Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Women BANNED from university by Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect 

In a decree seen by The Independent, the Hasidic Satmar sect – which has followers around the world – has declared that "No girls attending our school are allowed to study and get a degree. It is dangerous. Girls who will not abide will be forced to leave our school."

The decree, written in Yiddish, adds that "we will not give any jobs or teaching position in the school to girls who've been to college or have a degree."

According to the sect, female higher education is "against the Torah" and the sect "will be very strict about this."

The edict was seen exclusively by The Independent.

The Satmar follow an Ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Judaism, which features 19th Century dress, encourages extreme modesty, and requires women to cover their hair. It was founded in Transylvania in 1905, before moving its headquarters to New York after the Second World War.

The Satmar is the largest Hasidic sect in the world, and of the estimated 30,000 Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the UK it is the largest group.

The decree goes on to say that education for girls is "against the base upon which our Mosed was built" and "We have to keep our school safe and we can't allow any secular influences in our holy environment."

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, calls the sect "an isolationist enclave" and the decree "devastating".

She says, "When one does not have access to education, career opportunities are out of reach. It forces one to stay within the community as everyone's personal lives are tied up with their professional lives as well."


Monday, August 22, 2016

Learning and earning: Hasidic Brooklyn’s real estate machers 

On the day before Thanksgiving, Yoel Goldman phoned one of his go-to lenders with an urgent request.

The Brooklyn developer, who heads All Year Management, wanted to score a construction loan for his Albee Square project by Monday, which gave him just one business day to make it happen.

The lender, Gary Katz of Downtown Capital Partners, reminded him of Thanksgiving. But Goldman, who is from the Satmar sect of the Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, countered: "So you can't work Thanksgiving tomorrow, but you still have all of today, Friday and Sunday.'"

Katz tried an analogy. Wednesday, he told Goldman, is Erev Yontiff – "evening before the holy day" in Yiddish – and Friday is Chol HaMoed – a weekday between two holy days. For most Hasidic Jews, Chol HaMoed is an occasion for family and Talmud study, not dealmaking.

Goldman got that, and held off. Property records show he ultimately received a $25 million mortgage from Downtown Capital and RWN Real Estate Partners – on Christmas Eve.

The real estate investors who hail from Brooklyn's insular Hasidic communities are some of the industry's most active and powerful players. Over the past decade, they've spent more than $2.5 billion on acquisitions in five prime Brooklyn neighborhoods, according to an analysis of property records by The Real Deal. But unlike their Grill Room-dining, art-collecting Manhattan counterparts, they prefer to stay in the shadows, their connections to properties masked through a network of frontmen and a labyrinth of LLCs. Most have no websites, and some have never been photographed.

This immense cultural divide hasn't stopped them from transforming key neighborhoods into yuppie central, where rents and sales prices have skyrocketed. From the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2016, the average apartment sales price in Williamsburg doubled – from $668,956 to $1.3 million, according to real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel. The average sales price in Bedford-Stuyvesant jumped 67.8 percent, to $877,225, and average monthly rents in Bushwick jumped 70.6 percent, to $2,643. Borough-wide over the same period, the average sales price climbed by 38.8 percent, to $816,827, and average monthly rents rose 26.2 percent, to $3,137, the data show.

"The Hasidic community helped create the frenzy [in Brooklyn] we have today," said Pinnacle Realty's David Junik. "They let the market explode after that."

A clandestine empire
Any Brooklynite could tell you the Hasidim are prominent landlords in the borough. But the extent of their dominion long remained unclear.

TRD reviewed every building purchase in five of the borough's fastest-growing neighborhoods – Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Borough Park – between January 2006 and mid-June 2016. Over this period, 10 addresses – affiliated with one or more firms  – were each responsible for at least $100 million in purchases. The analysis included only addresses where the total expenditure involved five or more separate purchases, indicating repeat bets on neighborhoods. Firms like Forest City Ratner, Two Trees Management and Spitzer Enterprises, for example, also spent big on these neighborhoods, but made fewer deals.

The 10 addresses (see chart above) were predominantly clustered in South Williamsburg and Borough Park. In Williamsburg, they include 390 Berry Street, 320 Roebling Street, 266 Broadway, 183 Wilson Street, 543 Bedford Avenue, 199 Lee Avenue and 505 Flushing Avenue. Mapping them out north to south takes you on a walking tour through the heart of the neighborhood's Hasidic enclave.

The addresses point to a who's who of Brooklyn real estate: Simon Dushinsky and Isaac Rabinowitz's Rabsky Group; Joseph Brunner and Abe Mandel's Bruman Realty; Yoel Goldman's All Year Management; Joel Gluck's Spencer Equity; Joel Schwartz; the Hager family; and Joel Schreiber's Waterbridge Capital.

One address, 199 Lee Avenue, is affiliated with an incredible 1,400 LLCs. Over the 10-year period, the mailbox hub on Hasidic Wiliamsburg's main commercial corridor is linked to 423 purchases totaling $583.5 million, the data show.

Some of the biggest deals were Goldman's April 2016 purchase of part of the Rheingold Brewery site in Bushwick for $72.2 million, and Goldman and Toby Moskovits' 2012 purchase of the Williamsburg Generator site at 25 Kent Avenue for $31.8 million. (Goldman is no longer an investor in the 480,000-square-foot Generator office project.)

Dushinsky, Goldman, Brunner and Mandel are considered the heavyweights. Goldman, who is in his mid-30s, owns a portfolio of more than 140 rental buildings. The bulk of his holdings were included in his bond offering on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, and were valued at $850 million, according to a recent filing. He's also looking to build up to 900 rental apartments at a 1 million-square-foot complex at the former Rheingold Brewery site. Brunner and Mandel, also in their 30s, own more than 100 buildings. Dushinsky, who is in his 40s, has more than 600,000 square feet under development, including a 500-unit project at the Rheingold site. He's also pushing for a rezoning at the former Pfizer site at the edge of Bed-Stuy that would allow him to develop a 777-unit rental complex.

Most of these investors, believers in the concept of "ayin ha-ra" or evil eye, either didn't  respond to requests for comment for this story or declined to comment. Dozens of market sources who spoke to TRD for this story did so under condition of anonymity, for fear of antagonizing them.

"They believe their success happens because they're under the radar," a former employee at a top financial brokerage said. "Blessings come from God for staying private."


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Group seeks to transform former Otisville school into community center 

A group of residents is pressing forward in their attempt to turn the former Otisville elementary school into a community center.

A crowd gathered at the Mount Hope Senior Center last week for the first of two public hearings on the plan.

Frank Ketcham, a civil engineer whose family has lived in Mount Hope for 100 years, and Alison Miller, a BOCES English teacher who has lived there for 10 years, explained a strategy that would spare taxpayers the cost of demolition or rehab by relying on grants, donations, fundraising and “elbow grease.”

“We can make it a community resource and foster a sense of community that attracts people to Mount Hope,” said Miller.

She added later that Mount Hope has activities for seniors and youth, but little for the adults in between. The building would provide a place for adult education and other activities for that age group, as well as others.

