Parts of New Jersey, New York, a Pressure Cooker as Hasidic Jews Take Over
Though living among such beings is extremely undesirable for us, and their dishonorable methods are disgusting and unacceptable, we can still learn from their determination to remain separate.
IT IS, BY CHOICE, an intensely isolated and insular group, in which a brood of 10 children in one Hasidic Jewish family doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
The big family units help explain why some communities they inhabit become among the poorest in the country, according to federal statistics on rates of welfare assistance, subsidized housing, food stamps and Medicaid.
Indeed, the U.S. town with the highest rate of people on food stamps is the all-Hasidic New York village of New Square, north of New York City, where 77 percent of residents rely on the program to eat, according to a new report.
Yet for all that need, the group is alternately courted, feared and vilified by politicians and businesses for its power to deliver huge, uncontested blocs of election-altering votes, donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to causes of its choosing, spark seismic shifts in real estate markets, public school budgets and city planning, and even hold hostage the country’s second-largest state budget.
This particularly strict group of Orthodox Jews, entrenched and concentrated primarily in a few communities in New York and New Jersey, has generated more indifference than curiosity — until now.
That is because Hasidic communities have been outgrowing their enclaves and pushing to establish outposts in new towns, leading to pitched battles all over the New York region.
A Familiar Pattern
Critics of the ultra-Orthodox groups say development in many towns has followed a familiar pattern: The group moves into a community, then begins to overwhelm local government and social services with explosive population growth. That’s accompanied by rapid construction of low-cost, densely packed housing units — typically townhouses — though even these, eventually, can’t contain the growth. Hasidic leaders or developers with ties to them then buy up nearby homes, gain control of the local school board, ultimately gut public school budgets and divert funds to private Jewish schools.
The pattern has played out in places including Bloomingburg, a once-rural upstate New York town, and Toms River, N.J., to name but a few examples.
All this, while Hasidic families with very modest incomes — at least on paper — collect millions in federal benefits.
“They know how to game the system,” said Samuel C. Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College of the City University of New York. “They know the ins and outs, or they get professionals and find out how to apply for things like Section 8″ housing subsidies. “Their leadership is intertwined with the political system in order to get favorable entry.”
“It’s usually done legally,” said Heilman, author of the book Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America, in reference to how Hasidic Jews so expertly navigate the system.
The residents of Monroe, N.Y., another town north of Manhattan where the suburbs meet rural upstate, talk about such things by just an innocuous pair of initials: “K.J.”
That’s the acronym for Kiryas Joel, a village within Monroe that is home to one of the most concentrated communities of the Hasidic sect called Satmar. The nearly all-Hasidic village population grew so much over the last few years — by about 6 percent each year, with the community’s average age at about 13 — it sought to annex hundreds of acres outside its borders to build hundreds of new units to place its residents. A decades-long battle between Monroe and K.J. ended in a referendum vote in November allowing the Hasidic village to secede, with a settlement giving it more than 200 annexed acres.
“We moved here 19 years ago for more space, a perceived quality of life,” said John Allegro, a Monroe resident. “It became an untenable situation.”
As for the Hasidim, “they have a desire and need to stay together, the women traditionally don’t drive, the men have to pray together in groups of 10,” said Allegro, who was part of a group of residents who brokered an agreement with K.J. officials over annexed lands. “The fact is, this packet of high-density housing in the middle of a rural and suburban community, it doesn’t fit, it’s a different aspiration from the way that people outside their community want to live.”
Monroe residents saw bloc votes from Kiryas Joel and Hasidic Jews in annexed lands in town help deliver victories to candidates who represented the religious community’s interests, which were diametrically opposed to their own.
“They’ll do what rabbis tell them to do,” Heilman said. “They will because they’ll get assistance.”
At a hearing on secession last fall in a packed auditorium in Monroe, Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus described the power struggle with Hasidic residents as “a political Chernobyl that’s spilling over into other towns.”
Recently, under pressure from his Hasidic constituents, a single state senator, Simcha Felder, held up passage of New York’s $168 billion budget until he was promised the state wouldn’t interfere with the educational approach of yeshivas — despite laws requiring all students to receive an education equivalent to that of public schools. …
Claims of Prejudice
Hasidic Jews and their supporters balk at any notions of a backlash, and accuse critics of anti-Semitic views.
“These are none other than racist low-life bastards,” is how Isaac Abraham, a leader in the Satmar sect in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, bluntly described the community’s critics. “I have no other words for them.”
