Jacob Kornbluh, a Hasidic journalist, has lived in Borough Park, in southwest Brooklyn, for eighteen years. He has written on local and national politics from the neighborhood—which is home to one of the largest Haredi, or traditional Orthodox, communities in the city—for twelve. “Pre-pandemic, if you walked into any major Jewish event in New York City, you’d undoubtedly see him,” Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt recently wrote for the Forward, where she is an editor. Last month, mid-pandemic, hundreds of Haredi Jews took to the streets in protest of a new set of coronavirus restrictions on Borough Park. Kornbluh was there to report the story; he watched as the protesters—mostly young men and boys—tossed their masks into a makeshift bonfire in the middle of Thirteenth Avenue. The crowd was densely packed into a single street block, but it would occasionally part ways for one man, a big guy in a wrinkled suit, who commandeered a police megaphone. He spoke with a throaty, Brooklyn drawl, all “W”s and no “R”s. “You are my soldiers!” he bellowed. “We are at war!”
The man was Heshy Tischler, a local talk-radio host and a candidate for City Council. Kornbluh had covered Tischler before: in 2017, when the radio host had launched an earlier bid for City Council (and lost, having received just four per cent of the vote), and more recently, as Tischler had emerged as the leader of a local uprising against government COVID measures. Lately, Tischler had begun accusing members of the community of being so-called government informants. The crowd noticed one such man filming their protest; he tried to run, but the protesters set upon him and beat him unconscious. Kornbluh left the scene when the violence began. There was a chance that it might turn on him next.
When the pandemic hit, in March, the coronavirus eviscerated Haredi communities like the one in Borough Park. Large families, crowded neighborhoods, and communal life and prayer functioned as preëxisting conditions. Entire communities across Brooklyn decided, by consensus, to shut themselves down, even as schools and restaurants throughout the city remained open.
But it’s hard to put faith on pause. Some Haredi Jews don’t watch television, and many keep “kosher” phones that filter or block the Internet; virtual worship isn’t possible when electronics are forbidden on holidays. There were scattered reports of congregations illicitly gathering throughout Brooklyn. When a prominent Hasidic rabbi in Williamsburg died in late April, the funeral procession drew thousands of mourners. The ceremony was outdoors and masked, and the N.Y.P.D. barricaded the streets, but at that point in the pandemic—the number of COVID cases had reached a new peak just two weeks before—it was perceived as a serious violation. Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered that the event be broken up and tweeted a “message to the Jewish community” that “the time for warnings has passed.” Many Jews felt that the tweet was a crude generalization; the head of the Anti-Defamation League called it “scapegoating.” The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, an organization meant to counter discrimination against the Orthodox Jewish community, pointed out that thousands of New Yorkers had gathered the same day to watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds do a flyby. Where had the Mayor been then? And what about all the other Jewish communities who were following the rules?
Kornbluh documented the tensions in Borough Park. Among the city’s political press, he’s known as a reporter’s reporter—a news junkie who wears a yarmulke and speaks with a Yiddish-inflected British accent. Kornbluh grew up in London’s Stamford Hill, where his father started an emergency medical service. At a young age, he developed a fascination with journalism. “I knew probably the names of all the Knesset members,” he said, referring to Israel’s parliament. Kornbluh went to yeshiva but never finished high school. In 2001, he moved to Brooklyn, the center of the Hasidic world in the United States, and worked at a kosher deli; later, he opened a kosher pizza place. He had eclectic tastes for a member of his community, which tends to be highly insular: he taught himself to write by studying biographies of famous Americans; he read the Times. He started a blog, and began showing up at major city events to write about them. He covered the Anthony Weiner frenzy and Donald Trump’s fateful escalator ride. At such events, he would often run into Ben Smith, then a reporter at Politico, who is now the Times’ media columnist. Smith encouraged Kornbluh to pursue journalism full time. Kornbluh took the advice, selling off his pizzeria.
