Monthly Archives: March 2012
The Williamsburg branch of Masbia, the popular food pantry headquartered in Borough Park, may be shutting down. There is currently a sign on the front window advertising the space for rent, but a replacement space has not been announced by the organization. Residents are thus afraid that the project may have run its course.
The Masbia branch in Williamsburg was opened in 2009 (4 years after the original branch in Borough Park), and is funded in large part by Henry Orenstein. Other principal sponsors are Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and the Jewish Federation of New York City. It serves hot meals twice daily in prescribed hours to anyone who enters, free of charge.
The original concept of he Masbia soup kitchen is rooted in the absence of wives in the summer to cook and prepare food for their urban-dwelling husbands during the week. The idea was to pool resources and obviate the need to spend considerable sums on restaurant food on a daily basis. The organizers, including Abraham Rapaport, a Vizhnitzer Hasid, came upon the idea to pitch it as a program for the poor and thus solicit donations from poverty alleviating organizations in the Jewish community.
It is possible that the sponsors are becoming jaded or disillusioned with the program, not seeing it accomplishing anything in terms of raising the socioeconomic level of its beneficiaries. It still isn’t clear what the future of the Williamsburg branch is but it’s possible that the sponsors have pulled the plug on it.
Stay tuned for updates.
The Aaronites (those championg the Satmar rabbintae of Aaorn Teitelbaum, as opposed to his brother Zalman) are in a bind. They have a difficult position to defend and the petty Rabbis aren’t exactly cooperating.
It all revolves around the “invalid marriage” doctrine. According to Jewish law, the marriages must be sanctioned by the mara deathra — the village Rabbi. In the absence of his approval, they contend, a marriage taking place in Kiryas Joel is void, and cildren born from such a union are mamzerim — bastards.
Case in point? Marriages taking place in Ateres Meir Zvi — the wedding hall used by the bene yoel, the longtime Satmar dissidents in Kiras Joel. The “recognized” village rabbi, R. Aaron Teitelbaum, or his designate are never invited –nor is it likely he would deign– to officiate at weddings taking place in the hall.
As long as no petty Rabbi is on board with the dissidents, it is relatively easy for the Aaronites to cast them as trangressors of the law and declare Aters Meir Zvi marriages null and void. But what if a recognized Rabbi attends the wedding? What if, to add insult to injury, they are honored with siddur kidushin, arrangement of the betrothal ceremony, thus putting their imprimatur on the whole shebang?
In the Fisher wedding, which took place last week, the Rabbi who upset the apple cart for the Aaronites is the “Zlotchever Rebbe”, a widely acclaimed Rabbi who was visiting from Israel. The Aaronites are at wits end to explain how such an evidently pious Rabbi could defy the standing ban against officiating at weddings in he Ateres Meir Zvi hall. What exacerbates matters is that this particular Rabbi had proven his fealty to R. Aaron by once paying a visit to Shaare Hemlah — the local “public school” for disabled children run by the Aaronites and deemed an outrageous profanity of god’s name by the KJ dissidents since KJ officials proclaimed that “the name of God is not mentioned there” and once famously removed the mezuzot from the doorposts, due to the constitutional church-state separation clause.
The union in question was fraught with ill will almost at Hello. The shidduch (match) is between R. Jonathan Fisher, father of the groom, and Moshe Schwartz, father of the bride. Mr. Fisher is a recognized personage of illustrious pedigree, a fervent activist and an avowed champion of Aaron, while Mr. Schwartz is a prominent Zallonite and former butler of the Satmar Rebbe, Moses Teitelbaum. How the match was conceived in the first plaace is anyone’s guess. But what is clear is that the Fishers originally stipulated that the wedding must NOT take place in the forbidden Ateres Meir Zvi hall. The schwartz’s then egregiously violated that pledge and declared that the bride will not show up for the chuppah (wedding canopy) except in the Ateres Zvi hall, thus evincing a willingness to break the engagement over this matter.
The Fishers, renown for their Aaronite zeal were thus thrust into a precarious situation–between the devil and the deep blue sea. Their strategy was to try to persuade Aaron to issue a special permission for this wedding to go ahead in the forbidden hall. They dispatched numerous delegations to Aaron, who allegedly returned with good tidings of Aaron’s approval. Others, however, claim that when Mr. Fisher himself submitted a kvittel (petition) to R. Aaron, the Rabbi responded with “ikh ken nisht leinen dem kvittel”, I can’t read the petition, a veiled allusion to his displeasure with Fisher’s eagerness to forge ahead with the wedding plans despite Schwartz’s provocative stance.
In the end, it is reported that an emergency delegation was sent by the Zoltchiver Rebbe –who refused to attend the wedding otherwise– on the night of the wedding to R. Aaron to seek his permission, which they ultimately received after Aaron kept them waiting for a while.
This episode would seem to be a victory for the dissidents and their Zallonite allies. R. Aaron could not muster the resolve to ask his charge to break up the wedding on the wedding night over the wedding hall dispute. The Schwartz’s were adamant that the wedding must take place in the forbidden hall or else they walk; they weren’t bluffing. Once R. Aaron sensed that, he was railroaded into giving his permission albeit with evident grumpiness.