Abraham argues that whatever the government allows in benefits, Hasidic families are “doing it legitimately.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Abraham, a son of Holocaust survivors who was born in Austria and moved to Williamsburg when he was 2. “We [hear the] claim that illegal immigrants work and they pay taxes. But they’re still costing the government money and they’re illegal. Here we have [Hasidic Jews] who are legal, pay taxes, were born here, so what’s the problem? So you’re helping him live here so he can pay your taxes.”
Several Hasidic rabbis contacted by Fox News declined comment or did not return phone calls and emails.
Joseph Waldman, a Kiryas Joel community leader who heads a local welfare organization, echoed Abraham’s description of the pushback by non-Hasidim as bigotry.
In a 2016 interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Waldman drew parallels between the backlash against Hasidic Jews and the tensions in biblical Egypt over the growth of the Israelites.
“That’s the reason they were trying to make the trouble for the Jews in Egypt: The first thing they were afraid [of] was the Jewish families growing so rapidly,” Waldman told JTA. “Here, they are fearful that they’re going to be overwhelmed either by the growth of the environment or by political clout through the bloc votes.”
“They want to stop the community from growing,” he said. “That’s the reason for all the problems.”
Others say that Hasidic Jews are simply tapping into a system, flaws and all, that has been used to good effect by other special-interest groups.
“Every group looks for political clout,” Heilman said. “Lobbying is as American as apple pie. It’s inherently corrupt, it’s for special interest, not for the good of the larger society.”
The Larger Picture
Critics say it’s a matter of looking at the bigger picture — that the efforts by Hasidic leaders on behalf of their communities too often come at the expense of other residents who live in the same area.
Brooklyn Legal Services has complained that in this borough, Hasidic residents inundate government agencies with applications for such things as Section 8 housing the minute they become available, preventing other needy families from having access to such subsidized rentals, critics say.
“They’re masters of the application process,” said Martin S. Needelman, the executive director of Brooklyn Legal Services. “The part that is amazing is the amount of preparation [that goes into] applications. They clear people’s credit” and make sure to address anything that could raise a red flag.
Critics also accuse Hasidim of masking their income. Needelman said that much of the community operates in a cash economy, enabling some people to claim that their income is much less than it actually is. At the same time, he notes that a staggering number live at the poverty level, despite public assistance benefits, because of their large households.
“Your salary might be $40,000 or $45,000 a year, but if you have 12 children, that makes them very poor,” Needelman said.
Last year alone, clashes erupted in New York towns such as Monroe, East Ramapo and Bloomingburg, and in New Jersey towns including Mahwah, Jackson, Upper Saddle River and Montvale. Reasons for the friction vary: There is, for instance, the growing political power that Hasidim have gained at what others say is at the expense of the larger community.
There’s also the sudden appearance of eruvs — a visible religious boundary typically fashioned out of wire affixed to utility poles — Hasidim set up in towns other than their own. Hasidic Jews rely on eruvs to know where activities — such as pushing a baby stroller or carrying canes and walkers — may be carried out on the Sabbath, when they are not allowed to drive.
“An eruv was erected on our utility poles clandestinely in the middle of the night and without the towns’ permission in order to extend the size of their existing religious enclosure,” said Erik Friis, a businessman who lives in Upper Saddle River, N.J., where council members recently settled with an Orthodox group that filed suit when the town demanded the removal of the religious perimeter.
Beware ‘the Next East Ramapo’
Residents of many towns where Hasids have moved in say the group tends to take control of local politics and undermine the quality of life for those outside its religious enclave.
The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in November against the East Ramapo, N.Y., school district and the State Department of Education alleging that the election system — controlled by Hasidic Jews — denies “minority citizens an equal opportunity to have a voice in the future of their community’s public schools.”
The district, once a high-performing one, has suffered, many residents say, since Hasidic Jews became a majority of the nine-member school board in 2005, cutting funds for public schools and diverting them to their private schools. The district cut 445 positions and reduced full-day kindergarten as well as sports and arts programs. The cuts, the NYCLU asserts, have resulted in four out of five public school children in grades three through eight lacking proficiency in math and English.
Isaac Abraham, an advocate for the Hasidic community, said that others should accept that the group is growing and will look out for its own best interests.
He also takes exception at the idea at the notion that Hasids must explain why they live as they do.
“They’re not seeing what we’re seeing,” Abraham said. “If we got to their schools, from town to town, I’ll give you a low number, 10 percent are on drugs, 5 percent are in the system, already as criminals. Our education system doesn’t have a metal detector you have to go through, we have zero tolerance on drugs.”
With this in mind, he said, the less Hasidic kids know about the outside world, the better.
“If these little towns want to putz around with racism, no problem,” Abraham said. “We have and we shall overcome them. … They’ll be running for cover, because the lawsuits will be coming.”
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