In 2015, he was hired by Jewish Insider, a daily news outlet that reports on political and business news from a Jewish angle. (Two of its recent headlines are “Twitter CEO Dismisses Ayatollah’s Threats to Israel as ‘Saber-Rattling’ ” and “Congressional Dems Urge Biden to Continue Campus Antisemitism Protections.”) With his tireless reporting on local and national politics, and on happenings within his own community, Kornbluh became well known to his readers and a rare channel through which they could hold their local elected officials accountable. He can ask the types of questions that don’t typically come up in a debate or press conference. Chizhik-Goldschmidt described him in the Forward article as “the most famous Hasidic journalist in America.”
One of Kornbluh’s most distinctive qualities as a journalist is his closeness to the community. When he covers local news, he is hardly an outsider “parachuting in” to get some quotes from a seemingly opaque group of people. “Political reporters sometimes don’t realize how real the stakes are and don’t have to live with them,” Smith told me. He added that Kornbluh “is writing about these life-or-death issues in this community, whose divisions mirror the country but where passions are really, really high.”
Borough Park tolerated Kornbluh’s feel for the divisions in the community when the subject was politics, less so when he began writing about the pandemic. In April, during Passover, as most of Borough Park remained on lockdown, Kornbluh began outing rule-breakers. He tweeted a video of a man exiting a synagogue that should have been closed. He called in a complaint to a government hotline about a synagogue that was flouting city restrictions. A digital flyer circulated on WhatsApp calling him an informer. “I lost some friends,” Kornbluh told me. His reporting for Jewish Insider and his posts on social media had been critical of both the restrictions and his neighborhood’s response to those restrictions, but only one aspect of his coverage had stuck. One day in April, a crowd of about a hundred Haredim, noticing Kornbluh walking nearby, chased him down the street, chanting insults.
By June, the weather had warmed and the curve had flattened. It was no longer just a small group ignoring public-health guidelines. In Borough Park, the rhythms of life returned to near-normal. Revellers packed wedding halls. (Tischler claims to have attended seventeen weddings in one month.) “The few who were wearing masks—people looked at them a little funny,” Yochonon Donn, a resident of the neighborhood and a writer for Mishpacha (Family), a popular Haredi weekly, told me. The number of new cases stayed relatively low over the summer, but, in August, de Blasio noted an uptick in Borough Park. He warned of harsh measures if behavior didn’t change. On went the masks. Then, de Blasio, noting the still-worrying numbers, imposed closures anyway. People felt lied to, betrayed by the city. The masks came off. Governor Andrew Cuomo developed his own plan. On October 6th, he set up a call with Haredi leaders and urged them to limit their synagogues to half capacity. Later that day, he announced a plan publicly. He’d scrapped the fifty-per-cent idea. The new limit was ten worshippers for each shul, no exceptions.
That night, protesters filled the streets. The man caught filming it was beaten. Kornbluh, taking on a more activist role, messaged Tischler urging him to apologize for inciting violence. But the following evening, at a second demonstration, the vitriol only increased. Back on the scene, Kornbluh took notes from a distance, watching as the crowd pulsed with energy. Tischler noticed Kornbluh and shouted at him: “You’re a pig!” A group of protesters swarmed Kornbluh and cornered him against a wall. The police had to rescue him.
Kornbluh said afterward that he had been hit in the head and kicked. (Tischler has denied this.) What set the crowd into a frenzy was when Tischler, inches from Kornbluh’s face, called the reporter a moser, a Hebrew word for a traitor—a Jew who informs on a Jew. Tischler had encouraged the rest of the mob to chant it, too: “Everybody scream ‘moser!’ ” Some interpretations of religious law, including that of Maimonides, the hugely influential twelfth-century Jewish philosopher, dictate that a moser must be stopped before he informs again—even if it means killing him.
