Monday, June 30, 2014
Israel’s Supreme Court has overturned a ruling by a court of rabbis that would have forced a mother to have her son circumcised under the terms her divorce.
Circumcision is not legally obligatory for Jews in Israel, but a rabbinical court presiding over the woman’s divorce case had ruled she must fulfill her husband’s wish to carry out the procedure in a religious rite known in Hebrew as a “brit milah”.
Last year, the court had ordered her to pay a 500-shekel ($150) daily fine until she complied. The mother then appealed to Israel’s highest court.
Circumcision is one of Judaism’s most fundamental decrees, symbolizing the covenant between God and the Jewish people and nearly all Jews in Israel abide by it, performing the ritual when their babies are eight days old.
Rabbinical courts in Israel have jurisdiction over matters of marriage and divorce and operate under the Justice Ministry.
But the Supreme Court, which has overriding legal authority in the Jewish state, ruled that because the health of the child was at stake, the rabbinic judges had overstepped their mandate.
It also said that since the boy was more than a year old, the surgical procedure would be more medically complicated.
“The issue of circumcision should not be included in the divorce suit,” the court said in its ruling on Sunday, according to a transcript provided on Monday. It said the matter should be dealt with by a family court, a secular authority.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Released in May,, Invisible City is a book for our times. Jewish readers, especially, might find the novel enlightening due to its theme of covering a murder in a closed community like the Hasidim. Yes, the book is a murder mystery.
Dahl, like the main character in her novel, is the daughter of a marriage between a Jewish mother and a Christian father, and she brings her own insights to the storytelling as well. She says she started writing Invisible City after being hired as reporter for the New York Post in 2007.
When her editor sent her to cover a suicide of a young Hasidic man who killed himself right after his wedding, the outlines of a novel that would explore the mysterious world of the Hasidim began to take shape in Dahl’s mind.
The plot is pure fiction — Dahl made it all up as part of her writing process — but it’s based on a real world, too, and that’s where readers will find the novel about an insular ultra-Orthodox community intriguing.
I sat down with the author recently for an email exchange, and she was kind enough to answer my questions. When asked what the reactions have been from Orthodox readers, she said that main criticism she has received from the Orthodox and Haredi community is that they said “in real life” the murder victim’s body would have been autopsied, and Dahls’ novel, it isn’t.
“Since the book is fiction I took some license,” Dahl told the San Diego Jewish World. “Is it possible a powerful family could discourage an autopsy? I think so.
“One Conservative Jewish man I know and respect told me he thought the book vilified the Orthodox community, which was hard to hear because it wasn’t my intention, and I thought I’d done a good job of providing a balanced look at that world. So far, Reform Jews I know have embraced the book. I’ve even been invited to speak at a synagogue.”
The question many readers want to know is: Will there be a sequel?
Dahl said yes, noting: “I started writing fiction around the same time I started writing for newspapers, which was my senior year in high school. The two endeavors exercise different muscles [in the brain] and allow me to explore different things, so I love that I’m lucky enough to do them both. The next Rebekah Roberts novel will be out in 2015.”
My last question: Did Dahl’s own background figure into the writing of the novel and did it help her to write about the Rebekah Roberts character she created for this book and the sequel?
“My mother is a Reform Jew and my father is a deacon in the Lutheran church,” she explained. “Neither converted, and both are very devoted to their respective religions. They’ve been married for 42 years and are very happy — they see more similarities than differences in their faiths. This dual-religious identity is, in many ways, the story of my life, but I’ve never really explored it in my writing before creating the Rebekah character. Her background is very different from mine — and more traumatic — but I got to work out some of the feelings I have about both religions with this book.”
Saturday, June 28, 2014
Friday, June 27, 2014
Thursday, June 26, 2014
"We hope and plan to open the school in September," Terresa Bakner told the Mamakating Planning Board Tuesday night, referring to the school that would be located in an existing building on Main Street in the Village of Bloomingburg.
But first the school must receive Planning Board approval. And that — like most issues concerning the eastern Sullivan County village and Lamm's 396-home Hasidic development — is complicated.
The Bloomingburg Planning Board last year voted down the school, even though it was apparently allowed by zoning. That prompted a lawsuit by Lamm, who said the vote was the result of pressure from residents who were "motivated by blatant and ugly religious bigotry."
Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge Stephan Schick then said the school should go back before the Bloomingburg Planning Board, which was just dissolved by the new administration in the village, which is in the Town of Mamakating. That's why the Mamakating Planning Board is reviewing the project.
So Schick gave the board until June 30 to act on the school.
But because the Mamakating board didn't have time to review what its chairman, Mort Starobin, called "the cartons of information" about the school, a decision was delayed.
"We're complying with the spirit of the ruling," Planning Board attorney John Cappello said Tuesday, without objection from Bakner, who had asked for a prompt decision, noting that the school would not initially ask the Pine Bush School District to provide transportation for its students.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
The board approved the mikvah – a ritual bath for Jews – on 51 Winterton Road that would serve Shalom Lamm’s 396-home Hasidic community and others in Bloomingburg.
The work on the mikvah had been halted in January when the Mamakating issued a stop-work order because construction was being done without necessary permits. Also on the agenda was the proposed private girls’ school that would serve the development. No action was taken on Tuesday.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Orthodox Jewish woman launches social media campaign to convince her husband to grant her a religious divorce
An Orthodox Jewish woman who has been unsuccessful in her attempts to secure a religious divorce from her husband has brought her case to social media, hoping to convince him to finally grant her a “get.”
With the help of family and friends, Rivky Stein, 24, created a Facebook page detailing her purportedly nightmarish relationship with hubby Yoel Weiss, 31, whom she married in a religious ceremony shortly after she turned 18 years old, in 2008.
“I want my get very badly,” she told the News. “But this is not just about me. It’s about fixing the problem so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
They had two children together, but Stein left Weiss after a series of alleged abuses, which she says included raping her and punching her in the stomach while she was pregnant. She says she never sought to have him criminally charged, but is now speaking to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.
Weiss, who runs an Internet search engine optimization firm, denies abusing his estranged wife.
The couple never formally obtained a civil marriage license, both partners said.
Instead they used a Jewish marriage contract, called a ketubah , which is technically illegal but still recognized by family court.
According to strict Jewish law, a woman is considered married, locked in and unable to remarry, until her husband grants the formal divorce document. That means Stein cannot move on with her life until she gets the get .
He insists he’ll give it to her as soon as their messy custody battle is hashed out in family court.
“This is something that’s settled together,” he said. “That’s how the Jewish thing goes. Ever bought a house and moved into it without paying?”
But community leaders contend that's a poor excuse.
"Unfortunately, some people have used the get as a weapon to extract certain conditions," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis. "The get should not be conditioned on winning the custody battle."
Weiss says the case has turned into a cash grab.
Stein, who works at a daycare center near her apartment and on weekends as a counselor for mentally disabled adults in Borough Park, has raised approximately $15,000, which she says will be used to pay her lawyers and rent a new apartment.
Meanwhile, Stein remains an agunah — or chained woman — unable to move on with her life in a community that still considers her married.