The ban on the Star and Spective, two monthly Yiddish magazines under the penship of Mr. Shimon Rolintzky from Monsey, NY, is not holding up under stress.
The ban was issued several weeks ago by about a dozen Rabbanim in Williamsburg, supposedly under the pretext that the subject matter of the magazine was inappropriate — there was too much discussion of secular subjects such as American history and short fictional stories.
Pundits immediately pounced upon the ban noting that a rival publication “the blitz” which has an identical style and mission remained acceptable (actually, it was included in the original version of the ban but activists then decided to exclude it). Moreover, the magazines hadn’t changed their tone since their inception a decade ago. Why now, the critics wondered, suspecting that the ban was personally or economically driven by shrewd activist adroit at manipulating feeble or complicit rabbanim.
Signs of defiance were instantaneous. On a Yiddish online forum many community members impugned the Rabbis motives and ruled the ban unjustified. One person recommended that Mr. Rolintzky sue the Rabbis in beth din for $50,000 for loss of income. Others threatened to subscribe by mail if the local stores stop carrying the magazines.
And indeed the resistance has born fruit. The stores in Williamsburg still largely carry the magazines and Mr. Rolintzky remains defiant. “The gangsters are going around NOW again in willi to ask stores to throw out Der Shtern. Please go out and confront them”, he blurbed to his Twitter followers in a recent tweet.
The support of dissenting Rabbanim has also been enlisted. There is now a placard declaring that “it had all been in error and quite in the contrary, koah dehetera adif” — the power of permissiveness is greater. “Not only are the Star and Spective not worse than other magazines but they have the additional benefit of being clear of any possibility of calumny and gossip”, it proclaims. A Viznhitz dayyan and R. Chayin Shlomo Abarham are signatories to it.
BACKGROUND ANALYSIS, OPINION
This is definitely not the first time, nor will it be the last that rabbanim ban something in the Hasidic world. But the fallout of this particular episode is likely to be withering for the rabbanim, prompting a hitherto unheard-of level of distrust in rabbinic authority and competence. The masses are balking; they are refusing to be led by the nose any longer. The ban must make sense to them and it doesn’t. Going forward, there is the specter that when the rabbanim cry wold again they won’t be taken seriously any more.
Shulem Deen, co-founder of Unpious.com, who himself was once a fervently devoted Hasidic follower of the Skverrer Rebbe and his rabbinic apparatus in New Square, concurs in an email interview: ”I think the backlash is noteworthy for insight into the thinking of the ‘hamoin am’ who are supposed to abide by these bans. Many aren’t buying it, and I suspect the rabbis have finally overstepped their bounds and are beginning to seriously lose authority.”
Mr. Rolintzky is not alone. In Monsey, far from the rigorous scrutiny of people’s private lives commonplace in Williamsburg, he has developed a coterie of supportive liberal-minded friends –including the infamous Abe Karpen from New York I love You– who aren’t playing by the old rules. They are keenly aware that times are a changin and the populace is craving real, substantive information — something apart from the constant feed of homilies and sermons and tales of righteous folks.
This new weltanschauung of the ”Generation X” breed of Hasidim –primarily consisting of third-generation holocaust survivors who are itching to take over the reins from the previous, baby-boomer generation– does not see itself a threatened species. Nor do they feel responsible for restoring and sustaining the ingenuous Hasidic shtetl culture of Old Europe. They were born and bred in a post-civil-rights America and see no enemy on their radar, spiritual or physical, against whom to take up arms. They are eager to foster economic and social relations with the outside world and achieve mutual understanding. They desire good jobs and a decent education; they insist on being as technologically plugged in and informed as their fellow Americans outside the Hasidic ghetto.
As our decade proceeds, baby boomers retire, Generation X assumes the helm of leadership and the Millennials (those who entered high school after the new millennium) look up to them for guidance, the Hasidic world is bound to be reshuffled, reshaped and transformed in amazing new ways. Stay tuned!
For the first time since launching her book promotion tour for Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Ms. Feldman yesterday confronted the haredi fringe head-on in a reading and Q&A session at the Thursday Night Chulent weekly conference on the outskirts of Borough Park.
Uncharacteristically of Chulent, the reading started smack-dab on time at 9:00 p.m., which is early in the night as far as Chulent events normally go. More importantly, the order and decorum was unparalleled with rows of seats neatly laid out for the audience which was listening attentively to her microphone-amplified reading and speech. There was even a small table on the platform decked out and furnished with drinks, where the host, the eminent Isaac Schoenfeld, and his guest could commune, Radio- and TV- interview style.
Ms. Feldman had been skeptical about agreeing to do this event, wary of a hostile audience. In a way she “packed the court”, bringing along an entourage of associates, supporters and friends to ensure that her voice will not be drowned out by her anticipated heckling from detractors.
