Monday, December 08, 2014

Author offers insight into world of Hasidim 

It is a cultural divide as wide as the Atlantic and as near as the next town. In Orange and Sullivan counties, few topics engender as much strident opinion as the difficult coexistence between Hasidic Jews and their secular neighbors.

In Bloomingburg and Monroe, in particular, the battle over high-density Hasidic housing has brought about accusations by secular residents that "they" routinely flout zoning laws and manipulate elections to their advantage. But who, exactly, are "they?"

Once a "curious off-shoot" of Judaism, "Hasidim are now America's fastest-growing ethnic tribe," said Joseph Berger, an award-winning education and religion reporter for The New York Times, who gave a talk on the subject Sunday afternoon at Monroe-Temple Beth-El. Berger is the author of "The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America," which served as the basis for his talk.

The number of Hasidim is expected to reach 6 million by the end of the century – an ironic milestone, given their annihilation in the same numbers by Germany's Nazi Party in the 1930s and '40s.

Hasidism has a 300-year history rooted in the villages of Eastern Europe, Berger said. Though a casual observer might assume all Hasidim are the same, with their curled side-locks, black hats and black clothing, each of the tradition's 30 sects is marked by variations in dress and custom. "I thought about calling the book, '50 Shades of Black,'" Berger joked.

However, all Hasidim are identified by a "fierce, all-encompassing, all-consuming commitment to performing the obligations of their faith," as well as obedience to the authority of their respective rabbis, Berger said.

"The Hasidim offer a model for how a faith that touches practically every aspect of human life, from work, schooling, eating and sex to clothing and social relations, can strengthen community in an age … of alienation," Berger said. As such, he said, they are able to sustain the flames of religious practice, even as assimilation and intermarriage threaten the future of other Jewish factions.

But this very lack of assimilation to American culture by certain sects of Hasidim – for example, the Satmars who make up the Village of Kiryas Joel – is a source of friction among secular residents, who find Hasidism "forbidding," Berger said. They live in separate neighborhoods; their children do not play together.

The "chief source of conflict between Hasidim and the community outside" is housing, Berger said, and its ensuing zoning problems. The two main purposes of this zoning "are to keep the Hasidim in and keep the Hasidim out," he said.

Many who filled the sanctuary of Monroe Temple on Sunday talked about this very conflict.

Though some ultra-Orthodox Jews have accused their secular neighbors of anti-Semitism, neighbors object to the uniquely Hasidic practices of bloc voting and building high-density housing. "This is not an issue of anti-Semitism," said Jake Ehrenreich of Monroe. Rather, said Ehrenreich, whose father and grandfather were Hasids from Eastern Europe, neighbors would object to these practices by any ethnic group.

Rabbi Pesach Burston, the Lubavitcher leader of Chabad of Orange County, called Sunday's discussion "a healthy dialogue."

"There's a tremendous amount of misunderstanding" between Hasidic and secular Americans, he said. The lesson to take from Berger's talk, Burston said, is "that we gain an understanding of the different cultures and lessen the animosity or friction between them … We have to separate what is the issue from what is the cultural difference."

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