The organiser of a lockdown-breaching wedding at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls’ school in north London attended by more than 100 people has been condemned by community leaders.
Police discovered about 150 guests celebrating the wedding on Thursday evening. The windows of Yesodey Hatorah school in Stamford Hill had been covered to stop people seeing in when officers arrived. It was initially thought that up to 400 had attended.
Many guests fled when police arrived after receiving reports of a large gathering. Five people were handed £100 fixed penalty notices for breaching Covid regulations and the organiser could face a £10,000 fine, the Metropolitan police said.
The lockdown breach was swiftly condemned by the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. “This is a most shameful desecration of all that we hold dear. At a time when we are all making such great sacrifices, it amounts to a brazen abrogation of the responsibility to protect life and such illegal behaviour is abhorred by the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community,” he tweeted.
A spokesperson for the school said: “We are absolutely horrified about last night’s event and condemn it in the strongest possible terms. We lease our hall to an external organisation which manages all lettings and, as such, we had no knowledge that the wedding was taking place. We have terminated the agreement with immediate effect.
“We are investigating how this shocking breach has happened and have no plans to re-lease the premises to any third party. We deplore the actions of anyone in any community breaking the law and risking people’s lives in this way.”
The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, an umbrella organisation representing ultra-Orthodox groups, said in a statement: “We are shocked and deeply saddened by last night’s events which are shameful for our community. There are no excuses for anyone to endanger the community and the wider public in such a careless manner.
“We will continue to work with the police and the community and we reiterate the importance everyone has to play in order to protect the NHS and save lives.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews condemned the wedding as a “flagrant and disgraceful breach of Covid-19 regulations, which goes against Jewish teaching that preserving life is of the highest value”.
Marie van der Zyl, the board’s president, said: “The reckless and dangerous behaviour of those behind this event does not represent the attitude of the vast majority of British Jews, including from within the strictly Orthodox community, who are fully aware of the terrible toll of this pandemic.”
Yesodey Hatorah is a faith school serving Stamford Hill’s Haredi Jewish community, which is the largest in Europe. It is in the borough of Hackney, which has a Covid infection rate of 625.43 cases per 100,000 people, compared with an average rate in England of 471.31 per 100,000 people.
DCS Marcus Barnett, the local area commander, said: “This was a completely unacceptable breach of the law, which is very clearly in place to save lives and protect the NHS – an NHS that is under considerable pressure at a time when Covid-19 has killed nearly 100,000 people.
“This is a deadly and very dangerous disease. We can all see that and we must act responsibly. People across the country are making sacrifices by cancelling or postponing weddings and other celebrations and there is no excuse for this type of behaviour. My officers are working tirelessly with the community and we will not hesitate to take enforcement action if that is required to keep people safe.”
The mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, said the incident was a “deeply disturbing incident at a time when in Hackney we have seen the largest number of deaths reported since last April”. He added: “Unfortunately, similar events have taken place even at this venue before and we need to be really clear how unacceptable it is.”
There have been reports of breaches of lockdown restrictions in ultra-Orthodox communities in the UK, US and Israel over the past 10 months, including weddings and funerals attended by large numbers of people.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews have suffered disproportionate numbers of deaths during the pandemic, partly as a result of large intergenerational households and difficulties in transmitting messages to communities reluctant to engage with the internet or mainstream media.