But most of the regular Chulent attendees were present as well and they seemed genuinely impressed by her highly eloquent and intelligent responses to what appeared to be a hostile host, more so than a hostile audience. A one point an elderly gentleman arose and kindly requested that the host quit arguing with his guest and let her express her views and answer the audience’s questions, to which they responded with a resounding applause.
Some of the clarifications she made during the Q&A session seemed peculiar to the Hasidic audience. To an audience member’s question whether she is advocating un-orthodoxy, as her book title would seem to imply, she aptly elucidated that the substantive “Unorthodox” refers to herself, having taken an offbeat, non-orthodox path in life by rejecting her rigorous, hidebound social structure and traditions. It isn’t her imperfect Jewish legal observance that makes her Unorthodox; it’s her overall trajectory in life. “I grew up Hasidic, NOT Orthodox . I want to make it comfortable and inviting for everyone, even those who don’t fit in”, she quipped.
Another thing the host and some audience members couldn’t wrap their head around was how her husband and community’s betrayal of her through incessant gossip about issues in her private marital life, enabled her to write the book guilt free. “It isn’t tit for tat, it’s the flip side of the coin; if they don’t care about my privacy, then they are sending the signal that their privacy doesn’t matter either” and so she needn’t harbor any qualms about defaming her family and community.
When someone asked about the alleged falsehoods and how those could detract from the her overall credibility, she referred him to the various reporters who have looked into the allegations and have aptly noted that those calumniators are creating a smoke screen. As Jesse Korbluth from The Huffington Post notes, “they didn’t take me up on my main accusation: sexism.”
Other prominent online Deborah Feldman defenders are FrumSatire on such blogs entries as http://www.frumsatire.net/2012/02/21/why-i-believe-deborah-feldman/ and myself on HasidicNews.com in such articles as http://hasidicnews.com/hn/?p=45, which is a rebuttal of the Winston Penisgate “investigation”.
What was arguably the most poignant remark in the session came in response to an audience member’s invocation of the folk saying that “everyone has their pekkel (=package/burden)” and it must be carried and endured forever. Why, she asked, didn’t Deborah simply accept that she was different; that her hailing from a broken family and its concomitant disgrace is something that she just must be accept as her destiny. To which Ms. Feldman retorted shrewdly in the humanistic spirit: what if instead of accepting the pekklech we can get rid of the pekklech? What if we can change that?…the Holocaust happened over 60 years ago.
In response to the oft-repeated accusation that she paints the entire Jewish religious community with one paint brush in one broad stroke, she impressed upon the audience that “the Jewish communiy is as foreign to me as the gentile community, because when I was growing up Satmar, even if you were Modern Orthodox, you were as good as a goy (gentile) if not worse”.
Watch the footage of yesterday’s Deborah Feldman Chulent appearance below.
Rabbi Shmully Boteah famously promised to Pearl Perry Reich that he will personally intervene on her behalf in her custody battle. He was a bit tardy in following through on this promise, according to Ms. Reich, at first ignoring her calls. But he finally did come through to her.
Last weekend, he stayed in Lakewod over Shabbat at the house of an affluent and prominent member of the Lakewood community who happens to be pro-Sinai Susholz, Ms. Reich’s husband and adversary. He came to Lakewood specificaly to plead with leadership there to come to terms with Ms. Reich’s quest for custody rights.
As he well articulated on the Dr. Phil show, R. Boteah asserts that Orthodoxy does not condone forced marriages and it insists that children grow up with both their parents. After verifying that Ms. Reich was raising her children in conformity with general Jewish principles, he declared it against proper Orthodox practice to deny her custody rights over such trivial matters as wearing pants, not covering hair, etc…
And so on Saturday evening, he sat down with Mr. Susholz to try to convince him to agree to mediation of the custody battle. Unlike arbitration, mediators are not empowered to enforce any decision. It’s simply an affirmation by the parties to come together in good faith to try to resolve their differences.
But Mr. Susholz soundly repelled R. Boteah’s peace overtures. Mediation would merely have been a way for him to save face while accepting an arrangement that would more or less give Ms. Reich the partial custody she is presently trying to obtain through legal action.
Mr. Sucholz is adamant not to budge an inch. He even refuses to grant a religious divorce unless and until Ms. Reich completely renounces any intention to pursue custody rights. From the Facebook page established in his interest –though reportedly not run directly by him or his associates– it seems that his concern is mostly about the moral edification of the children. With a mom well-immersed in liberal secular culture, even high fashion, he fears that the children will not develop a healthy and coherent sense of proper and improper, right and wrong. He and his proxies insist that it’s not religion per se they’re concerned about, but the moral compromise evinced by a mom who brings home boyfriends late at night and struts around in high heels and mini-skirts.
However, in the aforementioned Facebook page, those who appear to be acting in his behalf have embarked on a campaign with a “Children need a stable home, not this!” theme, accompanied by a prurient picture of Ms. Reich. They, thus seem to be trying to defame her personally. Or perhaps it is a sordid and ignoble way of providing Kosher pornography to the masses, shrouded in the name of keeping the children away from the mom, all the while entertaining the masses with lecherous photos.
