Orthodox rabbis object to COVID restrictions on prayer and weddings

Stamford Hill has the largest population of Charedi Jews in Europe.
Photo: Dave Collier

Charedi Jewish weddings and public worship in Hackney are unlikely to return before the end of lockdown, despite objections from community leaders and rabbis.

Stamford Hill-based Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations sent a letter to the Government last week outlining their concerns about the lack of religious exemptions to the new restrictions.

But Joel Friedman of Interlink Foundation, an organisation representing Jewish Orthodox groups in Britain, said he is “not optimistic” about receiving a positive answer to the letter.

The ban on public worship has been met with strong opposition from religious congregations across the country. England’s most senior faith leaders have issued a joint letter to the Government arguing that treating public worship as non-essential is “insensitive, ignores the safety measures put in place by communities, and runs counter to the lived experiences of religious believers”.

However, Binyomin Stern, president of the Union of Hebrew Congregations, which represents the majority of Charedi Jews living in Stamford Hill, argued that the restrictions have a disproportionate effect on his community. He issued a separate letter to the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, asking the minister to reconsider some aspects of lockdown.

Stern argued that daily public worship in a group of at least ten is the most essential part of Charedi life. “People do not eat or work until they have prayed. People shape the start and finish of their day around their prayer schedule, travel great distances and cut short other activities in order to participate in communal prayer,” he wrote.

Charedi life in Stamford Hill has also been disrupted by the inability to perform weddings. In the conservative community, engaged couples have minimal contact with each other before the wedding day. In his letter, Stern wrote of couples who were “devastated” by the “extended and prolonged separation from their betrothed,” explaining that the community would like to simply perform “the core wedding ceremony” rather than host “parties or celebrations”.

“When you set a date for a wedding, you don’t change that very easily. Even if the parents can’t be there it still goes ahead,” Friedman told Eastlondonlines, explaining that the set wedding dates are “very, very sacred” according to Orthodox Jewish belief.

Friedman added that the lockdown restrictions imposed on religious life have come as a surprise to the Orthodox community. “We were reassured [by the Ministry of Housing, Local Government, and Communities] that even in the top-level [of restrictions] public worship would be permitted,” he said referring to the previous ‘Three Tier’ system followed by the government.

According to Friedman, Orthodox communities in Stamford Hill and across the country have put in extensive efforts to follow government guidelines and secure their synagogues to make them safe for joint worship. “When worship is conducted in a safe way, when it’s socially distanced and very controlled, it’s unthinkable that its unsafe,” he said. “To say it is not essential is very much an affront.”

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