Hasidim walk through Williamsburg / All photos courtesy of Mo Gelber
Pro tip for anyone considering a tour of Hasidic Williamsburg: It’s not that big a deal. You do not need to wear a hat, broad-brimmed or otherwise. You may visit during the week, and you may visit on weekends. You may bring along with you whatever food you like — nobody cares. And rest assured, there is no group of Hasidic thugs waiting to attack you at the slightest sign of disrespect.
Here, on the other hand, is one thing not to do — especially if you are a gray-haired gentleman of late-middle-age: attempt to engage with eight-year-old Hasidic girls on the street without their parents’ consent, and then throw a hissy fit when the girls seem suspicious of you and your motives.
Other things not to do: gawk, objectify, belittle, and otherwise bring your prejudices and misconceptions with you. Leave those at the edge of the Williamsburg bridge, if you must, and you might choose not to pick them up on your way out.
You would think these guidelines are common sense. To some, however, they are not.
Last month, Dr. Marty Klein, a nationally renowned psychologist and sexuality expert, took a 90-minute walk around the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. After his tour, which he wrote about on his blog, he declared the most notable thing about Williamsburg: the women “have no eyes” and the children are “creepy.”
(JTA) — It has been two decades since the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the rebbe whose influence was felt far beyond the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic sect he led.
Within hours after the long-ailing Schneerson, more commonly known as “the rebbe,” died at age 92, JTA reporters visited Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Chabad is based, to report on the scene there:
All along Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights’ main drag and the site of Chabad headquarters, “the sound of tambourines and chants of ‘Melech ha-Moshiach” — the Chasidic movement’s call for the biblically prophesied Messiah — could be heard.”
Meanwhile, in Israel:
Crowds of Lubavitcher Chasidim mobbed Ben-Gurion International Airport, offering to pay cash for any ticket that might get them to the funeral. El Al Israel Airlines scheduled an extra flight on a jumbo jet for some 450 of the rebbe’s followers. But neither El Al nor any of the foreign airlines that serve Israel had other craft they could divert for the thousands who thronged into the departure area.
While attendance at the burial, in a Queens cemetery, was restricted, JTA described the “emotional scene earlier in Crown Heights” as an estimated 35,000 people gathered “under overcast skies” outside Lubavitch headquarters in hopes of catching a glimpse of the rebbe’s coffin:
When the plain pine coffin appeared, the scene became one of emotional mayhem, with women wailing and men pressing forward to touch it. The 350 police who were on the scene could barely contain the surging crowds, and the pallbearers had difficulty getting the coffin into a waiting hearse. Despite the sudden rush to the coffin from the sea of black-hatted mourners, no injuries were reported. The crowds walked behind the slowly moving vehicle, which led them on a processional through the Crown Heights neighborhood. Some 50 buses were waiting to take some of the rebbe’s followers to the cemetery after the procession was over. Among the dignitaries present at Lubavitch headquarters were New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Israel’s opposition Likud bloc; Gad Yaacobi, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations; Colette Avital, Israeli consul general in New York; and Lester Pollack and Malcolm Hoenlein, the chairman and executive vice chairman respectively of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Young Jews discuss Israel at a ‘Resetting the Table’ event in Brooklyn. / Ezra Weinberg
This past Sunday, in the high-beamed, chilly Brooklyn Lyceum, a group of 20- and 30-somethings tried to talk about Israel — no small feat.
The program, called “Resetting the Table,” was designed to allow young people to get together and go really deep, really fast. Guided through the rough waters of this conversation by Eyal Rabinovitch and a team of Facilitation Fellows trained by him and Daniel Silberbusch, the 50 or so young people who showed up were held to communication guidelines that asked, among other things, that they honor confidentiality, listen with resilience, speak with respect and avoid generalizations. Essentially, it asked them to be civil.
