Stop Picking on the Chassidim
The Orthodox Jewish community of New York is under attack. In just a few days, a 63-year-old Chassidic grandfather was beaten with a brick, another was made to strip off his yarmulke at gunpoint, a gang attacked a truck, and more. Then a political campaign video from Rockland County shocked the nation when it depicted Chassidic Jews as a threat to their fellow Americans. Those behind the video refused to apologize, and, as The New York Post discovered, had plotted their modern-age blood libel months in advance.
These unmistakably antisemitic attacks are not sui generis in nature. On the contrary, the NYPD found a 101 percent increase in antisemitic hate crimes compared to the same period last year. With their distinctive black and white uniforms and visible religious head coverings, the Orthodox make an easy target for physical violence and societal prejudice.
As Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, social media editor at Chabad.org, puts it, Hasidim “are described as all things except for the one thing we are the most: human beings trying to make it in this town like everyone else.”
The fact is that the Orthodox are growing extremely fast. With 70% of Jewish-Americans assimilating out of religious existence, these “black hat” communities (I refuse to call them “ultra-Orthodox”) are estimated to constitute 25% of Jewry in the entire nation by the year 2050. This engenders myopic criticism against a minority community that will drastically change the social and political demographic of neighborhoods in the years to come. As Dr. Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis, puts it, “There is a great deal of anxiety around the coming of the Orthodox.”
An example of the way this community has recently been picked on is the public reaction to the measles crisis that recently swept New York. With a health ban that was placed only on yeshiva schools, many began to blame the Orthodox for not vaccinating their children. Never mind the fact that most of the schools with unvaccinated students weren’t even Jewish, or arguably that the common denominator between those who refuse vaccinations isn’t religion but being white, rich, and well-educated.
Regardless, by painting the vaccination crisis in New York as an Orthodox Jewish issue, the national conversation is skewed away from the reality that nine percent of Americans (30 million people!) are reportedly anti-vaxxers. Furthermore, it is an Orthodox nurse, Blima Marcus, who is leading the way in teaching healthcare clinicians how to effectively debunk vaccination myths for the American public.
The problem is that this bias leads directly to the short-sighted and dangerous “us vs. them” mentality that pits public opinion against minority groups. In her New York Times article “Is it Safe to be a Jew in New York?” Ginia Bellafante points out that the societal intransigence to take action against the blaze of anti-Orthodox bigotry stems from stories like these that carelessly stoke the “existing impressions of backwardness.”
I believe the flames of insidious bigotry must be quenched with the soothing waters of public education.
Mayor Bill de Blasio recently appointed Deborah Lauter, previously of the Anti-Defamation League, to run the new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. They should follow the advice of Elan Carr, US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, who recently remarked that fighting antisemitism must include “philosemitic education” about positive Jewish contributions to society.
Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman, arguably the most politically active Hasidic Jew in New York City, laments the ignorance surrounding the contributions his community offers the general public. “I think most New Yorkers would be surprised to discover that our non-profit, United Jewish Organizations (UJO) of Williamsburg, provides social services to anyone, regardless of religion, race, or creed.”
Although most of Niederman’s clientele are Hasidim, he advocates for fellow New Yorkers of all backgrounds who are referred to UJO. “We help anyone who walks in the door,” Niederman says, “it could be food stamps, housing assistance or whatever else they need.”
This public service ethos is derived from Jewish spiritual theology, which places a moral mandate on its followers to engage in “Chessed,” colloquially translated as “acts of loving kindness.” As Professor Jack Werthheimer writes in his article “What You Don’t Know About the Ultra-Orthodox,” the Orthodox have made “Chessed” into an “art form” by creating hundreds of aid programs, known as “Gemachs” — a Hebrew acronym for “Gemilut Chasadim,” literally, “the giving of loving-kindness.”
This originates from Yeshiva education, which places immense focus on the necessity for education to lead to social activism. The Baal Shem Tova, founder of the Chassidic movement, is famous for teaching that the pedagogy of Torah study must bring about what rock-star Perry Farrel recently called, “a change of consciousness and a transformation in daily living.” As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
These cultural contributions from the most visible Jews in our midst should be cherished as a national resource, for they only add to the global marketplace of ideas.Taking this one step further, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, author of “Wisdom to Heal The Earth,” argues that the fight against antisemitism must include Orthodox communities themselves sharing their cultural wisdom with their neighbors. In this way, society will become one which “educates and nurtures respect for all human beings”. His new book is a collection of Kabbalistic meditations from his “Rebbe” (Chassidic Master), Menachem Mendel Schneerson which equip the reader with a day-to-day spiritually holistic framework in which to live life.
When we judge those who wear black and white through a black and white lens, we obscure the color of healthy multiculturalism. Perhaps if we open up to the people and books of the “People of the Book,” we’ll stop judging the Orthodox communities by their proverbial covers.
Rabbi Levi Welton is a writer and educator living in New York City and a member of the Rabbinical Council of America. For more information, please visit www.RABBIWELTON.com.