“In the year 2014 all women should have their freedom in every right,” she said.
Weiss contends this is just the latest tactic to pressure him to give her full custody of their children.
He said she had him arrested numerous times for violating an order of protection, adding that all those cases have since been dismissed.
Stein maintains she decided to bring her case to the public after two years of failed talks and family court proceedings.
The Facebook group “Redeem Rivky: Demand that Yoel Weiss Give his Wife a Get” was created last week and has 4,401 likes.
“I’m trying to open eyes in my community,” she said. “I’ve been getting so much feedback from people thanking me. I’m really here to empower women.”
On the flip side, Weiss says he’s received death threats.
“This is nothing to do with a get,” he insists. “Her cockamamie story doesn’t logically make sense.”
Monday, June 23, 2014
It’s a conflict that also exists—or originated, depending on your perspective—in the academy. The main debate among Yiddish linguists is about the origin of the language and coalesces around a single, unexpectedly loaded question: Is Yiddish an essentially Jewish language, one that contained a Semitic component from the start, whose particular combination of Jewish and German elements precisely reflects the dance of contact and seclusion performed by Jews in their European Diaspora? Or is it just another dialect of German?
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“It’s a problem that there’s a close relationship between German and Yiddish,” said Steffen Krogh, a Danish linguist who studies the Yiddish of Hasidic communities in Williamsburg and Antwerp. “It’s like a young girl who has been raped by her father. This girl can’t deny her origins, of course, but she doesn’t want to have anything to do with her father. This is how many Jews think of Yiddish. But it’s a fact you can’t deny.”
Like Krogh’s overwrought metaphor, the field of Yiddish linguistics is filled with an intensity that often leaves the tourist astonished. In her article about the mysterious origins of the Yiddish language, the late Cherie Woodworth described the field’s dramatis personae as “a very small but committed cadre of scholars”—a wildly tactful understatement. One metonymic step away from the Holocaust’s devastation, the tiny field of Yiddish linguistics has ballooned in importance, becoming a place where both the past and the future of the Jewish people is battled over, one phoneme at a time, through a combination of academic and extra-academic means. Threats of legal action are par for the course. So are character assassinations, pseudonymous academic hits, accusations of lunacy, and denials of the existence of the Jewish people.
It’s gotten worse over time, but it’s almost always been thus. Take one example from nearly three decades ago, a mess that ensnared a large group of some of the field’s boldest names. At the center of it was Dovid Katz, a leading Yiddish linguist. Born in Brooklyn, Katz is the son of Menke Katz, a Yiddish poet who spoke to his son only in Yiddish. Katz then studied Yiddish at Columbia with Marvin Herzog. According to his Wikipedia page, “For eighteen years (1978-1996) he taught Yiddish Studies at Oxford, building from scratch, sometimes single-handedly, the Oxford Programme in Yiddish.” In 1999, he relocated to Vilnius, Lithuania, to work on his atlas of in-situ Yiddish speakers, an ongoing project. He established the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at the University of Vilnius, but he has since left; Katz was discontinued from his post when he became a political dissident for opposing Holocaust obfuscation (about which he wrote for Tablet). He has since had a role as a judge on the British TV series Best Jewish Mum. In addition to being deeply respected for his linguistic contributions, Katz is still remembered by linguists with exalted chairs at American Universities for the parties he threw in the 1970s and ’80s, where friends would meet his father in Brooklyn and speak Yiddish until 8:00 in the morning.
Back in 1985, Katz, then a professor of Yiddish at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, held the First Annual Oxford Winter Symposium in Yiddish Language and Literature. The proceedings were published by Pergamon Press in 1987 in a volume titled Origins of the Yiddish Language. The next year, a review of the book appeared in Language, the very respected journal of the Linguistic Society of America. The review consisted of a scathing critique of many of the papers included, indeed, almost all the papers but the one written by Paul Wexler, a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University. The review, penned by one Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj, concluded that “the infelicitous combination of many inadequate papers and the editor’s laissez-faire policy—which lets pass a plethora of errors in formulation, citation, claims, and typography—cannot be alleviated by the participation of several illustrious Yiddishists.”
Dovid Katz, who had edited the book under review, was furious. “We all knew it was Wexler by the style and the argument,” Katz told me on the phone from Vilnius. He called Sarah Thomason, the longtime editor of Language and a professor of linguistics at University of Michigan, demanding a retraction. He insisted that Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj’s review was published under a pseudonym, a practice not looked upon kindly in academic discourse, especially when the review lauds one’s own work and pans everyone else’s.
Thomason said she was soon inundated by complaints. “I got really tired of getting phone calls from England from Dovid Katz and his people,” she recalled. But Thomason felt compelled to pursue the matter due to the seriousness of the allegations and got in touch with the person who had peer-reviewed Slobodjans’kyj’s review. She told him of Katz’s allegations against Wexler, “And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I thought you knew who wrote it.’ I said, ‘You might have mentioned that!’ He said, ‘Well, suppose you knew who it was, what would you do?’ And I blew up. ‘What would I do? People publishing reviews of books they contributed to, published by enemies of theirs—in my journal? No! I would raise the roof!’ ” Thomason said that it became clear that Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj was “a pseudonym for someone who didn’t like Dovid Katz. Otherwise why would he write it? Everything pointed to Paul Wexler, but since he never admitted it to me, I couldn’t put anything in the journal.”
Thomason decided to do some sleuthing. The review had come postmarked Waltham, Mass., so she asked her daughter, who was studying at Harvard, to go to the address supplied and see if Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj existed. When her daughter knocked on the door, it was opened by Paul Wexler’s mother-in-law.
“She was a quick thinker,” Thomason recalls. “She said, ‘Yes, he exists,’ ” and went on to assert that Slobodjans’kyj was staying with Wexler and that Wexler was helping him out. From Thomason’s perspective, whether he was a real person or not was almost beside the point. “It didn’t matter if he existed,” Thomason said. “He didn’t write the review.”
Thomason said she can’t remember at what point Katz started to threaten to sue her, but she thinks it had to do with a remark she made to the effect that Yiddish linguistics seemed to be an extremely contentious field. But when Katz threatened to sue, the Linguistic Society of America got involved, afraid of losing their insurance. “The threat to sue me over a book review!” She recalled recently, still dumbfounded. “I don’t know if you know how bizarre that is.”
Eventually, Thomason published a correction, and then an apology: “In Volume 64, Number 4 (1988) of this journal, a review appeared of a book edited by Dovid Katz entitled Origins of the Yiddish Language. The name of the reviewer was given as Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj. The Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America now has strong reason to believe that a Yiddish language scholar named Pavlo Slobodjans’kyj does not exist and that the review was submitted pseudonymously. The Executive Committee apologizes to our readers, Dr. Katz, and the contributors to this volume. Neither the editorial office of the journal nor the Officers and Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America played a knowing role in this matter.”
Years later, when Thomason found herself introduced to Wexler at a conference, she refused to shake his hand. “My conclusion was, these people all deserved each other. They were all pretty unpleasant. By the time I got out of that mess, I hoped never to hear about Yiddish linguistics again,” she said, adding: “It’s too bad, because it’s a really interesting field.”