And it’s no wonder: this iteration of “Resetting the Table” was funded by the UJA Federation of New York, and is generally part of a broader initiative at the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA)’s “Civility Initiative.” The model includes two organizing cadres: a group of “Facilitation Fellows” and a group of “conveners.” The Facilitation Fellows, who facilitated Sunday’s conversations, are trained over a period of months to hold these kinds of sessions. The “conveners” are the organizers on the ground, and, coached over many months, are meant to gather their associates at various institutions (from Yeshiva University to Hazon) with the goal of holding facilitated conversation on Israel internally.
The event unfolded unhurriedly: folks trickled in, picked at the marvelous display food from Brooklyn’s new kosher eatery Mason & Mug, heard an introduction from Rabinovitch, participated in an icebreaker, and only then chose their discussion topics, which ranged from “What is the responsibility of American Jews towards Israel?” to “Should there be red lines around who speaks in Hillel, JCCs, and other Jewish institutions?” Then they sat down in sectioned-off corners of the room for facilitated conversation that would last an hour and a half.
Menachem Stark’s death and the media’s inflammatory response to it highlight a particular kind of anti-Semitism: the kind that can emerge as a result of the religious Jewish community’s involvement in real estate and the horrible living conditions in many of those buildings.
As a tenant organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, I work alongside tenants citywide to form tenant associations and improve building conditions. I was shocked by the headlines describing Stark’s murder, but not surprised, unfortunately, by the shady business practices or lack of upkeep on the large stock of rent-stabilized buildings he was connected to in Brooklyn. That’s something I see all too often.
Through my work, I do a great deal of research to try and untangle the mess of who owns what property and who’s connected to whom in the real estate industry. And it’s not easy. Take 199 Lee Avenue, an address in the religious Jewish part of Williamsburg. It’s connected to literally hundreds and hundreds of distressed buildings. Entities with an address at 199 Lee touch all sides of any real estate deal — as owners, mortgagers, brokers — and it’s nearly impossible to connect the address to an actual person.
Stark’s death, and the resulting uproar, comes at a particularly interesting time for my coworkers and me, since we’re in the midst of planning a tenant-driven rally in Borough Park, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn. The rally is targeting a group of Jewish investors who are trying to flip two horribly distressed rent-stabilized buildings in Crown Heights. Like at 199 Lee Avenue, the investors are nameless — associated only with a P.O. Box in Borough Park that is associated with many other distressed properties in Brooklyn and Queens.
Menachem Stark, a Brooklyn Hasidic real estate developer, was abducted, murdered, and thrown into a dumpster. Stepping to a new low, the New York Post reports this story with inappropriate levity and derision toward the victim.
Practically gloating over Stark’s death, the front cover of Sunday’s New York Post rhetorically asks, “Who didn’t want him dead?”
We still don’t know all the facts and it’s certainly possible that Stark’s business deals in some way caused a dispute that led to his murder.
But how about the eight children and widow mourning over him? How about the hundreds of mourners who showed up at his funeral in the bitter cold to pay respects? How about any decent human that believes murder is the wrong way to settle disputes?
For this week’s story about the cases of accused molester Baruch Lebovits and accused extortionist Sam Kellner, the Forward was provided with a trove of secretly-recorded conversations.
Among the recordings is a conversation Sam Kellner had with the family of a man who had already pled guilty to abuse charges.
Over the course of 80 minutes, Kellner counsels the family that the man could avoid jail by getting ultra-Orthodox rabbis to pressure Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes and by bribing prosecutors. (A spokesman for the DA’s office said assertions of possible wrongdoing are “ludicrous.”)
The Forward made a commitment to protect the identity of the family involved, therefore we have provided two excerpts from the recording. Passages where people other than Kellner talk have been bleeped out.
More than 5,000 Chabad rabbis and supporters gathered on Sunday for the 30th annual conference of international Shluchim, or messengers of the Hasidic movement. Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman addressed the crowd as the first keynote speaker.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg, Chabad rabbi at Stanford University, told the crowd that you are more likely to find an atheist, secular, or humanist Jew at a Chabad house than you were to find an Orthodox Jew.