And where’s Mr. Susholz in this maelstrom? He seems aloof, content to allow his proxies to run the ad hominem attacks while pretending not to be cognizant of it, Aaron Teitelbaum style. If his children’s moral rectitude is of utmost priority to him, how does such a campaign play into it, we ask, when his children invariably discover it sooner or later.
In another shocking and disheartening defeat for Democrats in Brooklyn, it now seems all but certain that their Democratic nominee for State senator to replace Senator Kruger (who resigned due to corruption charges) has lost to David Storobin, a 33 year old upstart republican from Brighton Beach.
What an embarrassing defeat!
The race was fiercely contested despite it being over a “lame-duck” office, as NYT would have it, since regular elections would follow after a mere nine months. The presumption probably was that whoever wins this special election will coast into office as the incumbent in the upcoming election.
But how is this even a contest? New Yorkers, including the Haredi sector in Brooklyn traditionally vote Democratic due to the advantage in social welfare entitlements espoused by the Democratic platform. So the question everyone is asking is: how did a Russian-born 33 year old ingenue get to unseat a senior, hardened Democratic statesman?
In part the answer lies with the overall American disenchantment with the Democratic political leadership in Washington. For al the rhetoric, charisma and goodwill that President Obama brought to the table in 2008, he has little to show for in terms of concrete achievements. Benefits resulting from the Health Care Affordability Act of 2009 have yet to set in, if ever they will. The Economy is in the tank and will flatline there for the foreseeable future. And Obama’s lackluster support for Israel vs. Iran in the Nuclear Crisis isn’t earning him any accolades among the haredi population in Brooklyn.
For those who followed the Storobin-Fidler race closely, an explanation to Fidler’s enigmatic defeat may be sought in his support for gay rights. Activists in the Brooklyn Haredi community recently gathered about two dozen Rabbinic signatures denouncing Fidler for his support of a state senate bill that would grant full recognition of gay marriage.
However, those who have studied haredi politics more closely know that money is a far more decisive factor in haredi politics than state religious ideology. This is amply attested to in Israeli politics, where the the UTJ (United Torah Judaism) haredi party regularly lurches from the sociopolitical and economic right to the left and back, with an eye to supporting whichever coalition promises them the most in financial spoils. Likewise in America, Democratic support for the haredi population, both on an institutional and individual level are deeply acknowledged and appreciated, ever since the Johnson administration recognized the Hasidim as a minority for the purposes of affirmative action programs.
It thus seems that the haredi betrayal of their Democratic allies isn’t primarily driven by the latter’s support for gay rights, which has no bearing on the haredi values and culture at all. Rather, it is primarily a grassroots populist movement among SOME in the haredi sector who are tired of the hoary, predictable, bureaucratic and inept Democratic political machine in New York with a union-pandering, wasteful and bloated government that can’t even clear the snow when needed or run MTA buses on a proper schedule.
The new generation of Haredim (third and forth generation Holocause survivors) do not care about gay rights per se. As is traditional in contemporary Haredi culture, only a Rabbi has the clout to endorse or reject a political candidate, and a Rabbi will naturally only do so on religious grounds. Thus it is really the younger-generation askanim (activists) who are drafting the policy and pulling the strings. Once they settle on a candidate, they coach their Rabbis on how to pitch their choice in a religious framework, so as to assure the allegiance of the apolitical but deeply religious masses.
This is a testament to both how inept and untrustworthy the Democratic political establishment has become, and how audacious and versatile the haredi sector is in the political realm (though they exhibit a marked lack of such character in the religious sphere).
It is a wake-up call to the Democratic establishment: arise from your slumber and do something to lead the people vigorously in reform and attentiveness to moral duty, not follow procedures sheepishly while avoiding controversy.
In yet another 11th hour call for a court proceeding in the Perry Reich child custody battle case, the new judge introduced himself yesterday to the litigants and set down some ground rules for the parties.
Significantly, he made several rulings that seem to favor her ex-husband, Mr. Susholz. For one he barred the expert witness chosen by Ms. Reich on “conflict of interest” grounds after the Sucholz party pointed out that he is a long-time friend of Ms. Reich. The judge also denied a request made by Ms. Reich’s party that a court-appointed evaluator be brought in to launch a thorough re-evaluation of all the circumstances that may have a bearing on the case, including interviewing the children, who have never before been interviewed by the court, according to Ms. Reich.
The court did, however, allow Ms. Reich to hire an expert to analyze the evidence in the case and testify on her behalf.
In an anguished plea, Ms. Reich lamented having already shelled out $60,000 on the case. Most of the money was spent in the formative stages of the conflict when the beth din was still the arbitrator agreed upon by both parties. Beth din panelists and rabbinic lawyers (known as “toanim”) are notorious for charging outrageous price-gouging fees in the vicinity of $300-400/hour. The remainder was spent on her mediocre lawyer with whom she’s been scuffling periodically over compensation rates and access to documents relating to the case. Now she needs around $2,000 for an expert psychologist and the coffers are empty.