“Academic Yiddish is a very strange thing,” Dara Horn, a Yiddishist and novelist, told me. “There’s this self-consciousness to Yiddish. No one believes that it’s a language. The people who are speaking it don’t believe it’s a language. There was an inferiority complex attached to Yiddish,” Horn explained, because literacy and religious texts were associated with Hebrew, the status language in terms of scholarship and literature.
Sunday, June 22, 2014
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas had ordered prosecutors to turn over 93 hours of a cooperating government witness's telephone conversations to defense attorneys because the recordings might help the defense. But complicating matters, 20% of those conversations were in Yiddish.
Though the New York region is home to more than 75% of the nation's 159,000 Yiddish speakers, according to U.S. Census data, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has but a single interpreter on call.
That is down from five in 2009, according to Edward Friedland, the district executive for the court, which handles Manhattan, the Bronx and several counties north.
After the judge's order, prosecutors scrambled to assemble a full team of Yiddish translators over the June 15-16 weekend to create transcripts of the calls for defense attorneys. The mistrial came last week.
Usually, there isn't much day-to-day demand in the federal courts for Yiddish speakers, said Ruth Kohn, who is the Southern District's sole on-call speaker of the language.
The Southern District hasn't used a Yiddish interpreter in more than three years, according to court records.
"You cannot devote yourself only to Yiddish hoping you'll get a call," said Ms. Kohn, who also interprets for Hebrew and Polish.
This month, those calls started coming. Defense attorneys also sought out interpreters in Mr. Smith's case. The Yiddish interpreters working in New York's federal courts are contractors, not full-time employees, and typically do work for other agencies and clients.
Ms. Kohn was contacted by Mr. Smith's defense attorney, Gerald Shargel, as well as the U.S. attorney's office, the State Department's Office of Language Services and several private agencies, all seeking her services in the case. Mr. Shargel reached her first, so she is doing the work for him, she said.
"I'm not going to blithely accept what [prosecutors] give me," Mr. Shargel said. "I'm looking for clues along the way, and if there's anything that interests us even remotely, we'll have our own interpreter translate it."
Translator Rita Ratson said she was contacted by four interpreting agencies for the case. "I feel like a superstar," said Ms. Ratson, who is also the director of the Yiddish program at Gratz College in Pennsylvania.
The U.S. District Court for Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island is down to three on-call Yiddish interpreters after one died and another retired, according to Court Clerk Doug Palmer.
The New York State Unified Court System has one full-time interpreter who speaks Yiddish and Hebrew, and four on-call Yiddish interpreters. The court used a Yiddish translator 37 times in the first half of this year and 83 times in all of 2013, according to David Bookstaver, the system's director of communications.
Rockland County family court had the greatest need for the interpreters, he said, followed by Brooklyn family and supreme courts.
In Mr. Smith's case, "a number of translators we reached out to said the speech wasn't comprehensible to them," said Agata Baczyk, founder of Legal Interpreters LLC.
The recordings involve members of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect, a group that tends to speak a form of Yiddish often referred to as "Hasidic Yiddish." It is a speech pattern laced with religious references and Aramaic phrases, explained Prof. Joel Berkowitz, director of the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
An interpreter who was an Orthodox Jew might have had a better chance understanding the recordings, Mr. Berkowitz said. But the bulk of the translation happened over the weekend, and Orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath.
In Mr. Smith's case, defense attorneys said they needed weeks to analyze the transcripts of the recordings, and too many jurors said they couldn't serve through the delay in the trial. On June 17, the judge declared a mistrial. Mr. Smith, a Democrat, will have another trial beginning in January.
Saturday, June 21, 2014
A 55-year-old New Square educator, the father of 20 children and brother of a sex offender, has been indicted on charges of sexually abusing a pre-teen boy from 2001 to 2006.
Moshe Menachem Taubenfeld faces a charge of second-degree course of sexual conduct, a felony count covering a variety of sexual acts over a period of time. The count carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.
The indictment accuses Taubenfeld of sexually abusing the boy, who was under age 13 at the time, on multiple occasions between September 2001 and May 2006, District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said Friday.
While prosecutors declined to identify the young man, the reported victim spoke with The Journal News before Taubenfeld's arrest in January by Ramapo police.
The boy, Laiby, said the abuse started Sept. 11, 2001, when he went to Taubenfeld seeking comfort after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, police said. The abuse allegedly continued until he turned 13 in 2006.
Laiby said he and his family reported the abuse about six years ago to New Square community religious leaders, who discouraged him from going to police.
His report echoed accounts of other New Square abuse victims, including a young man, Yossi, who had reported Taubenfeld's brother, Herschel, to police in 2011. Herschel Taubenfeld pleaded guilty last year to one count of misdemeanor forcible touching, received six years probation and had to register as a sex offender.
In a January investigative report by The Journal News, Yossi and another accuser, Yehuda, described the indifference of New Square Hasidic Jewish leaders to children being sexually abused and said the leaders have created a culture in which victims are discouraged from going to police and abusers are protected.
Moshe Menachem Taubenfeld's lawyer, Gerard Damiani, said his client denies the charges.
Zugibe said the sexual contact involving Laiby took place in Taubenfeld's home, starting on a monthly basis before becoming weekly and then almost daily.
"The victim was a young child when the defendant first began subjecting him to what would become a five-year nightmare of sexual abuse," Zugibe said. "His depraved actions changed the victim's life forever by robbing him of his innocence. Such alleged conduct can not go unpunished."
Friday, June 20, 2014
In her first book, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” Feldman told of being separated from her mother and father and raised by her grandparents, among the Satmar Hasidim.
At age 17, Feldman had an arranged marriage. A tortuous “honeymoon” period ensued on account of both partners’ sexual naïveté and her medical issues (more about that later). But the young couple eventually were able to consummate their marriage and, at 19, Feldman gave birth to Isaac. Isaac is 6 and 7 within the narrative of the book, and Feldman is 26 and 27.
Members of the Satmar community have quarreled hotly with Feldman over details of her childhood. But sliced, diced or minced, Feldman’s general point seems inarguable: The Satmar community is insular and repressive relative to the rest of the world just over the Brooklyn Bridge.
However, remarks by Frimet Goldberger in the Jewish Daily Forward, who had a friendship with Feldman through their respective husbands, suggest that when Feldman separated from the Satmars, her life was not as extreme as she portrayed it.
From Goldberger’s perspective: In September 2009, Feldman suddenly took her young son and left when Feldman was openly and freely attending Sarah Lawrence College and already living with her husband, Eli, a block from the Goldbergers in Airmont, N.Y., a third-generation enclave whose residents tend to explore a post-Orthodox lifestyle.
During a good part of the memoir, the author is traveling here and abroad. Feldman makes a roots trip to Sweden and Hungary where, remarkably, the two gravestones that have not been carried off from the Jewish cemetery in her grandmother’s hometown are those of her great- and great-great-grandmother, and where (Feldman cannot fail to report) her intelligence and vivacity captivates one of her hosts.
Feldman passes through Austria, where a group of merrymakers in lederhosen causes her to think: Sure, have fun – now that the Jews are gone!
In Germany, she gets a bum steer from a train conductor and suddenly feels herself to be “not in a train station, but in Auschwitz,” having just “witnessed unspeakable cruelty.” (This is one of a couple of offensive comparisons between herself and victims of the Shoah.)
In Cordoba’s “Jewish” quarter, Feldman becomes irate about the Jews having been expelled 500 years ago. In protest, she buys a necklace with a Magen David and “boldly” wears the Jewish star in the street.
Although this should have been unnecessary, if, as Feldman fears in Munich: By her nose alone, people know she is Jewish.
During her travels, the author is drawn to a series of men who come in an “exotic package.” Conor seemed like good “fling material,” and she never meant to fall in love with him.
Feldman provides some inauthentic, large-scale conclusions about her capacity for relationship. But she does not explain how, with a whole series of partners, she can be having good and even “soooo-good” sex despite the “mutinous and irascible [anatomy]” that caused her so much trouble at the beginning of her marriage.
Presumably, the memoir is about Feldman’s search for her Jewish identity. And the author does occasionally and suddenly fix on the nature of her Jewishness – “Europe is my Zion … I am a global Jew” – although she hasn’t earned these pronouncements. Rather, she pulls them like a rabbit out of a shtreimel (the donut-shaped, fur hat worn by Satmar Hasidim).
Feldman leaves out critical things, such as her and her son’s relationship with his Satmar family. Also disconcertingly absent is an awareness of her son’s – or anyone’s – inner life.
Meanwhile, it is a sign of Feldman’s general immaturity that she gives juvenile attention to her yellow galoshes, red-painted toenails, “flowing cashmere wrap,” etc. etc. She does not mention new barrettes and, at least, in the Kindle version, the i’s are not dotted with little hearts.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Pierre Germain said a three-page letter sent on behalf of the school board expressing "serious concerns about this deeply offensive action" — the appointment of the monitor — was "unnecessary and uncalled for."
Board President Yehuda Weissmandl sent the letter to state Education Commissioner John King Jr. on June 12 after Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on the state to step up its oversight.
Referring to district critics who've accused the board of giving short shrift to public school students, Weissmandl writes that state officials were motivated less by fiscal concerns and "more by divisive local politics." He says the appointment of a monitor is akin to sanctioning "bigotry."
"That's not the type of letter that I would of written myself … because of the wording and also my position," Germain said Wednesday. "My position on the governor sending Mr. (Hank) Greenberg is, it's OK with me. Because if we're not doing anything wrong, why should we be afraid of (him)?
"Why fight back? Let it happen, let's move on," Germain added. "If they find problems, we will correct the problems and we will move on."
Greenberg will review how the district uses state and federal funds, among other areas flagged in recent audits of the deficit-plagued district. He will act as an adviser and make recommendations to state and federal officials.
Germain, who's served on the board for a year, said he expressed his difference of opinion in an email to his colleague when the letter was shared with board members before it was sent to the commissioner.
Others on the nine-member board, who did not want to speak for attribution, indicated they felt similarly opposed to the wording and content of their colleague's letter.
Germain said he also disagrees with the board's decision to reject a $3.5 million state-aid advance meant to restore programs because of its opposition to financial oversight stipulations.
Germain added that he attended a kickoff event for the grassroots Rockland Clergy for Social Justice group in April – which has called for state oversight of East Ramapo — because he is worried about the district's ability to provide a quality education.
"I wanted to listen to their concerns," he said. "I would not consider them to be bigots. They're entitled to their opinions."
Weissmandl declined to comment on Germain's opinions.
"The board is nine individual members who think and speak for themselves. We meet, discuss, vote and take action as a board," he said Wednesday.
Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish men hold a majority on the board and send their children to private schools; the board's "public" and "private" school factions have a history of splitting on votes amid racial and religious tensions in East Ramapo.
Germain, who is Haitian, owns a construction business in Chestnut Ridge and is the father of two daughters who go to private Catholic schools. He won a three-year seat on the board last year with running mates MaraLuz Corado, who later stepped down, and Bernard Charles.
The three ran with the backing of the South East Ramapo Taxpayers Association, a community group that represents the district's large ultra-Orthodox population; the group's bloc vote often dominates school elections.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
A Brooklyn judge forced an Orthodox Jewish man who threw bleach into the face of an anti-child abuse advocate to apologize in court Wednesday — but the advocate refused to forgive his attacker.
Meilich Schnitzler, 38, was sentenced to five years probation for the December 2012 bleach attack on Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg in Williamsburg.
“The conduct is the kind that resonates viscerally. By the grace of God the rabbi wasn’t blinded,” Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Joseph Gubbay said before ordering Schnitzler to make amends.
“I want to say I’m sorry for what I did and I regret what I did,” Schnitzler said. “Can you please forgive me?”
But Rosenberg, standing in the gallery, shook his head.
“No, because you didn’t harm me, you harmed the thousands of children I represent,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg – who criticized District Attorney Ken Thompson for the no-jail plea deal Schnitlzer received – said he was targeted for his child advocacy work.
“My assault was not a random event,” he said in his victim impact statement, adding that Schnitzler assaulted him one day after the sex abuse conviction of Rabbi Nechemya Weberman. “I supported the victim who testified against Weberman, something that made me very unpopular in my Hasidic community.”
DA Thompson defended the plea deal.
“After reviewing the facts of the case, we determined that this is an appropriate disposition,” Thompson said in a statement, noting that Rosenberg wasn’t permanently injured and Schnitzler had no prior arrests and will have to take an anger management class.
Schnitzler declined to comment outside court.
Rosenberg operates a Yiddish language phone hotline with recorded lectures about how to prevent and prosecute child sex abuse and a website that identifies alleged child abusers.
The high-profile Weberman case provided a rare glimpse into the insular world of Brooklyn Hasidism and created dramatic rifts in the community.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Taj Patterson, 22, who was brutally beaten on Dec. 1 in the Williamsburg section, filed the lawsuit Monday in Brooklyn Supreme Court against the five men, who have been indicted on gang assault charges, The New York Daily News reported.
The suit seeks unspecified damages for Patterson’s injuries — a fractured eye socket, torn retina and multiple contusions — and accuses the Shomrim security patrol, to which some of the assailants belonged, of negligence.
The assailants are believed to have erroneously confused Patterson, a fashion student at the New York City College of Technology, with a suspect who had vandalized several cars in the neighborhood.
Monday, June 16, 2014
"Since we took over the administration of the village, we have not had anybody on the zoning or planning boards," said Frank Gerardi, the village mayor.
The Town of Mamakating will now assume the responsibilities of both boards.
"Our boards are operating at a much more professional level," said Bill Hermann, Town of Mamakating supervisor.
The prior planning board was heavily criticized by residents for their role in approving Shalom Lamm's 396 high-density housing development Chestnut Ridge. Despite how it appears, Mayor Gerardi says the local laws were not enacted to spite any one developer, nor will they have an impact on Lamm's project.
"He [Lamm] has permits that were issued by the previous administration," said Gerardi.
In the last election Herrmann was largely successful because he was a founding member of the Rural Community Coalition that vocally opposes the Chestnut Ridge project. He says now that the zoning and planning of the village will be under the supervision of the town, all future large scale development will be heavily scrutinized.
"A developer shouldn't be coming into the area and getting 'carte blanche' what they want. This is our town, these are our villages and the people should be getting the consideration, not the developer," said Hermann.
The village also moved to suspend issuance of building permits for 90 days.
Hermann says village and town residents should expect to see some major changes.
"Number one, we'll adhere to the law, which certainly it's questionable whether that's happened in the past within the village, but also to make the project what's right for the people," said Hermann.
Chestnut Ridge developer Shalom Lamm declined to comment.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
The district has been in hot water for building sales done in ways that seemed to serve prospective buyers more than the public; for ongoing fights with the state over private-school placements for special education children even when public school placements exist; for losing track of assets; for employing a lawyer at more than double the rate of the last one, and then pledging to fire the legal firm — still in the district's employ — after an attorney cursed and threatened parents.
Those are just the big headlines in the history of East Ramapo's shaky fiscal decisions.
Hank Greenberg, a former counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he was state attorney general, has taken on the task. Cuomo announced on Tuesday his support for a fiscal monitor for East Ramapo, naming Greenberg; New York state Education Commissioner John King concurred later that day.
King has long expressed concern about the dwindling educational quality in the district, which has cut programs, staff and teachers to meet tight budgets. The district serves mostly minority immigrant children, but the school board is dominated by members of the Orthodox Jewish community who send their children to private yeshivas.
The private school community dominates in the number of children — two-thirds of children in the district attend private schools — and also at the polls, with a strong bloc vote making it tough to pass significant budget increases.
"The goal of a fiscal monitor is to look at how East Ramapo is using its resources, to make sure its use of resources is consistent with federal law, state law and is in the best interests of students," King told The Journal News on Wednesday. There's more than a hint of the ongoing struggles between the state and East Ramapo on several fronts.
East Ramapo and state Education Department continue to butt heads over special education placements in the district. The district insists it is cheaper to pay for a placement in a private school, most often a yeshiva, rather than wage a legal fight with a parent. The state says such placements do not fulfill federal requirements that a child be educated in the least restrictive environment. The district also ignores that its actions can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: Parents know that if they challenge a district special education placement, the district will acquiesce and place children in their private school of choice. Meanwhile, the district spends taxpayer money in its ongoing litigation with the state to keep up the practice.
There's been tension even when the district has sought the state's help, and gotten it. East Ramapo sought and and received, through state legislation, an advance on lottery revenue. But officials continue to complain that the bill has tied additional oversight to receiving the lottery spin-up. Superintendent Joel Klein on Wednesday reiterated that the district would reject the $3.5 million in advanced lottery aid unless the community oversight provision is dropped.
District officials and activists from the yeshiva community insist that the district would be fine if the state would just fix a state aid formula that robs them because it discounts two-thirds of the district's schoolchildren that attend private schools. All youngsters are entitled to district-provided services, including busing and special education needs.
The state aid formula, indeed, doesn't fit the needs of a district like East Ramapo. Greenberg can consider that, too, as he reviews the district's needs and actions.
Accusations of bias, by all sides
While Klein said on Wednesday that he welcomes the oversight, Board of Education President Yehuda Weissmandl on Thursday sent a letter to King blasting the appointment. He wrote that "it is clear to us that the decision to appoint a Fiscal Monitor is motivated less by claimed 'fiscal concerns' and more by divisive local politics." Weissmandl called the decision by King a "capitulation" and warned that, "By acceding to the demands of bigots, you lend official sanction to their prejudice." Nevertheless, the board pledged to work with the fiscal monitor in his "advisory" capacity.
The appointment of a fiscal monitor does not create or even deepen East Ramapo's long-standing divisions. It is sad that the discussion over limited resources so often devolves into accusations of bias, by all sides.
Meanwhile, education quality in East Ramapo slips further into peril. Schoolchildren sit in crowded classrooms, with no district-provided art and music education. In a district where many children speak no English at home, they start their educational years with only half-day kindergarten.
We wish Greenberg well as he dives into the morass of concerns over how money and resources are used in East Ramapo.
Saturday, June 14, 2014
The ruling by a Berlin administrative court for the heirs of the Schocken family was announced formally on Thursday, according to German news reports. The court had made its ruling last month.
Before World War II, brothers Simon and Salman Shocken had opened numerous department stores, mostly in what later would be East Germany. Reportedly the most well known was the store in the city of Chemnitz, in a building designed by the architect Erich Mendelsohn.
After German unification, the state paid the family about 30 million Deutschmark, or about $27 million, in restitution for the Chemnitz building alone. It now houses the German state museum for archaeology.
In 1938, the department stores were “aryanized,” or confiscated. Their value is estimated at about $41 million; the rest is interest.
The decision may be appealed to a federal administrative court.
Salman Schocken also founded Schocken Books in prewar Berlin. He later moved the company to prestate Palestine and the United States.
Friday, June 13, 2014
It is far from clear that Judge Kenneth M. Karas, of United States District Court, would actually take either step. But he postponed further testimony until defense lawyers had time to digest what was on the recordings and, as he put it, perform “the mental gymnastics to figure out the pieces of the puzzle.” However long that takes — and he did not set a firm schedule — he will also ask the 12 jurors on Tuesday whether they can extend their service beyond late June, the time he had promised.
If they cannot, he could declare a mistrial and impanel a new jury.
Assembling a dozen Yiddish translators would be no small feat, given the paucity of expert speakers. Defense lawyers would also need time to review and digest an additional 48 hours of English conversation recorded on the wiretapped phone of Moses Stern, a Rockland County developer who cooperated with the federal government to avoid a long prison sentence.
Two assistant United States attorneys, Justin Anderson and Douglas B. Bloom, said they had not turned over the recordings earlier because there was nothing in them that would be beneficial to the defense. Defense lawyers nonetheless maintained that the conversations could bolster their contention that their clients were illegally entrapped.
Without the recordings, said Gerald L. Shargel, Mr. Smith’s lawyer, “I do not say this lightly, but I cannot be effective on behalf of Senator Smith.”
“I am not comfortable at all, constitutionally uncomfortable, starting cross-examination,” he added, calling for a mistrial.
Mr. Smith, Democrat of Queens and at times the State Senate’s majority leader and minority leader, is on trial on charges of conspiring to bribe Republican county leaders to allow him to run for mayor of New York City as a Republican.
Though the judge seemed disinclined to accept the argument, Vinoo P. Varghese, the lawyer for Daniel J. Halloran III, a Queens Republican and former city councilman who is accused of being Mr. Smith's go-between, contended that the failure to deliver the recordings before the trial amounted to prosecutorial misconduct sufficient to warrant dismissal.
Deborah N. Misir, a lawyer for Vincent Tabone, a former vice chairman of the Bronx Republican committee, said prosecutors had put defense lawyers in an untenable position by asking them to absorb the material in a weekend. The Yiddish on the recordings, she said, was of a dialect distinct to Mr. Stern’s Satmar Hasidic sect and may not be fully comprehensible to conventional translators on such short notice.