And one lanky man in the sprawling crowd of black-hatted men summed up what he meant.
Among the guests was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America.
Chabad strictly follows Orthodox Judaism’s central belief that the Torah was given directly from God to Moses and applies in all times and places. Reform Judaism, on the other hand, maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions are not divine and can be modernized, changed, to reflect surrounding culture.
Chabad’s invitation to Jacobs reflects the movement’s philosophy to embrace everyone on the human level, without regard to creed or denominational differences.
Jacobs returned the sentiment, telling Lubavitch.com that it was “inspiring to be with a group of Jewish leaders who feel so passionately about bringing the love of yiddishkeit [Judaism] and the life of commitment to the widest possible circle.”
If the Reform president and Chabad Shluchim can sit at the same table to connect as one people, who knows: Maybe there’s hope for other denominations of Judaism to sit together notwithstanding their deep theological differences.
(JTA) — So far as I know, there are two major roll calls each year in the Jewish world. One takes place each spring at the annual AIPAC convention in Washington, in which the names of hundreds of members of Congress are read aloud from the rostrum. The other took place last night, at the annual gathering of Chabad emissaries, or shluchim, in Brooklyn.
The former is a display of political power, showcasing AIPAC’s ability to get more than half the members of the world’s most powerful legislative body to show up and demonstrate their pro-Israel bona fides. The second is a show of another kind of power, the spiritual strength of a group of rabbis who sacrifice much in terms of comfort and convenience to connect thousands of far-flung Jews to their heritage.
At a time of angst in the Jewish world over the falloff in Jewish affiliation, the ranks of Chabad shluchim continue to swell. There are currently more than 4,500 around the world (twice that number if one counts, as one should, the rabbis’ wives). More than half of those have been dispatched in the nearly two decades since the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose eyes peered down on the gathering from a massive portrait above a rotating speakers’s podium.
The bulk of those shluchim assembled Sunday night in a marine terminal along the Brooklyn waterfront for their annual banquet, the capstone of a days-long conference, or kinus. Emissaries traveled from such remote locales as the Cayman Islands, Laos, San Martin, South Korea and Martinique, arriving at the cavernous warehouse by bus, taxi, subway and limousine. (So far as I could tell, I was the only attendee who arrived by bicycle.) And their strength was evident not only by the sea of bearded men in black suits and hats, but by the presence of their benefactors — billionaire Israeli diamond magnate Lev Leviev and the financier George Rohr foremost among them — political figures like Joe Lieberman and the former CIA director James Woosley, and representatives of other major Jewish streams, including the Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
The convention theme was zarach b’choshech or, a phrase from the Psalms meaning “radiate light into darkness,” and the speeches and videos were replete with metaphors of luminescence — sparks of yiddishkheit ignited, torches lit, Jewish souls set aflame. Rare in the Jewish world is a group as fired up and self-assured as this one.
The morning after the funeral for Samuel Cohen-Eckstein, the Brooklyn teenager who was killed by a van just a month before his bar mitzvah, the leaders of his family’s synagogue wrote to me, extremely upset about our coverage. Since these are leaders I respect, who raised serious, vexing questions, I responded to them right away.
Then Dave Goldiner, the Forward’s director of digital media, who oversaw the coverage of this horrible accident, suggested that I explain to readers just how we go about making decisions in these cases, when the impulse to honor a grieving family’s privacy conflicts with the journalistic imperative to tell stories that matter to our readers.
This story was an important news event in the Jewish community. Samuel’s parents are prominent members of a thriving synagogue, Kolot Chayeinu, and are well-known in their Brooklyn neighborhood. They have been advocates for traffic safety and have spoken at public forums about the need to better protect pedestrians. The spot where their son died, next to a popular entrance to Prospect Park, is instantly recognizable to many of our readers; indeed, I drove by there the other day and was moved by the memorial created by his friends and neighbors.