Since we last reported on the case, the Susholz party hasn’t been sitting by trifling idly. They have rolled up their sleeves and gotten busy, opting for a similar PR blitz approach to Ms. Reich, with the launching of the Facebook page “Saving Sinai’s Children from Instability etc…” which currently tallies 1,800 members compared to Ms. Reich’s 4,500. Yet, the Susholz party requested a closed trial at the hearing, ostensibly in the privacy interests of the children. It is not clear, if the judge has granted it.
The trial date in NJ Family court has been set for May 21st 2012.
Donations for the Reich party can be made on her ad-hoc website http://www.saveperryskids.com/
Mr. Mosheh Eliezer Zigelman the butler of Spinker Rebbe of Borough Park was ordered by a federal district court to surrender to prison authorities this coming Wendesday. He will be incarcerated for 18 months for contempt of court, having refused to heed a subpoena by a federal grand jury investigating financial improprieties committed by officials in charge of Spinker institutions and its financial donors.
The case has its origins in 2007 when investigators discovered a sophisticated tax fraud scheme in which many millions of dollars were donated to the Spinka institutions, thus qualifying them for federal tax exemptions, but were then mostly returned to the donors through an Israeli bank account. The Rebbe’s butler (known in Yiddish as gabbai) took the rap on those charges, thus absolving the real culprit, his master Rabbi Naftali Zvi Weiss, the Spinker Rebbe of Borough Park (headquartered on 16th Ave. and 60th st.) and he has served some hard time.
But the case evidently did not die with his conviction and sentence. For a year now, federal authorities have been pressing the butler to testify to the grand jury regarding other accomplices in the fraud scheme, such as the identity of the donors. (Apparently federal investigators were having a hard time pinning down the donors since the monies were not returned to their United States bank accounts.)
But the butler remained steadfast in his refusal to cooperate with investigators. He considers it contrary to Jewish law to inform against a fellow Jew and his lawyer thus tried to invoke the freedom-of-religion First Amendment constitutional right while appealing the district court’s “contempt of court” declaration to the Circuit Court of Appeals. The Circuit Court, however, rejected his appeal, thus paving the way for an 18 month prison sentence.
Haredi (Jewish Ultra-orthodox) opinion on this episode has been far from unanimous. For the most part, the haredi world regrets being caught, not the commission of tax fraud per se. Insofar as getting caught brings to light improprieties committed by observant Torah Jews it is said to cause a “hilul hashem” (desecration of god’s name) by setting a bad example to the world for an Ultra-orthodox Jew. Indeed at a symposium in 2009, the Rabbi resolved that this shall never happen again.
But what is the poor butler to do now that his overlords did screw up and he is asked to testify? As the bookkeeper he cannot claim eni yodea (I don’ know). Authorities know that he knows what was being done and who was doing it.
Some in the community hail his refusal to testify as a kiddush hashem (sanctification of god’s name), demonstrating his adherence to the Jewish law forbidding mesirah (snitching) in spite of the adverse consequence.
But others are not toeing the line. Since it’s is rather obvious that he would have betrayed others in the name of the secular law and the threat of prison if they were non-Jews or if the victims of the fraud were Jews, this sort of discriminatory behavior reflects poorly on Jewish morals, it is argued. By his refusal to testify, he appears to be saying: we Jews are above the secular law and its penal consequences. If a non-Jew commits fraud or if the victim is a Jew we can and ought to cooperate with authorities, but not if a Jew is the violator and a non-Jewish entity the victim. This message may incite anti-semitism, some caution.
Rabbi Shmully Boteach, an ex-chabad Rabbi and father of nine children, who has made a name for himself with such provocative books as “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Jesus”, is now hoping to run for congress in New Jersey on a Republican ticket.
His overall spiritual message to Americans is ecumenical, crossing religious and denominational lines. He advocates for less homosexuality and divorce and for a more family-centered, wholesome lifestyle. He even supports Blue Laws, which prohibit work on the Sabbath (which would apply to Sunday in Christian provinces).
Ironically, however, while Boteach has managed to capture the imagination of Americans at large, he has concurrently lost his native audience. The universal conservative message that he conveys has little appeal among the Ultra-Orthodox and they don’t see in it anything Jewish. There’s nothing Jewish about the dwelling on such topics as sex and Jesus.
Several weeks ago on the Dr. Phil show he promised Ms. Reich that he will personally intervene on her behalf to help her retain partial custody of her children. But Reich has not heard from him since and he has not returned her calls. Which begs the question: is he backpedaling, afraid of alienating his prospective Orthodox constituency? Or perhaps, he’s too busy with other pursuits? Either way, if he continues cajoling and promising but not delivering on his campaign trail, it will probably be short lived.