“My client is not a wealthy man,” she said in arguing for a dismissal. “It’s not easy for him to pay for a trial and then pay for a second trial.”
It’s all about partnerships, current ones and forging new ones, said Orange County Sheriff Carl DuBois, in whose Goshen facility the session was held on Thursday.
Rabbi Abe Freidman, a community leader law enforcement chaplain, helps coordinates the annual meet-and-greet.
On the minds of leaders this year are the repeated incidents of active shooters in schools around the nation, said Freidman.
“We have camps that camp thousands of kids at one location and if God forbid something happens like this, we need the collaboration and cooperation with law enforcement, because without them, we are very concerned about the safety, and that is one of the reasons the meeting is important,” he said.
Sullivan County Sheriff Michael Schiff is well aware of the issue.
“That has been on our mind for quite some time,” Schiff said. “You never know where or when something like that is going to happen and that seems to be happening with more frequency and it is something that all law enforcement and public safety workers would have on their mind.”
DuBois said they want to be ready for any and all contingencies.
“We want to make sure that we are aware of responsibilities on certain kinds of responses,” DuBois said. “Obviously, with Route 17, our fear is the heavy traffic during the summer months, especially during the weekends. We all want to be on the same page when it comes to responding and doing the right thing.”
Among other issues discussed at the meeting were construction areas, the move over law and the Sloatsburg meeting area on the Thruway, which is used by thousands of religious Jews to pray.
A large contingent of law enforcement attending the session included local and State Police, representatives of the FBI, USPI, DEA, Department of Homeland Security, New York State forest rangers, MTA Police and a number of sheriff’s from area counties. Also in attendance was were Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus and District Attorney David Hoovler, who all concurred how important it is to have open lines of communication.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Shane Smith, 17, of county Route 12, Whitehall, and Devon P. Morris, 17, of Granville, were charged with third-degree criminal mischief in connection with spray-painting that was done to Big G’s Car Wash and an adjacent building.
They are accused of painting derisive names for minorities and Jewish people as well as threats to “kill” them. Swastikas were also painted.
The cost to remove the paint from the car wash alone was $700, police said.
Police said the phrases apparently didn’t target the owner of the car wash specifically.
Police said surveillance camera videos helped link the two to the vandalism.
The duo were arraigned in Fort Ann Town Court and sent to Washington County Jail for lack of bail.
State Police said the office of Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan will review the evidence for possible additional charges, including felony counts of making a terroristic threat for Internet threats of which the two are suspected.
Among the phrases painted on one of the buildings was the letters “NYND.”
It was unclear what the phrase meant. But police believe the men were responsible for a page on Facebook under the name NYND,
The page was said to be established for a “white nationalist militia located in upstate New York.” There were numerous posts that made threats of violence toward minority groups, and one on June 4 that warned readers they would “know who we are soon.”
The page’s information section showed it was based on county Route 12 in Whitehall, and police said the address listed was Smith’s.
The page was created late last month and active as of Tuesday, but had been removed from Facebook as of Wednesday morning.
Smith’s personal Facebook page, under the name of Shane Smith (Mountain Man), shows a picture of a man wearing a ski mask holding a gun in front of a Nazi flag.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
The Empire State Development agency provided the grant in 2009 under the the Restore NY program, which no longer exists. Several Rockland state and federal lawmakers wrote letters of support at the time.
A spokesman for Empire State Development, Jason Conwall, said Wednesday that the agency did not control the choice of the project. He said the chief criteria were whether it promoted economic development and created jobs. He noted the grant was 5 years old and said he did not know the exact "thought process" that went into approving it.
Protests about the planned plant in a residential area bordering New Hempstead and New City have followed since New Square announced the project. The state grant would cover more than half the $3 million cost of the 26,500-square-foot plant being built by New Square based Adir Poultry.
Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-New City, has sent a letter to Kenneth Adams, the director of the Empire State Development Board of Directors, asking it to rescind the grant at its upoming June board meeting. He said his letter has been signed by more than 2,000 residents.
Zebrowski contends the project is potentially hazardous to residents and the environment. He said the 2009 grant was originally intended to finance improvements to an existing plant in New Square. The federal government later closed that plant down, saying it was unsanitary and processing uninspected poultry for sale.
He maintains the board can rescind the grant if a project fails to proceed as planned in timely manner.
Called Heritage Park, the plant would process 5,000 chickens a day during a 21-hour-work day starting at 5 a.m., according to the operator's plans. It would be built at the intersection of Apta Boulevard and Tetiyuz Way, across from Rovitz Place in New Square. The size is down from an originally proposed 50,000-square-foot facility. The plant would provide kosher chickens for sale to stores within the Hasidic Jewish community.
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, D-Suffern, a former supporter whose district includes New Square, also came out against the plant this month.
The monitor, Hank Greenberg, a former counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he was state attorney general, will work on behalf of the state Education Department and will make recommendations to the department, King told The Journal News during a stop in White Plains.
"Potentially, those recommendations might also inform action that the governor or Legislature might take," King said. "They might inform actions that the U.S. Department of Education and others might need to take with respect to the district."
King said that Greenberg has a broad charge.
"The goal of a fiscal monitor is to look at how East Ramapo is using its resources, to make sure its use of resources is consistent with federal law, state law and is in the best interests of students," he said.
He said Greenberg will focus on how federal funds are used, in particular how East Ramapo carries out federal grant programs. Another area of focus, he said, is how the district is ensuring that students have access to services and course offerings required by state regulations.
King said Greenberg may also look at certain district "preferences" when it comes to special education and real-estate transactions, areas that he noted the Education Department has already reviewed.
Critics have long charged that East Ramapo's school board, run by majorities of Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish men who send their children to private schools, has focused on reducing spending and has not served the best interests of public school students.
But board members and other Orthodox leaders have increasingly argued that their financially strapped school system simply cannot afford to maintain programs and that the state's aid formulas might be changed to reflect the large numbers of private-school students in East Ramapo.
The appointment came out of the blue Tuesday, with Cuomo announcing his recommendation of a fiscal monitor for East Ramapo and King accepting the governor's nomination of Greenberg hours later.
Also Tuesday, King sent a letter to East Ramapo Superintendent Joel Klein explaining the need for a fiscal monitor. The letter says that Greenberg will act in an "advisory capacity" to the district "in order to ensure that the District is able to provide an appropriate educational program and properly manage and account for state and federal funds received."
The letter praises Greenberg as a lawyer with a "history of public service as well as in public administration, including fiscal matters, and the stewardship of public resources."
The letter says that an Education Department official will contact Klein within the next week to arrange an initial meeting between Greenberg and district representatives.
King said East Ramapo will be the only district in the state with a fiscal monitor. He said the Roosevelt school district on Long Island had one when it was under state control for a decade. The Buffalo schools now have a "distinguished educator" assigned by King to consult with low-performing schools there.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Cuomo's office told Gannett's Albany Bureau that the governor will recommend that Albany attorney Hank Greenberg, a former counsel for Cuomo in the Attorney General's Office, be appointed by the Education Department to the role.