It was a Simchat Torah celebration that surely most of the Hasidim walking past had never before witnessed: hundreds of liberal Jews, men and women, young children and the middle-aged, dancing together with Torah scrolls held aloft. Revelers twirled round and round in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, just outside the entrance to Prospect Park.
“Simchat Torah Across Brooklyn,” as the event was dubbed by creator Joshua Breitzer, the cantor at Park Slope Reform Congregation Beth Elohim, became a nexus for Brooklyn Jewry as streimel-topped Satmar Hasidim walked past en route between Williamsburg and Boro Park and fedora-clad Chabad Hasidim walked by — a few stopping to observe the festivities — on their trek from other parts of Brooklyn to Crown Heights.
Close to 300 people responded on the event’s Facebook page that they would come. But several hundred more actually showed up. Many were members of some of the co-sponsoring synagogues and minyamin, which included Reform congregations Beth Elohim and Union Temple, Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom and Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr to Conservative congregations Park Slope Jewish Center and the Flatbush & Shaare Torah Jewish Center.
Members of independent congregations Kolot Chayeinu and Congregation Mt. Sinai came, like some from Shir Hama’alot, Brooklyn Jews and Moishe House Park Slope, as did folks from congregations and minyans which declined to become formal co-sponsors, some because they are Orthodox and the gathering used musical instruments. There were also many in attendance who aren’t affiliated with a religious community.
Anthony Weiner blew his stack at a Jewish voter in Brooklyn who insulted his wife, calling the man a “jackass” through a mouthful of cheese danish.
In a video posted online by Yeshiva World News political correspondent Jacob Kornbluh, Weiner can be seen engaging in a shouting match with an unidentified man in a yarmulke inside the Weiss Family Bakery in the Orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park.
The Weiner campaign later released a longer video revealing that the argument started when the shopper insulted Weiner and said, “married to an Arab” — a reference to his wife, Huma Abedin, whose family is from Saudi Arabia. The insult was first reported by Talking Points Memo.
Hearing the insult as he left the store, Weiner stopped, called the person who flung the insult a “jackass,” and returned inside to confront him.
Weiner proceeded to shout angrily at the man in a yalmuke for roughly two minutes as the man continued to criticize Weiner for his sexting scandal. “You did disgusting things, you have a nerve to even walk around in public,” the man says.
“And you’re a perfect person, you’re my judge?” Weiner said. “What rabbi taught you that, that you’re my judge?”
The man called him “a bad example” and told Weiner that his sexting amounted to “deviant” behavior.
“Stay out of the public, go home and get a job,” the man told Weiner.
After the encounter, an unseen man asked Weiner if he will forgive the man who confronted him, given that the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah was set to begin just hours later.
“Of course, of course, I don’t hold it against him,” Weiner said.
New York mayoral candidate Bill Thompson’s political tour guides to Hasidic Brooklyn are two guys named Joseph — both famous influence-peddlers with strong community connections and checkered pasts.
When he campaigned in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg on Labor Day, Thompson was accompanied by Hasidic fixers Joseph Menczer and Joseph Goldberger, the New York Observer reported.
Menczer and Goldberger are members of the Pupa Hasidic sect, a small ultra-Orthodox group based in Williamsburg. They have close ties to Rabbi David Niederman, a leader of the larger of the two halves of the divided Satmar Hasidic community.
Once owners of retail stores in Williamsburg, the two rose to prominence in the late 1990s after their prodigious fundraising efforts for George Pataki’s gubernatorial campaign gave them exceptional access to the governor’s office.
In 2000, the New York Times revealed that Goldberger and Menczer had parlayed their $500,000 in donations to the Pataki campaign into a highly unusual relationship with state health officials who they lobbied behalf of for-profit businesses.
The Supreme Court’s decisions around marriage rights may have elated gay and lesbian Jews and their allies. But for LGBT Jews in the Orthodox community, the ruling might have the opposite effect. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations issued a statement reiterating Judaism “forbids homosexual relationships”; Agudath Israel went a step further, claiming the “sanctity” of marriage “may have been grievously insulted by the High Court.”
