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January 14, 2014 10:51 am

The Stark Truth: Our Business Dealings Matter

avatar by Ezra Friedlander

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Menachem Stark and his wife at the Bar Mitzvah of their son. Photo: Stark family.

Shiva (traditional week of mourning) has just ended for the Stark family and the media has moved on to new targets. We have not. The horrific abduction and murder of Menachem Stark continues to shock our entire community to its core, and rightfully so.

As most of you know, the New York Post headline and subsequent articles,created an uproar the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time. What is still most troubling to me is the defamation of an entire community. When the Post references an entire group of people as “Hassidic”, while reporting about an individual, it is sensationalist journalism at its worst.

As was discussed ad nauseum, aside from its despicable headline “who didn’t want him dead?,” the Post article was filled with stereotypes and inflammatory innuendo about the Chassidic community. As examples, “the millionaire Hassidic slumlord,” “he is a Hassidic Jew from Williamsburg and we think he is a scammer,” etc…

The use of the term “Hassidic Slumlord” is clearly inappropriate and intentionally provocative. Fair-minded observers recognize the ramifications of negatively stereotyping individuals and communities. The Post, to no one’s surprise, shrugged its shoulders and moved on to its next meal.

Let’s be honest. There is no justification for identifying the alleged misdeeds of one individual with an entire ethnic or social group. Portraying a landlord of Chasidic lifestyle as a “hasidic slumlord” is insensitive at best and disgusting at worst. In the aftermath of such a terrible tragedy, I believe it was unconscionable. Lost in the blaring headline was an innocent family and close knit community reeling from the shock of Mr. Stark’s untimely demise.

I am a big First Amendment supporter, and the media certainly has a role to play in reporting the news. It’s no great surprise that the Post seems far more interested in scoring cheap circulation points at the expense of a truly heinous crime than informing their readers with facts and information. To my personal dismay, the coverage also symbolized the negative perception of Chasidic Jews overall and how they are viewed in the secular media. Like all sects and nationalities, one person or a group of people should not represent the totality of that group. The word stereotype is mostly used in a negative connotation for exactly this reason.

As someone who is engaged in the profession of representing clients in the public relations arena, I am fully cognizant of the fact that perception is the first step towards reality. I’ve been trying to understand why it is that the Chasidic community seems to be held to a different standard.

Years ago, I was having a conversation with a non-Jewish friend of mine, a fellow who traces his heritage all the way back to the Mayflower. I asked him why Orthodox Jews are often perceived in a negative light.

His answer was simple. “Because you are different.”

I asked him to elaborate, and this is what he told me: “Anytime anyone separates themselves from the general population, be it by dress, tradition, or customs, they create a distinction that is inherently resented by others. That’s just the way it is.”

“ŽI didn’t really understand him then, but as time goes on I am beginning to realize how accurate his words are.

As I try to make sense of the media’s coverage of this evil murder, I see no justification for any newspaper to have recognized Mr. Stark by his Chassidic identity. He was a Brooklyn born businessman who happened to be of Chassidic persuasion. I understand that reporting that would have been boring. Sadly, the media has allowed their insensitivity and dare I say, bias, to fester over time, and may no longer even realize that identifying a subject matter by his or her religiosity is simply wrong and unprofessional.

It should be obvious by now to even the most callous and indifferent reporter that Orthodox Jews are deeply sensitive to allegations of institutional impropriety. Other minorities and groups rightfully and vociferously protest themselves against being tarred and stereotyped as well. I would offer that people and groups that have bared the brunt of racism and intolerance over decades are especially attuned and sensitive to being paint-brushed or labeled. I believe the New York Post’s front cover was greeted with outrage and condemnation by my community for this very reason. Clearly not understanding the origin and authenticity of that outrage, the Posts felt no need to apologize and that simply proves my point.

And so I ask myself how can we change the conversation and really get the media off our backs? I am more and more convinced that there are internal lessons to be learned from all of this. Perhaps our community needs to reassess how we are viewed by the secular world and how we must present ourselves outwardly to change that perception.

Entering the Business World:

“ŽWe must educate our young and talented entrepreneurs who are entering the business world to their responsibilities. These young people are bright and capable, but most have had no formal training in the challenges of entering the workplace. Many come straight out of insular backgrounds and enter the business world without the benefit of a minimal education in secular and accepted business practices. As we’ve seen time and again, when certain violations do occur, they often become the subject of intense media scrutiny that shocks and dismays us.