Oscar Cohen, a retired school administrator who chairs the education committee of the Spring Valley chapter of the NAACP, said he was pleased to hear that Cuomo would be stepping in.
"That’s what we’ve been asking for," Cohen said. "The district currently is dysfunctional. The governance is dysfunctional. And the children going to the public schools are suffering by massive cuts -- and intervention would be a beginning of transparency and perhaps relief."
In April, religious leaders called on Cuomo to help resolve the district's difficulties. But Cuomo had previously maintained that his role is limited: the state Education Department and the Board of Regents oversee the district.
But Cuomo's intervention would undoubtedly increase pressure on the state Education Department to act. There was no immediate comment from Education Department or the school district.
The district has been criticized for financial mismanagement and budget cuts that have slashed art and music programs, sports and hundreds of teaching positions.
East Ramapo is a unique situation. Its nine-member school board is controlled by white Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic men, and the district includes twice as many private-school students as public-school students.
Most private school students are Orthodox Jews who attend yeshivas, while public school students are mostly black, Latino and Haitian.
In 2011, the Education Department appointed Greenberg as a special investigator to review alleged improprieties involving student assessments.
Monday, June 09, 2014
Since 2011, teams of Hasidic Jews, give or take a ringer or two, have faced off at least once a year against teams made up largely of black immigrants from the Caribbean. They have jostled and elbowed one another while deftly kicking and passing the ball on an artificial grass field in a neighborhood playground, Hamilton Metz Field.
The Hasidim, despite stereotypes of their lackluster athleticism and obsessive absorption in Torah study, have won two of the games and lost one. They won again Sunday, 4-2, with a player named Mendy Vogel, a 20-year-old immigrant from London, scoring three goals.
“Our side is not playing defense,” said a frustrated Junior Lewis, a 45-year-old Trinidadian, as he waited to play the second half for the Caribbean team with his side down, 2-0. Yet, Mr. Lewis, who teaches soccer at a Brooklyn public school, was happy that the game was occurring at all, given the neighborhood’s history of racial tensions.
“This is nice,” he said. “It brings everyone together.”
Dovi Abraham, a 22-year-old immigrant from Johannesburg, who is an adherent of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, echoed his sentiments.
“We all play the same game so there’s no reason we can’t play together,” he said. Then recalling the conflicts of the early 1990s, he added: “I think it’s an improvement. I think it could not have happened 20 years ago.”
In August 1991, a car in a motorcade that carried the Lubavitch grand rabbi, Menachem M. Schneerson, accidentally struck a 7-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants, Gavin Cato. Angry residents rampaged through the streets, beating Hasidic Jews they encountered, stabbing and killing one, Yankel Rosenbaum. The three-day disturbances, known as the Crown Heights riots, were believed to have contributed to the defeat of David N. Dinkins for re-election as mayor.
The riot seemed to crystallize long-simmering tensions with many black residents who complained that Hasidim received preferential treatment from the police and other government services while they were mistreated by neighborhood shopkeepers and landlords. Hasidic Jews complained they were often the victims of muggings.
In the riots’ wake, black and Jewish leaders took steps to bring their communities together; indeed, Rabbi Schneerson insisted to Mr. Dinkins that the two ethnic groups were actually “one side, one people.”
On Sunday, an hour before the soccer game, people from both communities came out for an event sponsored by the local police precinct. Hasidic women with strollers watched a brass band, the Brooklyn Legion of Sound Marching Band, perform boisterous tunes while a few yards away Hasidic men grilled glatt kosher hot dogs and hamburgers for a line of black and Hasidic children.
The Crown Heights soccer game had its start in a program known as Seeds in the Middle that includes a farmers’ market and campaigns against obesity. Local organizers include Nancie Katz, a former New York Daily News reporter; Nati Abikasis, the owner of Mendy’s delicatessen on Eastern Parkway; and Frank Nicholas, who coaches the Caribbean team as part of the Central Brooklyn Soccer League.
Despite the stereotypes, Brooklyn old-timers would not have been stunned that the Jewish team has done so well. Just a few blocks from the soccer field, Sandy Koufax, in 1955, pitched his first season for the Dodgers in the dearly departed Ebbets Field. He went on to become one of baseball’s greatest pitchers.
The Hasidic team consists of Chabad men from all over the world — South Africa, Australia, Britain and Israel, places where soccer, not baseball or football, is the game children imbibe.
And despite its glamorous title, the Crown Heights Cup is quite informal. Not enough Hasidic players showed up so they borrowed an African-American player to field eight players who only used half of the turf, with orange traffic cones serving as goals.
Tony Wright, 48, a Jamaican player who during the week paints apartments for a Hasidic landlord, said the game shows “we try to get along.”
“Some of them are skeptical of us,” he said of the Hasidim. “But we cool eventually.”
Sunday, June 08, 2014
As the grand rabbi, or Rebbe, of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Schneerson was a pioneer — the man who, unlike his forebears, made it his mission to spread Judaism across the globe, dispatching an army of emissaries to help convert, or at least convince, Jews to become more observant.
He was also — some of his followers still believe — the messiah.
But he had no children, so when Schneerson died 20 years ago on June 12 at the age of 92, the group’s seventh grand rabbi also turned out to be the last — there was no consensus who the next leader should be.
The leadership vacuum hasn’t mattered much. Schneerson’s spectre remains as powerful now as when he was alive; the sect has become the largest Jewish religious organization in the world.
At its core, his philosophy was simple. Instead of citing the old Yiddish expression repeated for generations during times of stress that “it’s hard to be a Jew,” Schneerson turned the mindset around — and it caught on:
“It is good to be a Jew.”
The son of a rabbi, Schneerson was born in 1902 in the southern Ukranian city of Nikolayev. By the age of 13, he was being home-schooled by his father, Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitchak Schneerson, who allowed his son — who hung a map of the universe in his bedroom — to indulge in a fascination for astronomy.
Schneerson, who in the years that followed would be uprooted by anti-Semitism that spread like cancer across Europe — first by Communists and later by the Nazis — was passionate about the issue of Jewish suffering and eventually salvation, Joseph Telushkin writes in his new biography “Rebbe.”
“From the day I was a child,” Schneerson once wrote, “the vision of the future redemption began to take form in my imagination — the redemption of the Jewish people from their final exile, a redemption of such magnitude and grandeur through which the purpose of suffering, the harsh decrees and annihilations of exile will be understood with a full heart and cognizance.”
In 1928, he began study at the University of Berlin, taking courses in philosophy, analytical geometry and theoretical physics, under the likes of Nobel Prize winners such as Walther Nernst and Erwin Schrödinger.
That same year, he married Chaya Mushka — the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher grand rabbi, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, a distant cousin he had met five years earlier.
“I have given my daughter to a man who is totally fluent in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and knowledgeable in the entire writings of the [classic and modern commentators of the Talmud], and much, much more. At four o’clock in the morning, he has either not yet gone to sleep, or has already awoken,” his father-in-law gushed.