Enter Shlomo Ashkinazy. A quiet but pathbreaking activist, Ashkinazy has counseled gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews about reconciling “untenable contradictions” in their religious and sexual identities. Most recently, he’s leading a video storytelling project for Eshel, the New York-based organization which advocates for acceptance of LGBT Jews in Orthodox communities.
Ashkinazy’s personal activism stretches back much farther. In the 1970s, he became the nation’s first openly gay social-work graduate student. And in 1985, he became founding principal at the Harvey Milk High School, the first public school for LGBT students in the country.
On the heels of historic high-court decisions on civil rights for LGBT people, the Forward caught up with Ashkinazy from Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, where he lives with his partner Michael.
Some news, apparently, is fit to print, but not too boldly. Take, for example, the demure self-censorship on display Saturday in the New York Times’ eye-opening report, headlined “On Island, Largely Blue, an Exception: Trump Tower,” on the handful of New York City neighborhoods that voted for Mitt Romney over President Obama. Overall, the city voted Obama over Romney 81% to 18%.
The headline and the first five paragraphs were about the two isolated election precincts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan Island where Romney won half or more of the vote. It wasn’t until paragraph 7 to find out that the main news began to trickle out: that the “deepest single bloc of Republican support in all the five boroughs” was a four-square-block section of Gravesend, Brooklyn, “dotted with Sephardic temples and yeshivas.”
Finally, well into the jump, we learned that Romney “enjoyed strong support from a range of neighborhoods with large populations of Orthodox Jews.” Many precincts in Borough Park, Kew Gardens Hills and Sheepshead Bay (which is largely Russian, not Orthodox) voted 90% GOP. A note on the accompanying map gave you the money quote: “Mr. Obama’s worst precincts were in Orthodox Jewish areas like Ocean Parkway and Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Kew Gardens Hills in Queens.”
The map shows the city’s 5,286 precincts as a sea of blue and red dots, shaded darker or lighter to indicate higher or lower percentages of partisan leaning. The darkest red voted over 80% for Romney, while pale pink gave him 50% to 65%. In addition to the broad swathes of dark red running down Brooklyn from Hasidic Borough Park down Sephardic Ocean Park to Russian Brighton Beach, there are dark red clusters in mostly Italian-American Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and mostly Irish-American (and storm-ravaged) Breezy Point, Queens.
Mindy Meyer won plenty of attention for her splashy pink-themed campaign for a Brooklyn state Senate seat.
The young Orthodox law student dubbed the ‘Magenta Yenta’ did less well at the ballot box.
She was crushed by incumbent Democrat Kevin Parker by a 97%-to-3% margin. According to the Daily News, Meyer garnered just 2,553 votes in the Flatbush-based district compared to 86,697 for Parker.
Meyer burst onto the scene in the summer when politicos noticed her unusual campaign. Her website, pink and flashy, incorporated glitter and leopard print. Her slogan was: “I’m Senator and I know it.”
“I’m trying to appeal to the younger population,” explained Meyer.
Hurricane Sandy won’t last 40 days and 40 nights, but it still seems pretty Biblical to some.
Flooding has already been reported in parts of Manhattan and Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for the evacuation of residents in low-lying Zone A.
Despite power and heat set to be shut off in public housing complexes in the evacuation zone, some residents of the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side have ignored the evacuation orders, DNA Info reported.
The storm has sent emergency response workers and welfare agencies into overdrive. William E. Rapfogel, the CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, said in a e-mail to board members Monday morning that most residents had been evacuated from buildings in Seagate, Brooklyn.
“All our more than 4,000 home care clients (including Bronx JCC and UJC of East Side) have been accounted for, and service plans are in effect including home attendants sleeping at many of their homes,” Rapfogel wrote.
He added that extra food was being stockpiled at Jewish homes in case the bad weather lingers.