The fact is when identifiable members of our community are alleged as being involved in criminality, it makes all of us the subject of sensationalist reporting. It is as if the media is lecturing us: “Look, you dress and act a certain way, you are holding yourselves to a higher standard, yet you don’t seem to be living up to those same high standards.” Certainly, the vast majority of our community is proper and law abiding citizens. But let there be no doubt, the media enjoys honing in on the few bad stories.

That will never change. Yes, it’s unfortunate and unfair, but reality nonetheless. Maybe we might consider expending more energy preventing misdeeds with proper education and preparation so we need not have to expend as much defending them.

That’s why I propose that any member of our community who intends to enter the business world be offered the opportunity to get formally trained in a fully accredited program in their chosen profession, be it real estate, finance, retail, or others. Very often, our children go straight from Yeshiva into the ‘real world’ without any practical training or knowledge of applicable laws and rules of business. I don’t pretend that this will solve all of our problems or end the double standard towards us in the media, but I believe knowing and understanding individual responsibility is a good first step towards a better future for our people.

I cannot stress enough how much negative damage is generated for all of us through media coverage like this truly tragic story. It reverberates way beyond the scope of the individuals in this story. It is not just about Menachem Stark and his alleged business dealings. It impacts every single Orthodox Jew who engages in any commercial activity with members of the non-Orthodox world.

Yes, we need to confront and condemn newspapers like the New York Post who have defamed all of us and have behaved in a heartless manner towards a grieving family. But we are also required to address the rising stories of white collar crime and shady business dealings when we see them, even if they are few and far between.

As someone who is engaged in public relations in both the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish world, I can only recommend that we address this issue both on an educational level and on a societal level. It is incumbent on us to stop glorifying those individuals whose wealth is amassed through unscrupulous sources and not in accordance with our code of ethics.

Let me be very clear: I am not writing these words to address Menachem Stark. I am shaken by his murder and truly heartbroken for his family, not only for the obvious loss of a cherished husband and father but also for the fact that his reputation and that of our community were also assassinated along with him. I am writing this here and now because the conversation is unavoidable. We need to place value on the public’s perception of our community. This requires introspection.

It is my fervent hope that my words will be understood in their proper context. Believe me when I say that, as a proud Orthodox Jew, I am deeply hurt on a personal level when members of my community are unjustly and unnecessarily maligned. It need not be.

If my words will change even my own personal behavior then it would have been worthwhile to state my position publicly on this matter.

Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public consulting group based in New York City and Washington DC.

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  • Robert Rubin

    The article makes some good points. One though I am struggling with is the statement that coming out of Yeshiva for young men leaves them uneducated in business practices. I did not graduate from a Yeshiva but I have to believe Torah teaches ethics and morality whether it be business in real estate or whatever. Ethics should not have to be seperately taught when Torah teaches us these traits. What do you think?

  • lue

    I think that you are 100 percent right with you point that we are entering the “real world” with out knowing the Real World.

    I would recommend, as i see that you are a ASKAN pls try to arrange such education to our communities it will be a very big help, it will be a very big mitzva LHAMIDOI AL RAGLOVE and i think that all followers should try to help to create such an org in the memory of Menacem stark as we all know he was willing and helping other people in all areas

    P.S. there is a lot of Federal and states Grants for such programs

  • Alter

    “Anytime anyone separates themselves from the general population…they create a distinction that is inherently resented by others.”

    But, holy means to set himself apart. There Rambam writes in his book of knowledge, perek 6 of self improvement, that:
    “A person who lives in a place where the norms of conduct are wrong and people do not follow the right path should move to a place where people are just and follow good ways.
    If all the places, which he is familiar with, and of which he hears from, follow inappropriate ways, as in our times, or if he is unable to move to a place where the patterns of behavior are better for health reasons, he should stay in self imposed seclusion as [Eichah 3:28] states: “Let him sit alone and in silence.”
    If they are wrongdoers and wicked so that they do not allow him to stay there unless he doesn’t set himself apart to follow their wrong conduct, he should go out to caves and into the wilderness, instead of following the ways of wrongdoers as it is stated: “Who will give me a lodging place for wanderers, in the wilderness”

  • Dov

    Its quite clear that the Post received the news from another Hasidic member. Its quite clear that the enemy is from within. Instead of teaching business manners, it would be better to teach not too talk too much or at all with those that hate us.