Miller and Ketcham represented a small group, Friends of the Otisville School (FOTOS), that formed eight months ago and created a nonprofit a few weeks ago for the project.

They had researched the venture for almost three years as a committee formed at the Town Board’s request, following a referendum vote against selling the building to a Hasidic group in 2013.

Miller and Ketcham proposed a six-year trial plan that would begin with their group buying the building for one dollar from the town.

They would use the first year for planning, repairs and lining up resources. Then they would have five years to carry out their vision. If they failed, building ownership would revert to the town.

Town Supervisor Chad Volpe said demolishing the school would create five or six residential lots that would put the property back on tax rolls. But others questioned who would buy those new houses. Numerous other houses in town were for sale, Miller said.

“If they fail in six years, we’ve lost nothing,” said Ken Pinkela, who is on the FOTOS board. “If they succeed, that’s cool.”

“Warwick and Marlboro did it, and it worked,” said Jerry Cook, a member of FOTOS.

The plan was inspired by a community center that was created from an old building in Fonda, N.Y., said Ketcham. The FOTOS group has found other examples that succeeded, many supported by increasing numbers of available grants.

Meanwhile, KC Engineering had estimated that repairing the building would cost $4.1 million. Ketcham said they had overestimated costs of demolition at $1.6 million, when bids had come in for $218,000 and $276,000.

The Town Board will hold a second hearing on Sept. 6, and a referendum, not yet scheduled, will follow.



Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hasidic rabbi's pop art to go on display 

An exhibition of silk screens by Hasidic pop artist Rabbi Yitzchok Moully will be on display Sunday at the Chabad Jewish Center, located at 745 W. Main St.

One of the images in this exhibit, titled “Post Pop,” depicts a line of people – each dressed all in black except one, whose orange socks create a striking juxtaposition among the black silhouettes.

“You don’t need big dreads or tattoos to define individuality,” Rabbi Moully, also known as the “pop art rabbi,” stated in a press release. “In truth, Judaism really asks of us to find ourselves within the experience. It’s not about being a carbon copy. It’s asking us to find personal meaning within Judaism.”

The public is invited to a wine and cheese reception from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday to meet the artist and to view and purchase his work. At 11 a.m., Rabbi Moully will lead a dialogue about his work and how it relates to his spirituality and religion.

As a youth rabbi in New Jersey, he sees his work as a way to share his view of the Hasidic lifestyle and dispel images that it is rigid.

In his work, Shabbat candlesticks, which can be handed down generations in a family, share a canvas with a Zippo lighter. A Kiddush cup is next to a martini glass; a Torah next to an e-reader. Vibrant colors re-interpret ageless tradition.

“I want my work to be a conversation piece, the rabbi said in the release.” It’s not your grandparent’s Hasidic art. It’s a way for contemporary Jews and contemporary Americans to connect with each other.”



Friday, August 19, 2016

Terror fears as Rabbi stabbed in street by attacker shouting 'Allahu Akbar' 

Scene in Strasbourg after knife attack

The attack sparked fears France has fallen victim to another Islamic terrorist attack – although this was later ruled out.

It is believed the victim belonged to an orthodox Hasidic sect.

Initial reports suggest the knifeman was suffering from psychological problems.

The attack took place in the north of the city close to Brasserie des Vosges.

Strasbourg is in north-east France – close to the German border.

It is home to a large community of Jews, with around 15,000 living in or near the city, accounting for around 5% of the population.

The victim has been named locally as "Mr Levy".

He was wearing clothing signifying his religion when he was targeted, police have confirmed, and the perpetrator was arrested at the scene.

Mendel Samama, a rabbi in the area, said he had spoken to Mr Levy in hospital, and described his situation as "stable".

"Pray for his swift recovery," Mr Samama added.

Sources close to the investigation say terrorism has already been ruled out.

The attacker has been taken away for questioning by police.

France is currently on high alert after a string of terror-related incidents in Nice, Normandy and – most notoriously – in Paris.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Proposal to split Monroe into two towns is cautiously reviewed 

The proposal by Village of Kiryas Joel officials to split the Town of Monroe in half creating a new Town of North Monroe is being cautiously considered.

Monroe Town Supervisor Harley Doles said he would need assurances that KJ's "massive bloc vote would never influence Town of Monroe or Monroe-Woodbury school board elections in the future." He said he does not want to see Monroe "become the next East Ramapo." That is the school district in the Spring Valley area with neighboring Hasidic communities. The Hasidic children attend classes in their own schools, but the public school board is controlled by Hasidic members.

If sufficient petition signatures are secured by residents of Kiryas Joel, the Orange County Legislature would have to approve the new town and its chairman, Stephen Brescia said they would have to take a good, hard look at it.

"If there enough support in the entire town, I would vote affirmatively, but if there is a lot of opposition to it, I would vote negative," Brescia said.

County Executive Steven Neuhaus said he will have the county's Planning and Real Property offices conduct an analysis of the proposal compared to annexation of land. A number of property owners adjacent to Kiryas Joel have already petitions to annex their hundreds of acres into the village. That is in the courts right now.

Neuhaus expects the chance the county legislature would consider the North Monroe town proposal is "slim to none."


No bail for fugitive rabbi caught admitting to rape, plotting murder 

The Jerusalem Magistrate Court on Thursday ordered that a recently repatriated fugitive rabbi, who was caught on video apparently admitting to raping a woman and plotting murder, will remain in police custody until the legal proceedings against him are over.

After spending three years on the run, Rabbi Eliezer Berland was extradited from South Africa to Israel where he was arrested last month and charged with several counts of sexual assault.

At the Thursday hearing, the court said Berland posed a flight risk, and expressed concern the 79-year-old rabbi might attempt to evade or obstruct justice.

Berland's attorneys said they would appeal the order to the Jerusalem District Court.

Considered a cult-like leader to thousands of his followers from the Bratslav Hasidic sect, Berland fled Israel 2013 amid allegations that he molested two female followers, one of them a minor.

Days after his July 19 return and subsequent arrest in Israel, Channel 2 aired footage of Berland from 2012 in which he admitted to raping one of his female followers.

"She was raped from start to finish," Berland can be heard saying in the footage. "Afterwards she thought it was permissible… the first time I raped her."

According to the TV channel, the incriminating recordings were made four years ago by two of Berland's followers. They were told to burn all the tapes and other potentially incriminating material "in case the police do not cooperate."

But some of the tapes survived, and were handed over to police last month. In another tape, Berland can be heard instructing one of his followers to place a bomb under the bed of an unnamed person — to send them to heaven.

Earlier this week, Channel 2 aired more incriminating footage of the rabbi, in which he admits to ordering a string of arson attacks almost two decades ago. In the video believed to be recorded five years ago, Berland proudly says he sent his son to torch bus stops all over Israel to protest the "immodestly" dressed women featured in ads.

Berland has denied all of the allegations against him, and in interviews, his attorneys have claimed the voice on the recordings is not Berland's.

On July 29, the Jerusalem District Court indicted Berland on several counts of sexual assault, including of a teenage girl.

According to the indictment, Berland would often receive people in his homes in Jerusalem and in Beitar Illit and held private meetings intended for spiritual guidance, counseling or benedictions. The rabbi would sometimes take advantage of the meetings and of his position in the community to commit sexual acts with women, including minors.

Berland, founder of the Shuvu Bonim religious seminary in Israel, is also accused of instructing two of his disciples to hurt anyone who tried to expose his actions.

He was on the run from authorities from 2013 to 2016, eluding several Israeli attempts to extradite him. He moved between Zimbabwe, Switzerland, the Netherlands and South Africa, accompanied by a group of devout followers numbering around 40 families.

Last summer, prior to his move to South Africa, Berland fought his extradition from the Netherlands on the grounds that the alleged assaults happened in the West Bank and that Israel does not have jurisdiction there.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Hasidic men who beat up gay black victim in Brooklyn attack sentenced to 150 hours of community service 

Abraham Winkler (l.) and Pinchas Braver are still trying to find  a

A Brooklyn judge sentenced the two Hasidic men who admitted to participating in the vicious beating of a gay black man to 150 hours of community service on Tuesday.

Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun had delayed Pinchas Braver and Abraham Winkler's sentencing by seven days so they could find an appropriate placement for their community service but they still have not.

Braver's attorney Robert LaRusso admitted outside of Brooklyn Supreme Court on Tuesday that it is "not difficult" to find the right organization.

"It's not a problem — it's just being able to satisfy the prosecutor that the agency that we are asking the community service to be performed is satisfactory to them," said LaRusso.

Braver and Winkler had suggested participating at Chai Lifeline, an organization located in Borough Park that caters to Jewish children with life-threatening illnesses.

The organization is located outside of Williamsburg where the December 2013 incident occurred, but does not fit the criteria prosecutors suggested as "culturally diverse."

Braver and Winkler were the only two to admit guilt. Two others had their cases dropped and Mayer Herskovic starts trial next week.

Justice Chun informed the pair they have 30 days to find another organization or let the Department of Probation place them in a program.

They also received an extension to pay the $1,400 restitution.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Meet the Hasidic Jews Behind This Cute Bikini Brand 

Barry Glick is not your average bikini designer.

For starters, he has zero experience designing swimwear — or designing any wear for that matter. He’s not particularly involved in fashion either. Oh, he also is a Hasidic Jew living in Brooklyn.

None of this seemed to deter the 30-year-old father of five from starting a bikini company, Beach Gal, a year and a half ago.

"It isn’t a culture shock to me, I see it solely as a business opportunity and as a way to express my creativity," Glick says one recent summer afternoon. We’re sitting in his office in the Hasidic neighborhood of Boro Park. The newly renovated space is inside an inconspicuous concrete building, and is situated across the street from a funeral home wailing eulogies over an outdoor loudspeaker in Yiddish, and down the block from a plethora of kosher grocery stores and bakeries. It also doubles as home to the medical supply business of Saul Samet, Glick’s partner and investor, who is sitting with us as well.

"I’ve always been interested in building things from the ground up," Samet, a 34-year-old father of three who also lives in Boro Park, adds. "I’m constantly itching to start new projects and I believed in Beach Gal the second he first told me about it."

Glick is tall and thin, and sports all the accoutrements of being Hasidic, with a big black yarmulke, long, curly sidelocks, and a bushy beard. Samet’s look is less obvious; he’s shorter, built, and has a clean, short beard and trimmed sidelocks. The duo hardly seems fit to be in the swimsuit market. But the story of how Glick and Samet are successfully building a swimsuit company from scratch — battling through all the complications of creating a business, only to be hit with more obstacles on the product end, like dealing with fabrics, sourcing, branding, and distributing — is as much about the power of the internet as it is about two Jewish guys from Brooklyn who believe so much in an idea that they’re willing to tiptoe around some of the rules that define their strict, religious lifestyle in order to pursue it.

That idea is a bikini, with a whimsical fringe that snaps on and off. Each Beach Gal bikini comes with an accessory, including bands of seashells, beads, sequins, and ruffles that attach to the top and bottom. The suits come in five colors and sell for $150 on the site (but are half off on Amazon right now, just FYI). They look like the sort of thing that would be trendy in places with a strong beach culture, like in Miami, or pretty much anywhere in the Caribbean.

The idea for this bikini prototype — a "swap and swim" concept, as Samet refers to it — came to Glick about four years ago, back when he was running a store that sold custom bekishes — the long, black, silk coat typically worn by Hasidic men on Shabbat and Jewish holidays — out in Lakewood, New Jersey, where Glick is originally from. Glick had a long commute to and from Brooklyn, and every day on the highway he drove past a giant billboard for Pandora Jewelry, which made him ponder the bounds of customization. Glick says he’s always been ambitious, and watching ABC’s Shark Tank on Hulu inspired him to conjure up potential business ideas.

"I thought about how Pandora is such a great concept, because the customer feels engaged by choosing, and I tried to think where else I could apply that concept," Glick says. "I don’t know how in the world I came to it but one day I thought, ‘maybe there could be a bikini that would work with such a concept.’"

While there isn’t much opportunity in for Glick to experiment with fashion — Hasidic men, Glick and Samet included, traditionally wear a uniform of a white shirt and black pants — Glick has had somewhat of an exposure to fashion; his grandmother has owned a local fabric store for some 30 years, his mother works as a sales associate at a shop that sells modest clothing, and he has three sisters (two of whom, he says, are quite fashionable). And so when his job at the bekishe store fell through in the summer of 2012, he took a new job running the business of a local plumber and decided to pursue his swimwear idea as well. He perused Manhattan’s Garment District with his mother, in pursuit of high-quality swim material, and spent some time working on samples. He then attempted to shop around for investors — at synagogue, of all places.

"The Hasidic community is very tight-knit, and there’s a lot of business that gets done at synagogue because you meet each other three times a day," Glick explains.

Of course, the business proposals never went over too well: "It was pretty hard in the beginning. I would shop the idea around and say, ‘I wanted to speak to you about a business idea,’ and everyone would say, ‘Okay, what is it?’ and I would say ‘Bikinis!’ and they would go, ‘Huh?!’"

Glick and Samet lived on the same block in Boro Park for a few years but officially met upstate at a bungalow colony in the summer of 2014. They were chatting poolside when Glick told him about his swimwear idea. Samet, who enjoys all things active, from boxing to running, was just getting started in creating a women’s activewear label of his own. They agreed to team up, Glick working for Samet’s medical supply company, and Samet, in return, investing in Beach Gal.

As with so many situations in life, sometimes it’s not just about what you know as it is about who you know. In a sheer spout of luck, Samet’s brother had a connection to Cyn & Luca, a swimwear brand found in stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. They were introduced to Cynthia Riccardi, the brand’s designer who’d worked for companies like Adrienne Vittadini and Liz Claiborne. She helped Glick perfect his swimsuit silhouette and interchangeable accessories. After her company was bought out last year, she agreed to share her sources for high quality production in South America.

From there, Beach Gal was officially born. A first batch of merchandise was created, Glick and Samet built a website, and photographers and models were hired out in Miami for a look book. Product was also listed on Amazon and Zulily at a discounted price (roughly 50 percent off). So far, the feedback has been positive, and Beach Gal has sold nearly all of the 2,500 pieces from its first collection.

Of course, being Hasidic and in the swimwear business is difficult. Last year, when the duo attended Miami Swim Week with the Cyn & Luca team, Glick — with his beard and sidelocks — was quite the spectacle. During a photoshoot a few months ago, a makeup artist working with the Beach Gal team took a photo of Glick helping a model with a swimsuit and leaked it to Instagram without fully explaining the scenario, leaving her followers to assume the scenario was scandalous. Overall, Glick and Samet are apprehensive people will get the wrong idea about them — the reason they requested Racked not take any photos of them.

On the other hand, though, why not? From Christian retailers to clothing boasting sadness to questionable tea products, internet shopping is peak eccentric. Today, truly anything is possible when it comes to people starting e-commerce businesses, and so trendy bikinis designed by people who put their fear in a power higher than Anna Wintour can certainly fit right in.

Glick and Samet maintain there is technically nothing wrong with what they are doing. While Hasidic lifestyle ascribes to that of seclusion and modesty — and not working with, or around, scantily clad women — the guys say they treat their jobs with respect, and are careful to not cross any boundaries or break any rules, like touching other women, for example. Is it uncharacteristic of Hasidic men to be designing bikinis and working in swimwear? Sure. Can they carry on with their business without violating Jewish laws? Certainly.

"I don’t look at it as a bad thing. It’s a piece of clothing and just because no one in our community [wears] it doesn’t mean we can’t bring something fun and funky to it," Glick says.



Monday, August 15, 2016

No abuse found at Parc Ave. Hasidic school, investigation finds 

An investigation by Youth Protection Services into Vizhnitz Hasidic school on Parc Avenue and Beaubien has uncovered no evidence of abuse among the children.

A director on the religious school's board, Hershber Hirsch says the raids deepened mistrust between the students family's and their neighbours.

"Being accused in particular of lack of education... they were suspecting emotional, sexual, and physical abuse, it was very hurtful for the community."

An anonymous tip concerning child abuse in the school was followed up by a police raid on the school, with multiple officers and social workers locking down the classrooms, and conducting interviews amongst the children.

"They came in it seemed like a terror attack," said Hirsch. "The kids were terrified."

The raids did not evaluate the quality of education the children get at Vizhnitz as it isn't registered as a school within the Quebec education system.

Hirsch says though the children attend the school during the day, their parents are expected to register with a Montreal school board for home-schooling to keep their children up to date with the obligatory Quebec curriculum.


How Mentally Ill Hasidic Women Slip Though Cracks in the System 

How Mentally Ill Hasidic Women Slip Though Cracks in the System

By the time Rachel was hospitalized at New York City's Cornell Weill Psychiatry Specialty Center in July 2014, she was almost too exhausted to speak. For years, she had been traveling the same cloistered, unrelenting path on which many female members of her branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism find themselves: arranged marriage at 18, a domineering, sometimes abusive husband with whom she would have a bevy of kids. Duty, family, duty, duty. She was breaking slowly under that weight, and worst of all, she had no one to talk to. Everyone Rachel knew was in similar situations, and she had so little access to the outside world that she didn't know there was any other way to live.

"I was having a baby every year because I wasn't allowed to take birth control, and I wasn't allowed to talk about the fact that I couldn't take birth control," Rachel, who asked me not to use her real name or any identifying details, tells me over Skype.

Rachel, who is in her early 30s and looks like a dark-haired Lena Dunham, bats away her sidecurl-sporting son, who keeps climbing into the frame. She's speaking from her dimly lit apartment in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where she remains for the sake of her children. She has a thick accent, a wry sense of humor, and a hurried manner of speech. Which makes sense: She's terrified of being caught speaking to someone outside the highly religious community, let alone a reporter.

In 2011, she tells me, Rachel reached out to a mental health referral service called Eitzah for help. She says she was sent to a life coach who instructed her to pray, drink more water, and not go the police even after her husband's abuse extended to her kids.

"They would say, 'What do you wanna do, break up your family? You got kids, you got this, you got that,'" she remembers. "I was like, 'Well, what am I supposed to do? He's beating me and I'm smiling to the whole world because I can't talk to anyone.'"

Finally, it all came tumbling down for her and she checked herself into a hospital on the Upper East Side. It was her first opportunity to learn how the secular world worked; the only problem was she had ceased to care. Her depression deepened, and Rachel barely saw the point of living. It was impossible for her to discuss the abuse with anyone, she says—every time she saw a doctor, an ultra-Orthodox woman referred to as a "community liaison" was in the room.

But two weeks into her stay, another ultra-Orthodox patient was brought in: Faigy Mayer, the woman whose name briefly became famous last year when she jumped off the 20th floor of a tony Manhattan bar in July. The tragedy came with a made-for-tabloids narrative. "Ex-Hasid's death bares anguish of leaving ultra-Orthodox sect," read one New York Post headline. Faigy's still-religious sister, Suri, went on to hang herself the following October, further casting a pall over the family.

But the story of Mayer's death didn't start when she went off the religious path, or derech—she had been troubled since she was a child, and her difficulties surely weren't helped by the frequently shoddy approach to mental health taken in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox world.

Rachel remembered Mayer by reputation. By the standards of the community, Mayer was a rebel.

Going off the derech means rejecting everything you've known, and often turning your back on your family. When Rachel tried to picture what happened to such people, she could only imagine them being swallowed by a black hole. But here was Mayer––a raven-haired beauty with an awkward posture and glasses that were perpetually on the verge of falling off her nose––explaining that she'd been committed for handing out condoms in the middle of Borough Park.

"She was paranoid, but she wasn't hallucinating," Rachel remembers of their four weeks together. "She was very clever and focused and articulate, and we really had great discussions in the hospital. She was from a younger age group, but we ended up having conversations like two people on a rocking chair, reminiscing, like in a nursing home. It's like we've lived parallel lives. We knew each other's traumas without having to know the details of it."

The two women had a lot in common. They'd both grown up in the same Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, where they were taught to follow the orders of their respective rebbes down to how many stitches they could have in their socks. Now Rachel had someone to mock her former teachers with, someone with whom she could openly question her upbringing. "The staff there was so happy that Faigy found someone there that she knew, because she wasn't really talking to the staff," Rachel says.

The duo had one more important thing in common: Eitzah.

Eitzah is a hotline that helps parents to "learn how to diffuse tension, create calm, and get their children to listen," according to its website. The name is Hebrew for "advice," and many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Borough Park turn to it in times of need and stress, as Rachel did. But several young women say the hotline, run by the nonprofit umbrella Mishkan Yecheskel, intimidates people who might want to leave the community while directing patients to unlicensed "life coaches" who do more harm than good.

Because they're unlicensed, such practitioners aren't required to report instances of abuse or neglect to the city or state of New York. Victims and advocates tell me that these coaches are sometimes recommended by pillars of the ultra-Orthodox community for precisely this reason.

The informal and often inadequate mental health system is just one of many ways that Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox are isolated and insulated from the systems of government and law enforcement that run the rest of the five boroughs. Interviews with academics, rabbis, activists, members of the community, and those who have left it suggest this loophole protects an image-conscious group from public scrutiny in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault—all at the expense of vulnerable women.

Jennifer Mesrie is a psychiatry resident at Montefiore Medical Center who was recently awarded a fellowship grant to study the mental health of former Hasidim. She says people like Mayer and Rachel have no good options: They're ostracized if they leave, and silenced if they stay.

"These are people who are brought up in extremely isolated communities that are extremely disconnected to the rest of the world and the process of... transitioning out of these communities is so disruptive and very often there is nowhere for them to go," she says. "There are so many basic life skills that they may not have, and many of them end up feeling desperate or ending their lives.

"On the flip side of that, families will send their kids to unofficial mental health workers, who are members of the community and see things from the same perspective," she continues. "They may very often worsen the situation by not understanding how bad that situation might be."

During their late-night talks, Mayer tried to convince Rachel to leave Borough Park, but she was too scared to make the plunge because she didn't know how to support her kids. Today, she has a protective order against her husband, though she lives with him—one foot still firmly inside the community she believes is responsible for perpetuating her abuse. As she puts it, she's "in both worlds, which is not the right place to be, but it's getting there."

Rachel believes unlicensed therapists are running rampant in Borough Park, and that the mental health regime there keeps people like Faigy Mayer and many others from getting the help they need. "It's everyone I know," she says. "My old neighbor used to see people for $300 an hour with no certification. And I know Faigy had that in her life, too."


Sunday, August 14, 2016

NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force investigates attack on Hasidic man in Brooklyn and threat to Muslim man in Queens 

Two men attacked a 54-year-old Hasidic man on a Brooklyn street, one hitting the victim in the face with a basketball, the other ripping the yarmulke off his head, police sources said Friday.

The 2 a.m. Wednesday incident, which is being investigated by the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force, happened behind a building on Division Ave. on the grounds of the Williams Plaza Houses in Williamsburg.

The victim was heading to his apartment when the two men approached him.

No words were exchanged, but one of the suspects flung a basketball, hitting the victim in his face, while the other took his yarmulke, then threw it to the ground as he and his accomplice fled.

The victim did not need medical treatment.

He declined to comment other than saying, “It’s not a big deal.”

Also Wednesday, at 10 p.m., a suspect mocked and threatened a Muslim man walking past a library on 99th St. in Lefrak City in Queens.

“You Talibans like to blow yourselves up,” said the suspect, who was on a bicycle. “I have a blade and I can use it and take care of you.”

The victim was not hurt and the suspect is being sought. The Hate Crimes Task Force is also investigating this case.



Saturday, August 13, 2016

What It’s Like to Have an Arranged Marriage at Age 19 

I want to tell you the story of how my shidduch, or “arranged marriage” turned out. Technically, a shidduch isn’t an arranged marriage, but more like a date; the matching up of a man and a woman for purposes of marriage. Mine happened when I was 19 years old.

I dislike that phrase “arranged marriage” because in my mind, that equals a “forced” marriage. And mine, like most others in my community, was anything but. At any time you have the option of saying no.

In my culture, Hasidic Judaism, when girl turns 18 it gives “matchmakers” a green light to start calling the parents. I belong to a particular Hasidic sect, so the suggestions were all going to be eligible young men from the same sect.

So, as I turned 18, the phones started ringing with suggestions. If a suggestion sounded promising, my parents went ahead and made many inquiries. As much as the Jewish world is big, it’s actually very small. We quickly found some mutual acquaintances who could tell us more about the boy. We wanted to know about his character traits: is he kind hearted? Is he a messy kind of person? Happy? Helpful? Is he basically a good person who would make a good husband? We can only do our best and hope the reports we got were truthful. For the first few months none of the suggestions panned out. The boy was either not right for me or they decided I wasn’t right for them.

When I was almost 19, my neighbor from around the block was suggested to me. He was, for our circles, considered a bit older at the ripe age of 23. My father knew him well from the daily prayers at the synagogue. He didn’t need to hear much; he believed him to be a fine young man who was always willing to help others, and was known to have a heart of gold. That’s what matters most, doesn’t it?

As I was told of the potential match, my first reaction was NO WAY! I knew the family superficially. I was aware his father passed away young and left behind his widow and her 12 children. I knew they were a very close-knit family; you always saw the mom and her daughters together, in their own world.

I was intimidated.

My parents were highly interested and thought this would be the perfect guy for me. They let me to think it over and give them an answer. After giving it some thought, I decided I had no valid reason to say no. So the first step was taken. A meeting was scheduled between the young man’s mother and myself. Can you imagine meeting and essentially “interviewing” with your potential mother-in-law before meeting your actual husband!

My stomach turned as I got ready. As she saw me for the first time she said, “You should know, I’m just as nervous as you.” That put me at ease. As the conversation progressed, I relaxed, and the meeting was actually nice.

Everything goes through a “matchmaker” which meant that we went home and waited to hear what the other side had to say. It didn’t take very long for them to let us know that they were interested in continuing. The time had come to set up a date for me to meet my potential groom.

We call it a b’show which means a sit-in date. We decided to meet in a friend’s house, on the other side of town so as not to run into anyone we knew.

Most of the ultra-orthodox Jews have an average of five dates; I am Hasidic which means we do things a bit different. We have one or two b’shows after which, the couple usually gets engaged. I realize this sounds strange, but research shows that there are no more divorces in our circles than in the rest of the world. But you should understand, this is what I knew, this is how I grew up, and this is my normal.

A b’show is quite intimidating. In my world, it is first close contact a boy/girl has with the opposite gender as we are separated throughout our childhoods. Can you imagine not being alone with a boy until you are 19 years old? And then, it is for the purpose of deciding your marriage?

To say the first few minutes were awkward is an understatement. But it didn’t take long for him to make me feel comfortable and for the conversation to become enjoyable. We spoke about our families, our time in seminary or Yeshivah (an institution that focuses on teaching Talmud to boys and young men) and other things. We do not talk about the “deeper” stuff. This may sound strange, but since we are both come from the same background, it’s usually a given that we will be on the same page. We spent a nice few hours together.

My parents gave me the option to meet him again the next day. I was young, barely 19, and I didn’t realize what a momentous decision this was.

I thought it over. I liked a lot of what I saw... at least what I could see from one meeting anyway. In addition to all the good things I’d heard about him, he was nice to me, and had a great sense of humor. He was extremely dedicated to his widow mom, and I could tell he would go through fire for anyone he cared about. I didn’t think I would find out much more by a second meeting, and I didn’t want to spend the night not sleeping from nerves.

My decision was made. I would marry this guy.

The parents had already taken care of the other important stuff, like discussions about money, and I happily told my parents to go ahead and let the other side know my answer. After, the matchmaker called to tell us he wanted to marry me too, and we were officially engaged.

It’s true, we do actually get married to a stranger, and there usually isn’t such a thing as “falling in love.”

In this situation, we are forced to work hard from the very beginning at making our marriage grow; just like everyone comes to discover in the end. Marriage is about hard work. The love that comes, is a deep and long lasting one.

And I’m proud to report that after 18 years, I’m still very happily in love, and our marriage isn’t any different than any of yours.

My dear husband is everything I thought he would be; caring, heart of gold, great sense of humor, and does everything for me and our children.



Friday, August 12, 2016

Hostility overflows in Bloomingburg meeting 

Christine Hargabus has heated words with Moshe Meisels during a Village of Bloomingburg board meeting on Thursday.

Bloomingburg is not known for friendly village board meetings, but hostility was higher than usual during Thursday's meeting, which was supposed to be primarily public hearings about reinstating a village planning board and a zoning board of appeals.

The rancor began promptly, with residents peppering Mayor Russell Wood with questions about the village's July bills, and from there it progressed to a woman asking Wood to tell Hasidic residents to take off their hats during the Pledge of Allegiance.

"Every time I've come, they don't know the words," she said. "I know they love America, but they don't know the words."

"What, they don't speak English?" another resident chimed in.

"Hey, enough," Wood said, less than five minutes into the meeting. "We're not doing that."

The us-versus-them and anti-Wood sentiments continued throughout the meeting, which was crammed with close to 90 people, well over capacity for the room. Residents questioned Wood repeatedly, about everything from the recycling pickup to fire code violations at Chestnut Ridge to allegations of corruption amongst the board members. Toward the end of the meeting, a non-Hasidic woman got into a shouting match with a Hasidic man. Several times Wood tried to get the crowd under control.

"Can you guys stop with this?" Wood said at one point during a discussion about hiring a maintenance worker. "My God, don't you ever get tired of this?"

The topic of fire code violations at the controversial high density townhouse complex Chestnut Ridge was a favorite topic of the night. Residents asked Wood and Hasidim who live in Chestnut Ridge whether they care about the safety of the children who live there, slamming Wood for allowing construction to continue at Chestnut Ridge before developer Shalom Lamm widens the roads according to instructions by the state. Hasidic residents smirked at the insults, leading non-Hasidic residents to accuse them of believing that children dying is funny.

Two Hasidic women, who only gave their initials, D.S. and E.F., because of the climate in the village, said after the meeting that the hatred was palpable Thursday night.

"It was so obvious, the idea that they really hate us," D.S. said.

Eventually, the board opened two public hearings about reinstating the village planning board and zoning board of appeals. The board voted at its last meeting to terminate its inter-municipal agreement that gave the Town of Mamakating planning and zoning jurisdiction over the village. At the September meeting, the board will vote to appoint five members of a new planning board and three members of a ZBA. So far, 11 people have applied for the boards, Wood said. Judging by those who speak at meetings, Hasidic residents are in favor of village-controlled boards, while non-Hasidic residents of the village and surrounding town wish to keep control at the town level, because they do not trust Wood, who was planning board chairman when the 396-unit, Orthodox-designed Chestnut Ridge was approved.

Moshe Meisels told the board that he thinks it's the right decision to bring back village planning and zoning boards.

"I think the reason to have a village is to have a local voice in our law, and there's no reason people who (don't) live in our village should make our laws," Meisels said.

Danny Wise spoke out against the move.

"You were the planning board head here, and you screwed up all of our lives," Wise said. "So thank you, Russ."


Trainer at Jewish community center in Dallas accused of molesting teen he met there 

Police arrested a 24-year-old man Monday suspected of sexually assaulting a teenager he met while working as her personal trainer at a Jewish community center in Dallas.

Randy Lee Adrian of Allen faces two counts of sexual assault of a child. He was being held in the Dallas County Jail on a $50,000. He bonded out Tuesday, court documents say.

Adrian assaulted the victim, who is now an adult, several times over the course of 10 months at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center at 7900 Northhaven Road in Dallas, where he coached the victim as a personal trainer, according to a report from WFAA-TV.

Adrian asked for her phone number to send her diet plans and new workouts, but he began to start making sexual advances and sending her explicit photos, the victim told police.

According to Channel 8, Adrian kissed the victim and rubbed her sexually outside of her clothing in July 2015 in the community center's parking lot.

Adrian threatened to kidnap her and hurt her family if she didn't do what he told her to, and he threatened her with unspecified consequences if she told anyone about the assaults, according to police documents obtained by Channel 8.

On Aug. 6, 2015, shortly after Adrian returned to Dallas from a mission trip, Channel 8 reports, he demanded that the victim follow him to Pagewood Park in the 10700 block of Boedecker Street, where he sexually assaulted her in her car.

The victim told police that over the following 10 months, Adrian would make her follow him to places around Dallas, Plano, Richardson, Frisco and McKinney and then sexually assault her.

The Dallas Police Department worked with the Plano Police Department to arrest Adrian.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Hasidic rabbis raise millions to combat secularism 

Several hasidic leaders have been casing London this week, hoping to raise funds to combat a court case where divorced parents, who became secular, are seeking to transfer their children to secular public schools.

The leaders of the Vizhnitz, Rachmastrivka and Slonim hassidic sects arrived in London with the special intent of raising funds for legal fees, and during their stay visited several wealthy Jews who donated money for the cause.

By the end of their stay in London, the rabbis had managed to raise thousands of pounds, which is equivalent to millions of shekels.

The legal proceedings come a year after 52 formerly haredi individuals sued the Ministry of Education for four million shekels in damages, for not providing them with an adequate basic education, which, they claimed, made it difficult to integrate into the workforce.


Charedi school stays open despite calls for closure 

A Charedi school in Stamford Hill remains open, six months after the Department for Education called for it to be shut down.

Unregistered independent school Talmud Torah Tashbar was criticised in February for failing to meet "minimum standards required" and promoting "cultural and ethnic insularity" owing to a curriculum "almost exclusively rooted in the study of the Torah".

In March, Hackney Council said it understood the pupils were now being home-schooled and the building was only being run as community centre. A spokesperson for Talmud Torah Tashbar said: "The school will be closing down because people keep giving us trouble."


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Sentencing of Brooklyn Hasidic men on trial for beating gay black man delayed due to questionable community service 

Abraham Winkler (l.) and Pinchas Braver (r.) admitted to participating in a vicious beating of a gay black man.

The sentencing of two Brooklyn Hasidic men who admitted to participating in the vicious beating of a gay black man was put on hold Tuesday after they chose a community service organization that services Jewish children, not a culturally diverse community as recommended.

Pinchas Braver and Abraham Winkler pleaded guilty in May to unlawful imprisonment in connection with where Taj Patterson was beaten on a Williamsburg street in December 2013.

As a condition of the plea bargain, the prosecutor recommended that their 150 hours of community service be served in a "culturally diverse neighborhood outside of where this unlawful imprisonment took place."

Patterson, 25, suffered serious injuries that left him blind in the right eye.

Braver, 22, and Winkler, 42, will also receive three years probation and pay $1400 in restitution.

Their attorneys advised Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun during a sidebar conference on Tuesday that their clients want to participate with Chai Lifeline for their community service.

According to the organization's website, they offer a number of services for Jewish children with life threatening illness.

"The people have concerns with the organization, under the plea the community service was to be in a culturally diverse atmosphere," the judge said after the parties took a brief break to quickly research the organization.

The sentence was delayed for another week for prosecutors to further investigate Chai Lifeline.

Prior to the pair taking a plea, prosecutors dismissed charges against Aharon Hollender and Joseph Fried when the sole witness recanted.

Meanwhile, the last of the five alleged assailants Mayer Herskovic, will go forward with trial on Aug. 23.

If convicted, Herskovic faces up to 25 years in prison for gang assault.


Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Hikind Says He’ll Run Again, But Political Maneuverings Cast Doubt in Boro Park 

Brooklyn's most controversial Jewish state legislator has sparked a round of rumors about his political future after his surprising decision to pass his Democratic party position to a 22-year-old Hasidic activist.

New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has served in the legislature since 1983, filed papers in late July declining to appear on the primary ballot for the position of Democratic District Leader, a role he's held for years. Instead, petitions gathered on Hikind's behalf were used to nominate David Schwartz, a young Hasidic man who works in Hikind's Assembly office.

Now, some are wondering whether Hikind is eyeing an exit from his Assembly seat, as well, either before or after the November election. In a statement to the Forward, Hikind denied the rumors, saying that he would stand for reelection and planned to serve "for many years" in the State Assembly.

Yet local Boro Park activist Moshe Friedman, still has questions about Hikind's future, citing people close to the Assemblyman. "I have zero question that if Schwartz…becomes district leader, Hikind will not be assemblyman for the next two years," Friedman told the Forward, saying that he expected Hikind to retire during his next term.

Hikind, a hawkish firebrand, has dominated local politics for decades in Boro Park, and enjoys an unusually high citywide profile for a state assemblyman. Known for his positions on Israel-related issues and his vocal advocacy for Brooklyn's Orthodox community, he drew controversy in 2013 when a photograph of him dressed in blackface at a Purim party became public. Hikind first defended himself, and then apologized.

Hikind's maneuverings, and his decision not to continue as District Leader, are surprising. Though unpaid, District Leaders are powerful party officials sit on the board that governs the county party and help select judges. Because of the timing of Hikind's declination, no candidates besides Schwartz will appear on the primary ballot for District Leader on September 13. Thanks to a petition filed by Friedman, however, voters will have the opportunity to cast write-in votes.

A former follower of the militant rabbi Meir Kahane, Hikind enjoys close ties to ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America. He has been a voice for Orthodox interests citywide, campaigning this summer against new rules that would have ended women-only swimming hours at a public pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, miles from his Assembly district. Last year, Hikind parked a bus with a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei outside the office of Congressman Jerry Nadler's Manhattan to protest Nadler's vote in support of the Iran deal.

Schwartz, if elected, would be the first Hasidic man ever elected District Leader in Brooklyn, and, at 22, the youngest person ever elected to the position. "People get so excited about Trump and Hillary, but local elections are so important," Schwartz said.  "I see how many young people are not even registered."

In the same article, Hikind said that he wanted to pass the position to Schwartz because he was busy in his Assembly office, and that he wanted someone younger to take on the role.


Hasidic ‘hate crime’ attackers trying to finagle better plea deal 

Inline image

Two Shomrim thugs who dodged jail after beating a gay black man into a pulp are now trying to shirk the conditions of their plea deal.

Pinchas Braver and Abraham Winkler — who admitted to jumping Taj Patterson as he walked down a Williamsburg block in Brooklyn in December 2013 — have now taken issue with the DA's recommendation that they serve their 150 hours of community service in a "culturally diverse neighborhood."

Instead, the men want to toil at Chai Lifeline, an organization for sick Jewish children.

While Braver, 22, and Winkler, 42, were in court Tuesday for sentencing, prosecutors opted to return to court Aug. 16 after a more thorough investigation into Chai, which describes itself as an organization dedicated to offering "a number of services for Jewish children with life-threatening illness."

As part of the plea, the two men agreed to be sentenced on charges of unlawful imprisonment to three years probation and to pay $1,400 restitution for the vicious attack, which left Patterson permanently blind in his left eye.

Though five defendants were originally charged in the beating, charges were dropped against two of them — Aharon Hollender and Joseph Fried — in 2014 and 2015. The remaining defendant, Mayer Heskovic, has opted to head to trial. He will return to court Aug. 23.


‘Sauna Rabbi’ Jonathan Rosenblatt providing counseling at NY health center 

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt speaking at the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York on Feb. 26, 2014. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the New York spiritual leader who resigned from his pulpit after criticism for having sauna chats with boys in his congregation, now works as a counselor at a New York health center.

Rosenblatt provides spiritual and psychological counseling at the Scarsdale Integrative Medicine center in Westchester, New York, according to his page on the health center's website. The Forward reported on Rosenblatt's new position on Monday.

"Recently retired from more than three decades in the community rabbinate," Rosenblatt "combines the ancient wisdom of the Jewish tradition with the sophistication of a broad Western liberal arts and social science education," according to the website, which does not mention why he left the rabbinate.

Rosenblatt playing racquetball and visiting the showers and sauna with boys and young men from the Riverdale Jewish Center garnered headlines after an expose in The New York Times in May 2015. The article reported that some congregants and former congregants of the modern Orthodox synagogue discussed the trips to the sauna, during which the rabbi "engaged the boys in searching conversations about their lives, problems and faith."

No one cited in the story accused Rosenblatt of sexual touching, but several expressed their discomfort with the practice and described the behavior as deeply inappropriate for a rabbi and mentor. At various times, Rosenblatt was told by rabbinic bodies or his congregation's board to limit such activity.

After vowing to remain in his position in the wake of fallout from the article, Rosenblatt announced his resignation as the congregation's senior rabbi in February.

"Rabbi Rosenblatt has deep experience across a broad spectrum of challenges: coping with serious illness and bereavement, stressful family relationships, parenting challenges, life transitions, loss of a sense of meaning and direction, workplace conflicts," according to the health center's biography. "Many rabbis from around the world call him to consult on their thorniest counseling situations," it also said.

Rosenblatt, a Baltimore native, studied in Israel at Yeshivat Har Etzion and was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1982.


Monday, August 08, 2016

How Williamsburg's Female Housecleaners Are Fighting for Higher Wages 

It's a humid summer morning in Williamsburg and a half dozen women are waiting for work on the corner of Marcy and Division. They're standing at what's been dubbed "La Parada," one of the roughly 30 day labor hubs spread across New York City and the only one to be frequented exclusively by women. For more than a decade, people have come here to recruit the jornaleras, or female day laborers, on an ad hoc basis — mostly for housekeeping in this Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, but sometimes for odd-jobs in construction or light manufacturing too.