If he does succeed in his quest for high office, he will be he first ever Ultra-orthodox politician in congress, as his affiliation with chabad-Lubavitach would qualify him. Joseph Lieberman, the independent senator who also served as Gore’s running mate in 2000, decidedly does not qualify for the Ultra-orthodox designation. Lieberman, while not labeling himself as such, follows the style of interwar Orthodoxy, which allows its women not to cover their hair and permits lax kashrut observance. This is a rare breed in contemporary times, most such individuals having migrated to either more liberal or more observant circles after WWII).
Kiryas Joel Dissidents Appeal Adverse Federal District Court Ruling to Second Circuit
Kiryas Joel Dissidents, led by the Waldman’s are refusing to give up in their attempt to obtain justice against the oppressive village of Kiryas Joel, despite a string of unfavorable rulings in the state and federal court system. Their attorney, Michael Sussman –a highly accomplished and successful lawyer who has been working for the KJ dissidents for many decades now– filed an appeal with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States after a lower district court granted a motion by the defendant to dismiss the case due to a variety of loopholes; and it seems likely that the court will agree to hear the case.
The Essential gist of the original federal complaint is that the village of KJ is so intricately entangled with the dominant religion in the village –the Aaronite Satmar faction– as to constitute a violation of both the Establishment Clause in the constitution prohibiting state support of any particular religion, and the Equal Protection Clause (14th amendement) prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion. The plaintiffs are seeking to dissolve the village or to oust its executives, whoa re also serving on the board and operating in the interest of the dominant religious faction, Congregation Yetev Lev (CYL).
The case is extremely complex and Mr. Sussman, in the brief he filed on March 5, 2012, excoriates the judge for dismissing the suit improperly. He claims the judge misunderstood many of the original complaint elements, is misapplying the statutes and the judicial precedents and even got some of the facts wrong. Worst of all, he didn’t even give him a chance to plead the case, improperly granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case.
So let’s review this case chronologically and examined how things got to this point:
Background: After Joel Teitelbaum died in 1978, his successor R. Moshe installed his son Aaron as Rav of the new village of Kiryas Joel, but many in the village did not want him as Rav. Having pleaded with the Rebbe to no avail, they gradually developed their independent communal institutions in KJ such as schools, synagogues and wedding Rabbi officiants. In the meantime, the main congregation with the blessing of the grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum embarked on a campaign of terror to persecute and hopefully rout the dissidents from the village. The dissidents, however, had a mighty resolve and plenty of money to back them up. They hired lawyers who regularly sued the village every time an infraction of the law or impropriety was detected. The village authorities and residents came to hate them even more.
One of the key points of conflagration was the “Rebbetzin’s house” where Ala Faiga, he widow of R. Joel lived. Alta Faiga was firmly aligned with the dissidents and allowed them to use her house as a synagogue. The caveat is that her house, which was formerly the residence of R. Joel was annexed to the CYL central synagogue. This proximity of two bitter enemies made for a very explosive environment with the opposing parties scuffling periodically over access to facilities, noise, etc…
Finally in 2004, CYL decided to cut the utilities to the Rebbetzin’s house, as a form of harassment. But when the dissidents contact village authorities to request relief, they were ignored. In response, they sued in State supreme court (which is the lowest court in the New York State Unified Court System) seeking to force CYL to restore electricity connections.
In turn, CYL counter-sued that the deed for the Rebbetzin’s house was obtained fraudulently, that the dissident synagogue is convening in a residentially zoned home unlawfully, and that the dissidents are using the CYL parking lot without permission.
The Supreme court threw out the claim against the title but awarded $750,000 in damages for using the parking lot and ordered that the dissidents no longer use the synagogue until they can get it re-zoned by the village. On appeal, the parking lot damages award was rescinded but the need to seek zoning permission from the village reaffirmed.
But when the dissidents sought to submit an application for site plan approval, they discovered that the village did not have an existing zoning appeal board. The village only established a zoning appeal board after the dissidents had sued in state court once more and had gotten the court to direct the village to do so. The court, however, refused to issue a declaration that the dissidents were in compliance with village zoning rules based on the use of the site for religious worship before it changed title (from Alta Faiga to the dissidents), a request the plaintiffs had made in the second suit, “Kiryas Joel II”.
Yet, even with the zoning appeal board in place the village still dilly-dallied, and review or approval of the site for religious worship was not forthcoming. And this is where things started to escalate. The dissidents and their highly competent lawyer Mr. Sussman realized that the state is not an ideal venue in which to have their case heard. State court judges are elected, or –in the case of judges on the highest bench, the court of appeals– appointed by the governor. This naturally makes them beholden to the political process and answerable to the electorate. With politicians and justices reluctant to rule against a village which reliably delivers them valuable votes for office, the dissidents became frustrated with the state judicial process, and strategically shifted away from the state and into federal court to sue on constitutional grounds.