    • Boro Park

      C’mon. No way! The tenants who spoke negatively were NOT from our community. Another fantasy.

  • Brian

    “There is no justification for identifying the alleged misdeeds of one individual with an entire ethnic or social group. ”

    I disagree. We have been taught, coaxed, coached, even guilted into thinking about ALL Muslims, ALL Arabs, ALL Palestinians as evil and subhuman due to the actions of a relatively small handful. So clearly, it is not only okay to identify the “alleged misdeeds of one individual with an entire ethnic or social group”, it is our duty. Just ask anyone living in Israel. 65+ years of being taught that it is okay to negatively stereotype 1 billion people for the actions of several hundred or several thousand and the lesson has been irrevocably learned.

    • Boro Park

      Not sure why youve gone off on a tangent, and who youre blaming and why. Theres negative stereotyping of all kinds in all areas of the Middle East. Among different Arab countries, and among different religious groups within Israel, who hate one another almost as much as Israelis and Arabs do.

      During wars, to protect ones land/country, you cant exactly single out the 100 or 1000 bad guys.

      Then, worse yet, there are the terrorists who go the extreme of hurting innocent people outside of the region, just to publicize their cause and frighten.

  • Boro Park

    Perhaps the critically important issues brought up by Mr. Friedland should not have been connected to Mr Stark, a”h, now or ever. Im not sure of the relevance. Even if Stark had had the best reputation in the world, as the best landlord and most honest and scrupulous buisnessman in the world, there are others in our community who feel they owe nothing to anybody outside the community. There are existing problematic and potentially explosive issues in our community that have to be closely examined and analyzed. Hamaivin Yavin. Im Lo Achshav Aimasai? Lets not be in denial or look for reasons to attack the messenger. By not being cautious of how we conduct ourselves in business, with government programs, and in general towards the outside world, we are only hurting ourselves our children and on, seriously,for Doros!

    The rationalizing, that many in our community do, that we are hated ANYHOW!!!!!!, is idiotic and will only hurt us!

    • Elliot J. Stamler

      Yes you certainly are hated or at least intensely disliked by the 88% of American Jewry who is non-orthodox. (Perhaps by some modern orthodox too.) And for good reason. I have never hesitated in saying that as a community you are a blight upon Jewry and an utter cancer within the State of Israel. Stark is only the latest. There has been a long, long line of Hasidic criminals and American Jewry has witnessed case after case of them being dragged away by police, with their long beards and their pais, in handcuffs. One has only to remember the one selling kidneys for upwards of $20,000 to desperately ill people; the one running a massive charity fraud with a boiler room in Brooklyn pretending to be a Hatzaleh and other organizations; the bunch of “rebbes” from Lakewood and their crimes. The only part of your community for which I have even a smidgen of respect are the Lubavichers who do some good work; the rest of you are the mamzerim of Jewry and frankly the Satmars are the worst of the worst.

  • geula

    zra friedlander is a minute a way from loosing his popularity in our community. This article is rubbish! There is no doubt that he is peruaded by many of the untruths stated by the post about stark cus he doesn’t argue any of it. As if to say: the fact that menachem stark was a slumlord is really true….. But don’t label him. And don’t label and stereotype an entire group for that. There is nowhere in this article that praises stark. His chessed and the person he was. I felt like I was reading an al sharpton article. “Just because were black we have to be wronged”? Mr. Friedlander, noone really cares about the stereotype. Doing that is silly and is very transparent. We care about the misrepresentations of a person. You care about the misrepresentation about a community cus then it means you too. Honestly, I never quite understood who you are. I am wondering what higher education you received? In addition, not every rabbi’s son is going to cut his beard like you did. And start playing the part with the outer. What are you talking about when you refer to studying the practice of real estate???? Many learned scholars would have loved to amass what this guy did in his short life. This was a business recovering from the economic meltdown. Your whole article doesn’t reflect the frum mind. Your hashkafos are crippled. And clearly you too as the post have come to conclusions that are wrong. Albeit a first ammendment supporter; completely hypocritical to our consitution. I see no message in this article other than; look at me, I did it. And who are you really?