)

February 19, 2021 15:12

The narrative has been all over the press, the outrage palpable. The Charedi community — or at least parts of it — has been observed flouting the social-distancing regulations we are all meant to follow. That’s according to the narrative anyway. But narratives are comprised of stories, anecdotes, snapshots. They contain versions of the truth — sometimes deep truths — but not necessarily complete truths. For a more empirical assessment, we need data.

So, what do the data tell us? Research is building, but one of the best insights we have comes from a recent serological study conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Analysing one specific Charedi community in Britain in late 2020, the researchers found that 65 per cent had contracted Covid-19 at some point. The equivalent proportions for the populations of London and the UK are 11 per cent andseven per cent.

It’s a troubling finding. But however tempting it may be to draw links between these data and the newspaper reports, the LSHTM researchers are much more cautious. They argue instead that the results are due to a “complex interplay of socioeconomic and behavioural factors”.

There are various reasons for this. Part of their caution comes from concern that their findings might prompt social tensions. But the main reason is because key socioeconomic factors may indeed explain a significant part of their results.

Charedi Jews commonly live in large households — on average, they have five people in them compared to 2.3 in non-Charedi Jewish ones. Many are larger still; on average, Charedi women have six or seven children; non-Charedi women have about two. This impacts age structures — the median age among Charedim is 15; among other UK Jews, it is 44. These factors, combined with very different attitudes towards education and vocational training, mean that overcrowding and deprivation are considerably more common in Charedi households than in other Jewish ones.

So, when a highly infectious, airborne virus enters a Charedi community, infection rates will almost inevitably skyrocket, even if compliance with social-distancing regulations is impeccable. Any population with large, overcrowded, low-income households will experience above-average infection rates. The implications of a single infected person in a large household are considerably graver than for one in a small household. Thus, before rushing to condemn the Charedi community en masse, we really ought to bear these factors in mind alongside the behavioural issues so commonly highlighted.

Moreover, the LSHTM study demonstrates that, in fact, Charedi Jews did broadly comply, during the first lockdown at least. Their data show that infection rates among Charedim dropped dramatically at that time, something that simply could not have happened without widespread compliance.

Of course, it’s possible to read these data unsympathetically. Some argue that Charedi Jews don’t need to have large families or forgo a university education. They could make other choices less likely to result in overcrowding and deprivation. They could be less insular. They could comply better with government guidelines.

But the ‘they’ language bothers me. It generalises and stereotypes ‘them,’ when the truth, demonstrated by the data, is actually far more complex. And, in fact, the truth in the rest of the Jewish community is also complex — JPR data indicate that infection rates there are way above average too.

I am not an apologist for any Charedi Jews or anyone else who has failed to comply. Non-compliance is wrong. And Charedi communities have many challenges, particularly how to manage their ardent communitarianism in a fervently individualistic age. But I would encourage Jews outside the Charedi community to demonstrate a little more understanding and empathy, and indeed, would hope that would be reciprocated. The absence of that should warn us that far greater intracommunal tensions may well lie ahead.

Jonathan Boyd is is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR)

February 19, 2021 15:12

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive