Friday, April 04, 2014

OPINION: Understand the Hasidim, even when you disagree with them 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recently ran an article about a public park in the upstate Hasidic Jewish village of Kiryas Joel where women and girls were confined to a part of the park with red benches and playground equipment, while men and boys were relegated to areas of the park with blue benches and equipment.

Following action taken by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union, the town agreed to desegregate the park. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Councilmember David Greenfield, representing heavily Orthodox Jewish Borough Park and Midwood, remarked that the suit was “picking on these Hasidic Jews.”

As far as I’m concerned, the issue pits one set of rights and values against another.

Although I am a committed Jew, I personally don’t believe in the type of rigid gender segregation practiced by the Hasidim. There are, however, historic reasons for this separation. One is the ancient belief, found in the Bible, that men must be protected from coming into contact with a woman who is experiencing her “time of the month.” I have heard of Hasidic families in which a woman who wants to give her husband a salt shaker can’t do so directly during this time. Instead, she has to put it down on the table, and then he picks it up.

Another reason for gender segregation is the belief that men and women were put into the world with different roles. In the majority culture, probably 95 percent of all women would disagree with this. But in the Hasidic culture, the majority of women would probably agree.

Many Americans think of what was practiced in both the North and the South until the 1960s when they hear the word “segregation.” The purpose of this segregation was to strip African-Americans of economic and political power. Often, it was accompanied by hatred and violence. By contrast, the Hasidim aren’t motivated by hatred of women. They’re pursuing a religious agenda that most of them, whether male or female, agree with—if they didn’t, they would probably leave the community. If you had to compare the Hasidim with anyone, it would be with the Amish, not with “Bull” Connor or George Wallace.

However, there’s another part of the issue. Many of the Hasidim are receiving large amounts of government aid. This is for two reasons—because they have so many children, and because many of them lack the secular education that would have prepared them for an adequately-paying career. (I once worked as a representative for the federal Section 8 housing program in Hasidic Williamsburg.)

If they’re receiving government aid, then they have to operate by the rules of American society, and those rules don’t include a park on public property with one set of swings for boys and another for girls. Gender discrimination, as I understand it, is illegal, which is why you no longer see those “help wanted male” and “help wanted female” ads that were so common a generation ago.

Furthermore, if such a park is tacitly given the green light, it could set a bad precedent. Who knows, maybe McSorley’s bar might want to reinstitute its “men only” rule! (That’s a reference for people of a certain age.)

As we can see, this is a complicated issue, and people with more of a mind for legal matters than I are the ones who have resolved it. The sex-segregated park built with public funds has got to go—but one should understand the Hasidim before judging them.


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