In January 2008, they filed suit in one of the federal district courts for the state of New York. The suit alleged the following violations:
1) Violation of equal protection clause.
a. Tax exemptions were granted to CYL synagogues and Rabbis but not to to Congregation Bene Yoel (CBY) of the dissidents, constituting discrimination on the basis of religion.
b. The village did not charge CYL for sanitation services but it did charge CBY.
c. CYL was allowed by the village do unlawfully blast music after hours (perhaps on sukkoth?) and on another occasion the mayor himself, Abraham Weider, accompanied a loudspeaker truck registered to CYL making public announcements against the village ordinance. But when the dissidents were caught doing something similar they were cited.
d. Dissidents were assaulted on the street by UTA (United Talmudical Academy; aka Satmar) students but the village public safety officers did not come to their rescue (allegedly on the basis of them holding a different “religion”).
e. leaflets aganist the dissidents were distributed on the streets and the village then purposefully did not clean up afterwards. When a dissident littered some more to force the vilage to clean up, he was cited for a violation.
f. The village refused to grant zoning permission for conducting public worship in the Rebbetzin’s house, while 40-50 shtieblekh belonging to the main congregation were operational throughout the village in residentially-zoned houses.
2) Violation of establishment clause.
The village has a law on the book called “community room law” (CRL) which requires multi-unit real estate developments to put aside space for a community room. If the developer cannot comply with this requirement, then they must pay a fine which the village allocates for the building of such community rooms in other sructures. In virtually every case, those “community rooms” function as synagogues. In the case of a development undertaken by a dissident member, the village initially claimed that the room did not meet specifications and thus required him to pay the fine. This fine would have ultimately been channeled into the synagogue construction fund which masquerades as the “community room” fund, thus constituting village promotion of CYL synagogues.
3) Violation of RELUIPA, a federal statute that requires governements to make a strenuous effort to allow the dedication of a public house of worship in an otherwise incompatible zoning area. According to the law, if denying the request for public worship zoning would pose a “substantial burden” to the worshipers, then the government must accomodate them. According to the complaint, even though there are other dissident synagogues in the village, the Rebbetzin’s house carries special religious significance since R. Joel used to pray there and it therefore meets the “substantial burden” threshold.
Justice Rakoff dismissed most of the charges made in the complaint; he never even allowed it to come to trial. This has infuriated the plaintiffs and Mr. Sussman minces no words in his disdain and ascription of incompetence to his honor. Rakoff’s argument for dismissal are as follows:
1) res judaica (a latin term which means “already judged”) prevents a case that is substantially the same as a previous case to be litigated again against the same party based on the same action, even if a new infraction is being alleged. Accordingly, Rakoff argues, the plaintiffs should have brought up the constitutional issues when they first filed charges in state court. They cannot decide later, after the state court is unsympathetic that there is an additional violation they’d like the court to consider. Sakoff thus dismissed all the alleged violations pertaining to the Rebbetzin House component of the suit.
rebuttal: the original suit brought in state court was against CYL, NOT the village. The federal, on the other hand, is being brought against the village. This is a dubious rebuttal, however, since the second supreme court suit, known as “Kiryas Joel II” did involve the village, wherein plaintiff asked the court to interpret the village ordinance regarding zoning differently from the way it was being interpreted and applied by the village (which the state court ultimately declined to do).
2) standing. Sakoff made a very bold statement in asserting that the dissident organization that is listed as a party to the plaintiff, Kiryas Joel Alliance (KJA), does not have “standing” to sue on behalf of its members. Since some of the constitutional violations pertaining to the equal protection clause were allegedly committed against individuals that were not listed as plaintiffs in the suit, the court refused to entertain those grievances.
Regarding the establishment clause, the court recognized that the Community Room Law may be unconstitutional and thus entitle the real estate developer who paid the relevant fees for violating the ordinance, redress. However, the developer must sue directly. Any other person who did not suffer any monetary damages resuting from the alleged support of an established religion by the village, does not have standing to sue. The plaintiffs could have revised their suit to list the appropriate real estate parties and the court would have heard the case, but since Sakoff insisted on throwing out every other part of the suit, the plaintiffs asked for the case to be closed so that they can pursue it in the federal system.
3) By far the most controversial of Sakoff’s pronouncements is that the whole equal protection clause does not apply here. Sakoff rules that “differences in the Hasidic community are largely centered on a political controversy over wh should be the leads of the Satmar Hasidim.”
In other words, when the dissidents insist that they want to pray in their own synagogues it isn’t that there is any dogmatic or religious divergence of opinion from the main congregation. It’s simply that they don’t like the leadership of the main congregation; they hate Aaron and his cronies.
While no previous court in the last three decades and dozens of lawsuits in KJ has seriously tinkered with this theory, it does seem quite plausbile, especially for Hasidic insiders who are well aware that 1) there are indeed no doctrinal disparities between the Bene Yoel and CYL and 2) the bene yoel are not blind followers of ANYONE in the name of faith. Thus, Sussman’s claim that the Bene Yoel will not pray in the main synagogue as a matter of faith –the belief that they must follow a holy and righteous leader but they must not follow an unworthy leader such as Aaron– isn’t quite accurate.
