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When the pandemic reached Israel last year, I knew that the photographer who managed to get inside the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community would find a gripping story. Their extremely insular way of life — of regular prayer, collective religious study, and mass weddings and funerals — is incompatible with social distancing. I feared that this would make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, and would worsen the tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and secular worlds.
But I never thought that this photographer would be me. My daughter had just been born. I was moving to another house. And access to the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are also known, is extraordinarily rare. They don’t usually let outsiders in.
But over the past several months, I slowly managed to catch a glimpse of their lives through this pandemic. The resulting photographs and video were published online Wednesday, accompanied by reportage from The Times’s new Jerusalem bureau chief, Patrick Kingsley.
The process began last October, when I heard about a Haredi charity that was delivering medical supplies to coronavirus patients in the ultra-Orthodox community, many of whom are wary of hospitals and are treated at home. I covered the charity briefly at the time, but not in a deep way. I simply went with its volunteers to the patients’ front doors, and then waited for them until they emerged a few minutes later.
But when I saw them go inside, I became curious. What was it like in those houses? And what would it tell us about how the Haredim were dealing with the pandemic?
Over the next few months, I repeatedly called the head of the charity, Yitzhak Markowitz, asking him if I could accompany his volunteers as they entered people’s homes. But he kept saying that they were too busy, that the pandemic was too much. Once, we arranged to meet, and I even brought all the protective equipment I would need for the process — hazmat suit, visor, gloves. But then he canceled.
Eventually, in January, I got another call from Mr. Markowitz. He agreed to let me accompany his team as members drove from house to house — and to go inside with them. And so began some of the most intense few weeks of my life.
The first days were hard. I felt unwelcome by the team. And the families didn’t seem to want me there. I began to think this was an impossible mission. But David Furst, the international photo editor, kept pushing me, as did one of his deputies, Craig Allen.
So every day, I would drive from my home in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, parking in one of the ultra-Orthodox areas of the city, Mea Shearim. I would arrive at about 9 a.m., buy lots of coffee and snacks, and start calling members of Mr. Markowitz’s team. I would beg them to let me join them. And once in a while, often after waiting several hours, they would call back and say: “Come to this place now.” Then I might follow them for most of the night, before repeating the same process again the next day.
There were so many families and so many moments that I could not photograph. Families and patients, many of whom wanted to maintain their privacy (I asked for permission before entering each home), often asked me to put my camera away, or told me to leave entirely. So what you see in these photographs is striking — but it doesn’t tell us everything about what life was like inside those homes.
I think it helped that I wasn’t completely alien to them. I have spent many days in the synagogue. I don’t find it strange to pray or to look for spiritual purpose in life. I understand where they come from.
But at the same time, I still don’t know them intimately. I was just observing them. I didn’t really know what was going on behind the scenes.
The process, which Mr. Kingsley also experienced when he joined me for a few days, was arduous. Before we entered each house, we had to rush to get there, then find parking — which is not easy in a crowded neighborhood like Mea Shearim — and then put on a new hazmat suit before the volunteers entered the homes without us.
Perhaps the hardest part was working with a camera. Usually I bring two or more cameras, but for this project, it was too complicated. Cameras were not covered by the hazmat suit. They could potentially carry the virus. After leaving a home, I would think: If I touch the camera, will I get infected? Even after cleaning it, I still worried.
I usually think of my camera as a friend. But during this assignment, it became a threat.
Even now, I don’t let my baby play with it.