In Israel, a Rare View of a Community in Crisis
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When the epidemic reached Israel last year, I knew that photographers who managed to get inside the ultra-orthodox Jewish community would find an entertaining story. Their extremely insular way of life – with regular prayer, mass religious study, and mass marriage and funerals – is incompatible with one another. I feared that this would make them particularly vulnerable to coronoviruses, and worsen tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and secular worlds.
But I never thought that this photographer would be me. My daughter was just born. I was going to another house. And access to Hardime, as Ultra-Orthodox is also known, is exceptionally rare. They usually do not allow outsiders inside.
But over the last several months, I slowly managed to get a glimpse of his life through this epidemic. the resulting Photos and videos The Times’ new Jerusalem bureau chief, along with reports from Patrick Kingsley, was published online on Wednesday.
The process began in October last year, when I heard of a Hardy charity giving medical supplies to coronovirus patients in the ultra-Orthodox community, many of whom are wary of hospitals and treated at home . I briefly covered Charity at the time, but not in a deep way. I just went to the patients’ front door with my volunteers, and then waited for them until a few minutes later.
But when I saw them going in, I got curious. What was it like in those houses? And what would it tell us about how the Hardim was dealing with the epidemic?
Over the next few months, I repeatedly phoned the head of the charity, Yitzhak Markowitz, asking him if I could enter people’s homes with my volunteers. But he kept saying that they were too busy, the epidemic was too much. Once, we made arrangements to meet, and I also brought all the protective equipment I would need for the procedure – hazmat suit, visor, gloves. But then he canceled.
Finally, in January, I received another call from Mr. Markowitz. He agreed to let me go with his team as the members went from house to house and accompanied them. And so began some of the most intense weeks of my life.
The first days were tough. I felt uncomfortable by the team. And the family did not want me there. I think it was an impossible mission. But David Forst, international photo editor, kept pushing me, as did one of his duties, Craig Allen.
So every day, I would be driving from my home in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, one of the ultra-orthodox areas of the city, Mier Shireim. I arrive at around 9am, buy lots of coffee and snacks, and start calling members of Mr Markovits’ team. I would request them to let me join them. And once in a while, often after waiting for several hours, they called back and said: “Now come to this place.” Then I can follow them for most of the night, before repeating the same process again the next day.
There were so many families and so many moments that I could not take pictures. Families and patients, many of whom wanted to maintain their privacy (I asked permission before entering each home), often asked me to put my camera away, or to leave me altogether. So what you see in these pictures is striking – but it does not tell us everything what life was like inside those houses.
I think it helped me that I was not completely alien to them. I have spent many days in the synagogue. I do not find it strange to pray or to seek a spiritual purpose in life. I understand where they come from.
But at the same time, I still don’t know them intimately. I was just watching them. I really didn’t know what was going on behind the curtain.
This process, which was also experienced by Mr. Kingsley when he joined me for a few days. Before we entered each house, we had to run to get there, then find parking – which is not easy in a crowded neighborhood like Mya Shireim – and then a new dig before the volunteers entered the houses without us. Suited.
Probably the hardest part was working with a camera. Usually I bring two or more cameras, but for this project, it was very complicated. The camera was not covered by the Hazmat suit. They can potentially carry the virus. After leaving the house, I think: If I touch the camera, will I get infected? Even after cleaning it, I remained worried.
I usually think of my camera as a friend. But during this assignment, it became a threat.
Even now, I do not let my child play with it.