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Secret Hasidic wedding in New York drew thousands of unmasked guests

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Thousands of unmasked ultra-Orthodox Jews packed into a massive synagogue in Brooklyn earlier this month, deliberately skirting coronavirus rules to attend a secret wedding that may have become a super-spreader event.

A recently-leaked video from the wedding shows thousands of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighbourhood. The building reportedly has a maximum capacity of 7,000 people, although the exact number of attendees remains unknown.

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The wedding was orchestrated in secret by members of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, in a careful effort to skirt restrictions on public gatherings due to COVID-19, the New York Times reports. The event came together after authorities put the kibosh on a planned 10,000-person wedding at the same location last month.

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In the widely shared video, thousands of black-clad attendees can be seen singing and bobbing up and down while the newlyweds dance in the centre of the hall. Attendees do not appear to be wearing masks or practising social distancing.

The Yiddish-language newspaper Der Blatt reported on the secret arrangements in glowing terms after the fact, according to the New York Post‘s translations.

“The days leading up to the wedding were filled with tension, not knowing what the next day, or the next moment, will bring; which disgruntled outcast might seize this opportunity to exploit even what hasn’t been written or publicized, to create an unnecessary uproar, and to disrupt the (joy), God forbid,” Der Blatt reported.

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Authorities learned about the secret wedding over the weekend and fined its organizers US$15,000, in their latest clash with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community over coronavirus rules.

“This was amazingly irresponsible,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told local news outlet NY1. “There appeared to be a real effort to conceal it, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also condemned the event on Sunday as a “blatant disregard of the law” and called it “disrespectful to the people of New York.”

The wedding celebrated the marriage of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, grandson of Satmar Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, according to reports.

The large wedding that was cancelled last month would have been for another grandson of a powerful rabbi in the sect.

“If it turns out that because we stopped that wedding the reaction was, ‘Well we’ll have a secret wedding,’ that would be really shocking and totally deceitful,” Cuomo said. “It’s illegal and the city should do a robust investigation,” he added.

This image from leaked video shows a wedding at the Yetev Lev temple in Williamsburg, New York, on Nov. 8, according to reports. Via FAA/Facebook

A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio says an investigation is underway and further consequences could be in store.

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New York was hit harder than any other state in the early days of the pandemic, and it still leads the country with over 33,800 deaths to date. A second wave of cases is currently surging through the United States, just as the busy holiday period arrives for many people of different faiths.

Officials have issued strict limits on public gatherings in New York City’s boroughs and across the rest of the state. However, large parties have been cropping up on a near-daily basis, according to the New York City Sheriff’s Office.

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Authorities caught 80 people violating coronavirus rules at a sex club in Queens last weekend, and broke up an illegal fight club with 200 attendees in the Bronx earlier this month. They’ve also busted several parties for violating coronavirus safety measures in recent months.

The wedding is the latest episode in a long-running struggle between NYC officials and members of the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. The insular and fiercely independent communities have frequently ignored government rules around the pandemic, especially when it comes to places of worship.

Protests broke out in one Hasidic neighbourhood last month after Cuomo tightened rules in the area, following a surge in positive test rates. Hasidic protesters attacked three Jewish men and accused two of them of disloyalty to the community, the New York Times reports.

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Hanukkah begins on Dec. 10 this year.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

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—With files from The Associated Press