The horrific murder last month of developer Menachem Stark and uproar over the callous media coverage of his life and death has put New York’s chasidic communities again at the center of attention. Whatever the facts established around Mr. Stark’s violent end and business dealings, and apart from the variety of opinions around headlines and protests – and there are sure to be more headlines, there is now a moment to plainly discuss our Hasidic neighbors and their increasingly prominent place in our shared civic life.
As a secular Jew with a proud family history of political and union activism dating back to the lower east side, the Spanish Civil War, the skies of Europe in WWII, schisms in the US Communist Party, and the protests of the 60’s and 70’s and beyond, I’m an unusual emissary for parts of this devoutly religious community. But I am sincerely committed to Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel and Borough Park, completely at ease in the homes and synagogues of the many friends and colleagues I’ve made since first working in these vibrant communities over ten years ago as Senator Charles Schumer’s liaison.
As with any genuine relationship, it depends on seeing people as they see themselves, not as characters in a script, and not just as you’d like them to be.
Coming up in Brooklyn politics, I often heard chasidic communities referred to as “the hats,” as if a single bloc with uniform interests and history. Perhaps there was a time when that was true, much as Irish voters, historic African-American communities, Italian neighborhoods, “lawyers and doctors in Brooklyn Heights,” and Hispanic enclaves (then almost entirely Puerto Rican) were once more easily understood by outsiders. When chasidic communities were smaller and more integrated amongst themselves, “the hats” was perhaps an appropriate term. But now, with the communities so much larger and with rampant diversity, it’s language out of style.
The diversity is genuine and important, distinctions with big differences. But in the glare directed on the community as a result of the Stark murder, I believe it’s important to highlight what I’ve come to understand as three foundational realities. In recent meetings Satmar leaders have had with state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries Mayor Bill de Blasio and others these points were stressed.
Geographic Proximity: Everyone is a neighbor in New York City. Of course there are cultural and economic borders – some severe, but for the most part they are porous, and it can be difficult to tell who comes from where and with how much. Chasidim are easy to spot on the subway, and take the subways they do. Borough Park, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst bleed into one another. Williamsburg is expanding. Far Rockaway is growing. Crown Heights is an exciting mix of traditional and hip. These neighborhoods are all right here, like any other, and we’re pleasantly tripping over each other and ourselves.
Complete Cultural Separation: With subways as common ground, and New Yorkers being a sophisticated bunch, there is recognition among many that Hasidim are different. Most understand that they are apart, and that families have several children. But it’s become clear to me over my 13 years straddling the space between here and there that the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers – even reliable, informed voters – don’t understand the numbers and completeness of separation. There is nothing quaint about it; no Amish crafts or Mennonite pies. This is a community that doubles its already large population every ten years in the heart of the media and financial capital of the country. We are home to a community that orders itself around religious observance inexorably intertwined with cultural observance. The term “ultra-orthodox” is a misnomer, it shouldn’t exist. All Torah Jewry is Orthodox, past there on the spectrum of observance is a matter of culture.
Separate understanding of family and separate understanding of appropriateness; Separate lifecycle schedules and separate ideas of communalism. A completely separate lens through which the secular world is seen. Popular culture, marketing, and consumerism don’t exist as some reading this column would understand them. Many of the social and legal issues and agendas that drive politics and news simply aren’t present. None of which is to be construed as negative; quite the opposite. There is a warmth and expectation of consistency and timelessness that permeates these communities.
Rigorous Civic Participation: If proximity and separation are precariously stacked stones in a wall, civic participation would be the cement keeping them together and strong. Chasidic communities are energetically engaged in politics and policy at every level of government, and have scores of charitable institutions providing a wide range of services. These communities, with different priorities and preferred candidates in different factions and sects, can vote as a bloc and are becoming savvier in media and organizing. Motivating communication amongst community members is immediate, and tracking whether people have voted remains low-tech and extremely effective. Some sects are aggressively seeking unexpected political alliances. Policy and advocacy work is advanced through national organizations, statewide efforts, and through local sect and faction based relationships.
Chasidic communities make use of public benefit programs, as the majority of families are very large with very real needs. Social services internal to the community are from cradle to grave, and educational programs drive much of their public affairs work. Navigators are steadily enrolling families from throughout Brooklyn in health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act. Chasidic communities have an expansive view of social justice and believe strongly in interfaith multi-ethnic coalition building. Emergency response teams from Williamsburg were among the first on hand in Seagate following Hurricane Sandy, couples having difficulty conceiving are provided typically costly medical assistance free of charge, and both children with special needs and elderly with failing capacity are regularly folded into dozens of families to assist primary caregivers.
All murders are equally awful. The violent end of Menachem Stark and turmoil around his community’s reaction to the death itself and the coverage of it needs to be better presented and contextualized. It is simply unfair and inaccurate to cover this tragedy as we would others elsewhere.
Michael Tobman is a Brooklyn-based political and communications consultant.