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Talking to Haredim (badly) about coronavirus

Disgusting... horrifying... sickening...
I’m sure you’ve noticed all the pictures in the media, in Israel and beyond, of haredim ("ultra-orthodox Jews") defying lockdown orders, congregating in public, hanging out in minyans and yeshivas, not wearing masks?

I have.
I've been shocked, horrified, disgusted.

But then I sat down with it for a bit and really thought things through.

One of the things I had to learn during my Master's degree, and for some of my other writing, is seeing the missing pieces of the puzzle.  Who or what aren't you considering in your sweeping generalizations?

This is called academic honesty, and the media could seriously use some of it these days.

Why are we so bad at talking to strangers?

imageAnother thing making me rethink this is Malcolm Gladwell's recent book Talking to Strangers (affiliate link), which is all about how we have trouble communicating with people who are unlike "us" -- however we define "us" at any given moment.  And about how these communication problems lead to bigger problems, possibly even the spread of pandemics.

(My conclusion, not his; his is fascinating and tied in with Black Lives Matter and police use of force in the U.S.)

As fast as everyone has been racing to pile on and vilify haredi communities for violating restrictions, I have to wonder if those "deliberate" violations are really so deliberate.

Coronavirus has been a plague of information -- sometimes we say it jokingly, that the updates, fake news, social media posts, memes, and statistics are going to kill us faster than coronavirus can.

And official channels are relying on media, including social media, like never before to get the word out.

This point was driven home by a Facebook post about how certain sectors of the Jewish community were needlessly, wantonly putting others at risk (I'm paraphrasing).  And then she ended her message by adding, "Too bad these type of people probably won’t even see this message."

Well, yeah.  That kind of is the point, right?

Her choice to say "these types" rubbed me the wrong way. It reminded me of what Malcolm Gladwell says about talking to strangers, in Talking to Strangers, which is that we're not very good at it.

How well have "we" been talking to haredim about the actual problem?

Not very.

A battle waged via social media

So much of this battle against (and through) corona has been waged via social media, that huge segments of the Jewish community have missed out on the key messages.  There have also probably been gaps -- especially here in Israel -- in communicating directly with leaders, especially those well versed in medicine and halacha. 

I can't help feeling that, in the age of social media, government agencies haven't done a great job of reaching out and communicating with communities who don't use social media -- or mainstream media at all, TV, newspapers, etc.

Another crucial piece of background here: the haredi community already feels like it's under siege from the outside world.  This feeling is not entirely unfounded. 

Just since we moved to Israel, religious and non-religious Jews have clashed over closing stores on Shabbos, public transportation, military draft, and more.  Here in Israel there is genuine fear that mandatory military service will influence the religious culture for the worse, and even though I support military service for all able-bodied Jewish men in this country, I can't say their fear is entirely misplaced.

So if haredim have developed the belief that officials are not always operating in their community's best interests -- well, even if you don't agree in this case, it's important to understand that that's coming from somewhere.

Where’s the information coming from?

Another interesting missing puzzle piece: correct information isn't always enough to debunk bad information.  This is the first Myth of Debunking: removing the influence of bad information is as simple as packing more information into people’s heads.

(Check out the entire Debunking Handbook: it's free!)

These are smart people we're talking about.  So they won't trust just any information.  The kind of information people trust most is compelling stories, coming from trusted sources.  That's because, according to the Debunking Handbook, "a simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction."

For the haredi community, "trusted sources" means rabbis, period. 

If rabbis are saying something and the government is saying something else -- it's easy to see which way the community is going to go.  That's why it's important to get leaders on board, not just trust people in the community to get the message, especially when most aren't tuned in.  Or even interested in tuning in.

Where is the bad information coming from?

One last idea from this great source: understanding and explaining why the misinformer promoted a myth is sometimes helpful in debunking it.  In this case, understanding where haredi leaders were coming from when they asked communities to carry on normally.

The way most of the people I know have dealt with the creeping advance of coronavirus around the globe is by following granular details, sometimes minute by minute, offered by various sites, legitimate and illegitimate.  Amid all that noise, governments and official agencies are trying their hardest to get their legitimate messages out, and for the most part succeeding -- in those channels.

Yet these same representatives and agencies struggling to keep us safe have, I'm guessing, neglected the media used by haredi communities, including posters, flyers, religious weekly publications, car/loudspeakers, and -- most important of all -- sitting down with influential rabbis to help educate them about the urgency of this thing.

I remember hearing during the Gulf War that the Israeli government had released gas masks that didn't fit anyone with a beard -- meaning anyone in the haredi community, many Muslims, and numerous others all over the country.  Similarly, during some period of attack, they issued instructions to citizens on how to stay safe, but neglected to translate the instructions into Amharic, the language of 125,000 Israelis of Ethiopian origin, who I believe had just arrived in the country at that time, so knew no Hebrew, and were left to wander around, in danger.

These are "talking to strangers" problems. They can't be solved just by talking MORE.  They have to be solved with true two-way communication, understanding where the "stranger" is coming from and finding ways to help the message get through.

The burden of rabbinic responsibility

This doesn't absolve certain rabbis of the guilt they bear for misleading their communities. I am very, very angry at some of the more irresponsible statements I've heard from haredi rabbis in the last few weeks.

If you're in a leadership position, issuing directives, whether those directives are "stay home" or "keep learning in yeshivas," it's your responsibility to check the soundness of that advice against some objective standard.  If the mainstream community hasn't reached in, leaders must reach out for medical and scientific advice.

But for the ordinary haredi man or woman on the street, things aren't so clear cut.  It's easy for some of us to say, "Why are they defying the orders? Why don't they realize? Haven't they seen the news? Don't they know what happened in Italy?"

The answer is maybe, maybe not.

All of us interpret signals from the world around us through a lens.  That's why we don't all vote the same way, even given the same set of facts about each candidate.  Haredim have a lens, and instead of seeing this as an obstacle, it's up to leaders to find ways to harness this for good wherever possible.

Where do we go from here?

I'm not saying ordinary citizens shouldn't take responsibility. The Torah indisputably tells us not only to guard our health but to obey civil authorities wherever possible.  Meaning wherever it doesn't undermine Torah. 

But first the messages must get through.  For those who put Torah first in every aspect of their lives, messages must also be cloaked in Torah, and come from trusted authorities, using media that are acceptable to the community.

So before you look at those headlines and recoil in shock over how irresponsible "some people" are -- ask yourself a few things:  Do they have all the information you have? Are they being guided responsibly? Are the messages coming from sources they trust?  Is this a problem that could be solved by better communication?

We are very bad at talking to strangers. It's just the way we're built, as humans. And for most of us, even if we live a religious Jewish life, haredim are strangers.

So let's try harder to understand the situation before we rush in to react with shock or judgment.  Let's try harder to talk TO them rather than just ABOUT them.

Haredi photo credit: (c) Asaf Antman via Flickr / Coronavirus image: (c) U.S. Army

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

1 comment:

  1. The truth is that most of the information came from television and social media, of which the chareidim and their rabbis don't have. I've noticed in my community how few people are wearing masks and I'm angry with them. I've complained to the movers and shakers. I hope the police come around and fine them.
    Am I mean?


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