Floods are expected in coastal areas such as Coney Island and Brighton Beach, and Williamsburg, home to the Satmar Hasidic community, has some chance of flooding due to its proximity to the East River. The Crown Heights neighborhood, home to the Lubovitch Hasidic community, is much farther inland on higher ground.
New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver is under fire over what the local tabloids are calling a “coverup” of sex allegations against a Brooklyn political boss.
The Orthodox Jewish speaker of the State Assembly doesn’t usually get front-page play, despite being one of the two or three most powerful people in Albany. It’s likely he would rather been left out of this story, too.
Last Friday, Silver censured Assemblyman Vito Lopez over charges that he had sexually harassed two Assembly employees. Following reocmendations of the Assembly’s ethics committee, Silver removed Lopez from the chairmanships of two committees and barred him from employed interns or people under 21.
Lopez has since said that he will relinquish his role as Brooklyn Democratic leader.
But Lopez is not the only longtime politico bruised by the scandal. Following the Friday announcement, the New York Times reported that in June, Silver had authorized a $100,000 payment to settle an earlier set of harassment charges against Lopez.
Kevin Parker doesn’t have any catchy monikers like his pink-loving opponent, Mindy Meyer, in a race for state Senate in Brooklyn.
“She says she’s ‘senator and she knows it,’ but I actually am senator,” said Parker, an incumbent Democrat. “I really do have responsibilities.”
Meyer is now well known by her self-appointed name, Diva of the District. Although Parker has been in office for the past decade, he has yet to trend on social media. That doesn’t worry Parker, though.
“I have a proven track record,” says the state senator in a phone interview.
Parker has been exceedingly diplomatic when it comes to his young opponent’s recent media attention and her unusual campaign strategies, saying only: “I take all challenges seriously, because I take the democratic process seriously. I’m looking forward to debating her on the issues.”
He cautioned her, however, that “deep red doesn’t win in a deep blue district using deep pink,” referring to Meyer’s now famous glittery pink website, and the 21st district’s overwhelming Democratic population.
Mindy Meyer may be the Diva of the District, but the wannabe state senator from Brooklyn has a little homework to do if she hopes to make it big in politics.
The 22-year-old Brooklyn law student looked a bit like a deer in the headlights when a local TV anchor asked her to identify some key state power players in Albany.
Meyer didn’t recognize GOP Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and also whiffed when shown a picture of Democratic Assembly power broker Sheldon Silver.
However, Meyer recovered like a true politician from the ambush by Fox 5’s Rosanna Scotto.
“Honestly that I’m not so worried about,” she said after the pictures faded from the screen. “I heard of these names and I would learn the issues, and I would just focus on causing change for my constituents, unlike my opponent.”
Her opponent, incumbent Democratic State Senator Kevin Parker, also tried to take the high road.
“Every challenge is a credible challenge, this is the American democratic process,” he said. “I don’t know Ms. Meyer at all. She is rather young.”
Results were mixed last night for New York City congressional hopefuls who ran on their pro-Israel credentials.
In Brooklyn, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries trounced Councilman Charles Barron in a Democratic congressional primary where Barron’s harsh criticism of Israel was a major issue.
The results don’t add much clarity to the question of how Republican Bob Turner really won his Queens special election last September. Both the Meng and Jeffries races took place in districts that include portions of the heavily Jewish district that Turner won nine months ago.
Some claimed the shocking victory for Turner was a referendum against Obama’s Israel policy, while others suggested his Democratic opponent’s vote in support of gay marriage was more significant. The answer could help political hopefuls win support in the area’s large Orthodox and Russian-speaking Jewish communities.
Lancman apparently thought that hawkish talk on Israel won it for Turner. In the Queens race, Lancman talked a lot about Israel — so much that his opponents criticized him for it during a televised debate. Lancman’s resounding defeat could signal that his unremitting focus on the Jewish State during the campaign was a bit too much for Queens voters.