By Nathan Layne and Maria Caspani
NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York police broke up a massive crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jews who took part in a rabbi’s funeral in defiance of a statewide coronavirus shutdown, and the mayor walked back comments on the gathering that some Jewish leaders called discriminatory.
City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea told a news conference on Wednesday that some 12 summonses were issued for a variety of offenses at the Brooklyn gathering on Tuesday night, which he estimated involved “thousands of people crammed onto one block.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio personally oversaw the dispersal of the Hasidic residents in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section who had gathered late on Tuesday for the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, who died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
A Jewish congregation had worked with police on a plan to close streets so the funeral could adhere to social-distancing rules, said Mitchell Silber, executive director at the Community Security Initiative, a program to protect Jewish institutions.
Both the rabbi’s congregation and the police were surprised at the number of people who attended, he said.
“This was a single event, planned by one congregation. The troubling incident last night should not negatively reflect on Hasidim, the Williamsburg community, Orthodox Jewry or the entire Jewish community,” Silber told Reuters.
Some Jewish leaders criticized de Blasio, who wrote on Twitter late on Tuesday that he had instructed the city’s police department to “summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups.”
“This is about stopping this disease and saving lives,” the mayor wrote on Twitter. The disease has killed more than 23,000 people in New York state despite stay-at-home orders and a shutdown of schools and businesses.
The criticism was for de Blasio’s having addressed the tweet to “the Jewish community, and all communities.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League noted that New York City is home to more than one million Jews.
“The few who don’t social distance should be called out – but generalizing against the whole population is outrageous especially when so many are scapegoating Jews,” Greenblatt wrote on Twitter.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America representing Orthodox rabbis, said he was concerned the comments could encourage anti-Semitism.
“We are very concerned about the mayor’s comment which stigmatizes an entire community for the irresponsible behavior of a small group,” Dratch said in an email to Reuters.
At a news conference with Shea, de Blasio said he regretted the way he expressed concern about the gathering of mourners but that he spoke “out of passion” for the safety of the people of his city, the epicenter of the country’s crisis.
“Again this is a community I love, this is a community I’ve spent a lot of times working with. And if you saw anger and frustration, you’re right,” de Blasio said. “I spoke out of real distress and people’s lives were in danger before my eyes, and I was not going to tolerate that.”
At the news conference, Shea said, “People have to be accountable for their own actions regardless of what neighborhood, ethnicity, where they come from – we cannot have what we had last night.”
David Harris, chief executive of the AJC global Jewish advocacy group, said de Blasio has been a “good friend” of the Jewish community and the Twitter comments that offended many in the community had been out of character.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Howard Goller)