When it's busy, the corner swells with up to 150 women — most of them immigrants from Latin America and many of them undocumented. In the summertime, demand drops substantially. Today is one of the slow days.

Around 9:30 a.m., a prospective employer finally approaches. Sporting a pink dress typical of the ultra-Orthodox women in the area, she strikes up a conversation with Carmen Nina, an immigrant from Peru who has worked the corner for the last six months. After a brief chat, Nina, 40, who commutes an hour each way from Queens, turns away.

"I've worked with her before," Nina says in Spanish, shaking her head. "I said 'no' because I know she doesn't pay what she promises." When another day laborer follows the woman into her van, Nina shrugs. "She went because she doesn't know."

About twenty minutes later, another potential employer arrives. She, too, is dressed in traditional Hasidic clothing. The woman makes cleaning gestures and emphasizes an intense scrubbing motion with her hands. That's code for cleaning on one's knees, the workers say, a grueling practice preferred by many of the neighborhood's ultra-Orthodox households.

The woman wants to hire a housekeeper for $10 an hour. Three of the jornaleras say they'll work for $12 — but nobody manages to bargain up the price.

Another jornalera, Judy Garcia, told the Voice in Spanish that she won't ever work on her knees again, no matter the offer. "We're human beings," says Garcia, 55, an immigrant from Mexico who's frequented the corner for the last four months. "I value myself and I like myself. I won't work on my knees without a mop."

Meanwhile, Carmen Nina gives in. She follows the woman into her car.

Since 2010, the Brooklyn-based Workers Justice Project, a small non-profit, has sought to inform the Williamsburg jornaleras of their rights and empower them to curtail the worst of their workplace abuses. Over that stretch, the group has built up a network of about 30 rank-and-file supporters at the corner.

Recently, the group decided it wasn't enough to simply compete with La Parada: In order to improve the working conditions of Williamsburg's jornaleras en masse, activists decided they needed to change the nature of work at the corner itself.

Last week, the Workers Justice Project unveiled an ambitious new proposal. With the help of researchers from the Worker Institute at Cornell University, the group published a report that calls for the creation of a "job center" at La Parada.

The center would enforce a baseline set of employment standards. Under the plan, all workers would be paid at least $15 an hour, receive basic health and safety training, and be equipped with mops and other cleaning equipment like masks and gloves. If successfully implemented, the plan could reshape the corner economy — and perhaps other hubs like it across the country.

"It would give value to the work we do," says Leticia Sanchez, a 28-year-old single mother with two children who's worked at the corner for 10 years. "Having a fixed salary, understanding your worth as an employee and having the appropriate tools so that you don't suffer from any sickness, it would value our work and give us respect."

Sanchez has experienced wage theft and injured herself on the job. Her knees are bruised from scrubbing floors by hand, and she's partially lost her sense of smell from inhaling chemicals at work. "People get thirsty," she says, "people get hungry, it gets cold, it gets hot, there's days where there's work, where there isn't work."

The imbalance of the street corner economy is staggering, a hellish blend of just about all of the worst trends in the U.S. labor market: Workers have little to no bargaining power. There are no health and safety standards. No employment contracts, no stability. The pay is abysmal. Wage theft runs rampant.

To even the most zealous of labor advocates, the situation at La Parada could be seen as something of a lost cause. Day laborers are notoriously difficult to organize because they tend to be itinerant, lack formal employers, and they don't sign contracts. Many are also wary of taking risks due to their immigration status.

Currently, the Workers Justice Project holds English classes at borrowed community spaces, teaching workers phrases like, "Do you have a mop?" and "How much do you pay?" Activists have accompanied laborers to confront employers and recover stolen wages, and in an especially egregious case, helped trigger a successful lawsuit to recover $15,000.

Though similar hiring hall models have focused on lifting standards for day laborers in construction and maintenance, no one has ever successfully created a hiring hall for day laborers in the housekeeping industry, according to the Workers Justice Project.

"You don't see the kind of hiring halls in, say, the construction trades being used in many other industries," says Ben Dictor, a New York City-based labor lawyer with experience advising workers centers like the Workers Justice Project. "But there's a reason why the building trades have such power and dominance in their industry and a lot of it has to do with the fact that they organize at the point of hire. What's being proposed here is that workers who are being exploited and deprived of many of the rights we enjoy in the non-itinerant workforce have said, 'We're gonna organize at the point of hire.'"

Dictor applauded the proposal as an "innovative model" that "could and should be replicated elsewhere."

"Some of the strongest unions in American history started with what people might consider itinerant work," Dictor says. "People showing up at the dock and waving their hand in the air asking to be picked to unload a ship turned into one of the strongest and most influential unions in the United States. And it's innovative on the part of this group to look at domestic work as having that potential, as something has always been here, will always be here and is an important part of the economy and labor force that has not been organized."

For one, anything that resembles an official "hiring hall" structure risks the invitation of a legal challenge. Under federal antitrust law, independent contractors are barred from banding together and fixing rates for their labor as a group. It's called price fixing.

Then there's the question of community buy-in. Without a base of employers that commit to the center, activists' vision of improved standards amounts to little more than a dream. While the Workers Justice Project has already met with several influential leaders in the area, the group is still on the hunt for more support.

Yossi Gestetner is an attorney who serves as a kind of community liaison to the South Williamsburg neighborhood. After meeting with representatives from the Workers Justice Project, he says he sees some promise in the jobs center idea.

"If you have a proposal that is mutually beneficial, my opinion is that people would be very receptive," Gestetner says. "I think if people in Hasidic Williamsburg knew that someone who comes to work at their place has, for example, a card that identifies some kind of background check, they would be more comfortable to work with these people. And if either side has a complaint or concern to bring up, it's always better if there can be someone in charge to facilitate it."

At the same time, Gestetner acknowledged that "nothing can force a worker to sign up to the job center and nothing can force a housewife to work with these specific people." He added, "It's not a contract between a company and a union. You have a lot of workers and you have thousands of families who each does certain things their own way."

That's where the community outreach comes in. While the job center's success depends on support from workers, it also hinges a great deal on the ability of workers to win the participation of Hasidic families and contractors.

"It's women supporting women, that's how I see it," says Ligia Guallpa of the Worker Justice Project. "These are communities that are marginalized on their own but can come together to build a unique collaboration. The women day laborers are really coming to support large families and other women who can't take care of their homes [by themselves]. The employers want to know they're hiring someone who knows how to clean, who's reliable, who they can trust, is culturally sensitive to their values."

Despite the Workers Justice Project's ongoing commitment to La Parada, day laborer Maria Aguilar, 38, acknowledges things haven't changed for most workers in the last several years.

"The truth is, it's very sad," Aguilar says. "To see so many people needing work, [just] with the hope that we'll get $10, it's not a lot."

For her part, Leticia Sanchez sees the proposed job center as an opportunity to realize the promise of La Parada.

"For me, La Parada means a lot," Sanchez says. "It means hope. You go there every day trying to put food on the table as a single mother. It means women fighting for their rights."


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