For most of New York’s Haredi Jews, demonstrating in the street is a rarity. (“We don’t protest,” one of them told me, while protesting.) Counterparts in Israel frequently stage demonstrations—usually in response to things that they perceive as existential threats, such as conscription in the Army—and, more recently, in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coronavirus restrictions, calling them anti-Semitic. Many of the young men in Borough Park have taken their cues from what they’d seen of Black Lives Matter protests. (“Jewish lives matter!” has become a common refrain.) But videos of looting and violence had circulated on WhatsApp, and Haredi protesters were eager to draw a contrast, to show that their demonstrations were more peaceful and more proper. “We come out to protest something, there’s music playing, we’re not looting, we’re not rioting,” one Haredi protester told me. This was after the counter-protester had been beaten.
On October 11th, after the first two demonstrations in Borough Park, Tischler was arrested by the N.Y.P.D. for “inciting to riot and unlawful imprisonment in connection with an assault of a journalist.” (He pleaded not guilty.) Soon after, a Tischler fan tweeted out Kornbluh’s address, and a mob of roughly two hundred people—mostly Yeshiva-age boys, but a few families with young kids—gathered outside his home at midnight. (Someone had brought a bullhorn: “Good morning, Jacob! We’re all waiting for you!”) A man in his thirties, who said that his name was Mendel, argued that Kornbluh had become a tool of an oppressive governor by outing Haredi rule-breakers. “Do you think that we were so dumb and stupid, that we paid such a heavy price, so many lives taken away from us, and we wouldn’t do everything to protect us?” he asked. “I prayed on my porch not for one month—four months!” Now, he said, everyone had antibodies. (The antibody rate in Borough Park is estimated to be forty-three per cent—below the theoretical threshold for herd immunity.) Mendel dismissed the new restrictions as theatre. He’d heard rumors that the local testing books were cooked.
Secular, right-wing symbols dominated the event. MAGA paraphernalia was everywhere; at a previous demonstration, people waved “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and Tischler wore a Trump sticker on his chest. The rhetoric was familiar, too. One boy told me, “It’s not about corona anymore. It’s about fake news.” Mendel said, “When Trump blames the ‘China Virus,’ liberals say, ‘You can’t say that, that’s racist!’ But when it comes to us, it’s not racist!” Then he cited Tucker Carlson.
The demonstrators’ resistance to public-health measures may be better understood as part of the larger far-right coronavirus denialism, albeit spiced with a set of anxieties particular to the Haredi community. In the Presidential election, Joe Biden, like many Democrats before him, is likely to win an overwhelming majority of the American Jewish vote. Polls have long shown that the secular and less observant American Jewish community is distinctly liberal on a range of social, economic, and political issues. Trump, however, is wildly popular in the Haredi community; in a recent poll of Haredi voters, Trump led Biden by seventy points. “What we are seeing is the evangelicalization of Orthodox Judaism—at a time when evangelicalism is more about an idolatrous nationalism than about Jesus Christ,” Joshua Shanes, a professor of Jewish studies at the College of Charleston, wrote recently in Tablet magazine. The animating political forces for Haredim are conservative Justices, school choice, “law and order,” and opposition to same-sex marriage. Support for Israel, particularly conservative leaders like Netanyahu, is paramount. With television and Internet access limited in the community, radio is unusually important. Many Haredim listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ben Shapiro. Nathaniel Deutsch, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, characterizes Hasidic political preferences as those of “working-class white ethnics” anywhere else.
In Borough Park, Tischler has become the leader of this movement. He has posted hundreds of videos on social media, in which you’ll find him using bolt cutters to break into a locked playground or harassing local health inspectors. In each video, he also plugs his weekly radio program, “The Just Enough Heshy Show,” where he reflects on topics such as whether he should apologize for calling a young Muslim girl a terrorist (initially yes; later no), and the intellectual capacity of women (“not as smart as men”). The other day, on the air, he challenged the Mayor to a fight on his deck, “man to man, because I think he’s not a man.”