Whatever else may transpire during the craziness of 2020, Jewish Angelenos can be secure in the knowledge that any in-home gatherings they hold during the holidays will not be interrupted by raids by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies and subsequent hefty fines in the name of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Could such a scenario have been possible? Perhaps not, but a local rabbi was concerned enough to enlist a well-known legal organization dedicated to religious freedom with an eye toward clarifying the county’s intent and quashing any proposed threat.
Earlier in September, the county had implemented a coronavirus health order that specifically called out having dinner with extended family and friends “to honor the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).” As the holidays approached, the county changed the language of the order to reference “religious or cultural holidays” instead of calling out the Jewish observances specifically.
But members of the Jewish community still interpreted the order as specifically targeting their holiday observances. Agudath Israel California CEO Rabbi Yisrael Gelb hired the Texas-based First Liberty Institute to file a formal objection and urge the county to lift the order. The petition was filed on Sept. 16.
The petition stated, in part, “The burden of this policy is particularly heavy on members of the Orthodox Jewish tradition. … In accordance with millennia-old tradition, Rabbi Gelb intends to gather with another family to observe the High Holy Days safely in the host family’s home. Los Angeles County now has the opportunity to demonstrate whether it intends to follow through on its threat to criminalize the observance of the High Holy Days at a family’s dinner table or whether its profoundly disrespectful language was a mere empty threat. The county must immediately remove all language from county policy threatening to police small, religious gatherings at family homes.”
According to First Liberty Senior Partner Stephanie Taub, violations of these types of orders historically have warranted fines of up to $1,000. Even in the wake of COVID-19, however, L.A. County has not been enforcing bans of small gatherings. Taub told the Journal she did not expect there to be a crackdown on holiday assembling either.
“That’s what makes this even more egregious,” Taub said. “Even though they’re not enforcing it, they still list it as an example of prohibited conduct. So along with gathering with friends at the beach, they list meeting with your extended family to celebrate the most holy days of the Jewish calendar.
“They haven’t enforced this when they have had mass protests of 100,000 people marching through Hollywood,” she added. “It just shows a disrespect that they would single out these Jewish holidays as they did in this policy.”
Asked for its response to the First Liberty petition, L.A. County released a statement emphasizing its commitment to “protecting the health and safety of its residents through an unprecedented crisis.
“We recognize that religious services are central to many of our residents’ lives, especially in these trying times,” the statement continued, “and religious services have been allowed to be held online and outdoors with physical distancing and the use of face coverings, and they may continue to be held with those public health safeguards in place.”
In a subsequent email to First Liberty, the county’s legal counsel, Mary Wickham, addressed Taub’s concern that small, in-home holiday gatherings might result in raids, fines or other strict measures of enforcement.
“You … have asked whether Los Angeles County will ‘dispatch Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies to the homes of Jewish families gathered for religious meals during the High Holidays inside someone’s homes,’ ” Wickham wrote. “The answer to that question is no.”
“Our client and the Jewish residents of Los Angeles County can breathe a little easier,” Taub said. “Our Jewish neighbors are strong and resilient and simply want to share a table with their local families during the High Holidays in peace.”