Enormous Conference on the Internet in the Works for Haredi Jewry
Word has recently gotten out that an unprecedented conference of Haredi Jews in America wil be called for May 20, 2012 in City Field Stadium Stadium in Queens, NY by the “Union of Congregations for the Purity of the Camp”. The chief backers of the conference are R. Matisyahu Solomon, supervisor of “Beth Midrash Gavoah” Yeshiva in Lakewood and representing the Lithuanian sector; and the Skullener Rebbe and Skverrer Rebbe representing some Hasidic constituencies.
Activists apparently feel confident that they can fill all the 42,000 seats of the stadium which will not be an easy feat.
Regarding Satmar’s partcipation in the event, while there is no definitive word at this formative stage, it is virtually certain that not BOTH Satmar factions will attend. If one faction is courted more intensely by the activists, the other will automatically feel slighted and decline to lend its seal of approval to the project.
The core issue at hand also differs slightly between the various constituencies in the Haredi demographic. While the Yiddish-speaking Hasidim are still largely fixated on the evil of sex and pornography, the English-speaking Lithuanian/Yeshivish sector sees a much greater threat looming over its youth: the proliferation of heretical blogs and ideas. And while lascivious matter can rather easily be winnowed out through prevailing filtering technology, the ill-defined phenomenon of subversive literature is more elusive.
It is not clear why the conference was scheduled for 28th of the lunar month of Iyyar, which is known in Israel as “Jerusalem day”, on which the nation celebrates the annexation of Jerusalem after the Six day war. Was it chosen because some Jews have off from work that day, or is it a deliberate attempt to upstage the secular-Zionist celebrations?
The likely upshot of the conference is a standard technology to be employed throughout the Haredi world to keep “malicious” content on the Internet at bay and a commitment by all to submit to the technology or else not use the Internet. A free technical hotline is also planned if anyone should hit any snag with the cumbersome filtering software.
HasidicNews.com seems not to be on the chopper’s block just yet, especially for the Hasidim who deem sexual and even secular pursuits as greater threats to their lifestyle’s viability than the critical thinking about themsevles.
For more information, see http://lakewoodlocal.com/2012/03/12/internet-asifa-called-for-may-20-in-citi-field/
In the Haredi world, helping others is not merely an altruistic act. There are innate rewards of recognition, prestige and even money inherent in nominally gratis intra-communal acts of kindness. This, remarkably, turns many Jewish ghetto benefit societies into ultra-competitive organizations wherein members within an organization compete against each other to be the first on call and to beat out members from other organizations, including official governmental authorities.
The phenomenon of Hatzalah members bickering amongst themselves and against the city E.M.S. over the privilege of handling and transporting an accident victim, for example, is well known. Many a member have retreated into petulant sulking for some time being spurned by the denial of a role in an important victim recovery or rescue operation.
Two such communal benefit societies, specializing in funeral and mourner services, have lately caught the masses’ attentions in their petty quarreling to outshine each other: Misaskim (those who engage/occupy themselves) and Hesed Shel Emes (true kindness).
Hesed shel emes is the older of the two, tracing its origin, it appears, to Israeli suicide bombings in the 80′s in which the haredim habitually appeared on the scene to collect every shred of the dead corpse to commit to burial in accordance with Jewish law. Its counterpart in America would perform a similar function in fatal car accidents.
But Hesed shel emes also lived up to its name, engaging in true, unrequited kindness by taking up the cause of deceased members in the community who did not have the money or did not prepare in advance by purchasing a burial plot and arranging for payment for their funeral services. This is in keeping with the heaps of praise lavished in Jewish literature on those who tend to the burial needs of a meth mitzvah (a deceased whose identity is unknown or has no relatives to care for them).
Misaskim, on the other hand, is a more modern organization, founded in the new millennium. Its mission is broader, its organizational structure more formal and its fundraising methods more shrewd. Misaskim has thus developed, in the span of a few years, a reputation as the venue to turn to for all auxiliary services related to a death, such as chairs, prayer books, religious articles such as Torah scrolls, and other facilities for the mourners and consolers during the shivah (seven-day mourning period). Misaskim even takes care to maintain lists and “advertise” deaths so that community members are prompted to fulfill the commandment of nihum avelim (consolation of mourners).
Best of all, Misaskim does not charge its beneficiaries for the services rendered. Instead it relies on a complex network of state and city funding, grants, donations, chinese auctions, melaveh malkah‘s (Saturday evening fundraising parties) etc… and –as opposed to hesed shel emes– has a professional, paid bureaucracy, complete with a website and public relations departments, and headed by its president Yanky Meyer.
But Mr. Meyer was not content in filling the existing void in services for the departed and their relatives. In order to justify his fundraising efforts he has sought to expand on the expense of his rival, the hesed shel emes society. And now he is drawing criticism from community members for his aggression, which seems to be driven by avarice and the craving for personal grandeur, rather than a sincere solicitude for the community’s genuine needs.
“self-made community activists, self-destruct”, as one critic on a Yiddish forum put it, alluding to Mr. Meyer’s lack of affiliation with any particular congregation or Hasidic sect.