Excelling in the sacred texts, Schneerson was no slouch in his secular studies either. In 1937, he graduated with a mechanical and electrical engineering degree from the prestigious École Spéciale des Travaux Publics in Paris, where he also took classes at the Sorbonne.
Three days before Paris fell to the Nazis, Schneerson and his wife fled for Vichy, then Nice, and eventually, in 1941, Brooklyn, settling on New York Avenue, just a few blocks from the new headquarters his father-in-law founded after his escape, at 770 Eastern Parkway.
Hasidim, “pious ones” in Hebrew, is a branch of Orthodox Judaism founded in Eastern Europe in the 1700s by the mystical rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, also called Baal Shem Tov, who stressed rapture in worship and prayer, often pairing it with song and dance. It’s been called a revival movement — opposed to the staid orthodoxy of the time.
It gave rise to charismatic leaders — rabbis whose followers believed possessed supernatural abilities. Schneerson, it was believed, was able to commune with his dead father-in-law at a cemetery in Queens; and some followers treat his writings and videos as tarot cards.
It was not a unified movement. There are an array of sects, including the Chabad-Lubavitch, founded in Russia in 1775; the Satmars, founded in 1905 in Satu Mare, Transylvania, by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum; and the Bobovs, founded in Bobowa, Galicia in southern Poland around 1892.
As the Nazis tore through Europe, they decimated the Hasidic dynasties, who made a desperate bid for Israel or America, where they founded their headquarters in Brooklyn modeled after the original communities — the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights, Satmars in Williamsburg and the Bobovs in Borough Park.
The sects —whose number is about 250,000 combined in New York City — have different philosophies. For example, the Satmars believe that Jews should not have a homeland in Israel until the arrival of the Messiah; the Lubavitchers are pro-Israel.
The Lubavitchers have another fundamental difference, because of Schneerson — while other sects insulate themselves from the outside world, they engage secular society to teach non-Orthodox Jews to become more observant, sending emissaries across the globe to do God’s work and making teaching accessible to a wider audience.
Schneerson was unique because of his extensive secular education — and also his awareness of popular culture — which he used to help spread the word.
To broaden the appeal of one of the group’s children’s magazines, Schneerson looked to the funny pages. “Ess zol oys’zehn vee Dick Tracy” he said — make it look more like the popular crime fighter’s comic strip.
“The mindset of Menachem Mendel Schneerson was peculiarly congenial to the United States,” Telushkin writes.
In the Lubavitch movement, there is no delineated pattern of succession, save for being a descendent of the founder of the sect, Rabbi Shneur Zalman.
Schneerson’s father-in-law had no sons of his own but considered his daughter’s husband a “gaon,” the Hebrew word for genius.
Schneerson never coveted the position of grand rabbi — but he understood that the movement’s future depended on him becoming leader, notes Telushkin, whose father was Schneerson’s accountant.
There was no vote; Schneerson accepted the appointment on Jan. 17, 1951, a year after the first anniversary of his father-in-law’s death.
“One must go to a place where nothing is known of Godliness, nothing is known of Judaism, nothing is even known of the Hebrew alphabet, and while there, put one’s own self aside and ensure that the other calls out to God!” he said. “Everything now depends on us.”
Over the next several decades, Schneerson reigned over an unprecedented expansion of the Lubavitch movement.
He started a revolution, sending emissaries, or “shluchim,” to travel around the globe to stem the tide of assimilation, armed with the belief that all Jews — and all of humanity — had a spark of divinity.
When you’re asked on a street corner, “Are you Jewish?” or invited to say a prayer in a tricked out RV called a “Mitzvah Tank” — it’s all Schneerson’s doing.
The movement also took out full-page ads to remind followers when to light Sabbath candles; set up a network of summer camps; and expanded across college campuses.
Schneerson even insisted that girls as well as boys be featured on the cover of the sect’s youth magazine — though women are still forbidden from reading the Torah in synagogue, and kept separate from men during services.
He made sure his followers stayed put in Crown Heights — in 1969 he decreed they remain, as white flight gripped much of the borough.
In 1986, he started a Sunday tradition where he’d meet any and all visitor, handing out dollar bills intended to be given to the charity of their choosing.
“When two people meet, something good should result for a third,” he once said, quoting his father-in-law.
They had the cash to do it — The Times reported that a Schneerson aide said the group, which does not publicly reveal its financial statements, raked in over $100 million in contributions in 1992. Today the cumulative budget has swelled to $1 billion.
And Schneerson did it all while rarely leaving Brooklyn. Instead, the big shots — Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin to Ariel Sharon — sought out his advice, as did the like of Bob Dylan, who visited Schneerson in Crown Heights more than a half-dozen times.
Schneerson died in 1994 at Beth Israel Medical Center a few months after suffering a paralyzing stroke.
Some 35,000 mourners filled the streets of Crown Heights. Many more did not, however, because to them, the rabbi had simply gone into hiding and would one day emerge as the messiah — a living person, according to Jewish belief, whose presence will be followed by the resurrection of the dead.
After his death, the matter seemed decided.
“We do not believe, with all due respect, in dead messiahs,” Rabbi Abraham Hecht told Newsday at the time.
Yet others still hold out hope.
“I believe that almost everyone in the movement believes that he can be the messiah — the fact that he passed away physically is not an issue,” said Rabbi Shmuel Klein, adding that Schneerson possessed special powers. “He gave many blessings and most, if not all, came true.”
Schneerson never publicly denied that he was the messiah, but he didn’t believe it to be the case, Telushkin argues.
Just before his first stroke in 1992, Schneerson received a letter from another rabbi in which he was referred to as “King Messiah.”
“The Rebbe had looked at the letter, thrown it down in frustration and then wrote on it, ‘Tell him that when the Moshiach [messiah] comes, I will give him the letter.’”
The Lubavitch remain without a grand rabbi, and there is no indication they will have one anytime soon — because adherents say Schneerson’s teachings continue to inspire and guide.
His leadership from beyond the grave seems to be working fine — in the 20 years after his death, the organization has doubled in size, the largest Jewish religious group in the world.
“It is Chabad’s point of view that the American mind is simple, honest, direct — good, tillable soil for Hassidism, or just plain Judaism,” Schneerson once said.
And he was right. The movement, which boasts about 1 million adherents worldwide, has now spread to 48 states — South Dakota and Mississippi are without Chabad houses — which are now in about 80 countries, including far flung outposts such as Congo and Cambodia.
“He launched the first effort I know of in Jewish history to reach every Jewish community and every Jew in the world,” Telushkin said. “As the former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks commented, ‘If Hitler wanted to hunt down every Jew in hate, the Rebbe wanted to track down every Jew in love.’”
Saturday, June 07, 2014
The decision reverses a stop-work order on the project made by a Sullivan County judge in January.
Earlier this year, Lamm was accused of trying to manipulate a village election to keep those in favor of the project in office.
A judge ruled in favor of the Sullivan County Board of Elections' decision to throw out more than 100 votes registered to voters in buildings owned by Lamm.
Friday, June 06, 2014
A 1988 horror film in which the spirit of a deceased murderer possesses a child’s toy and terrorizes a family. Responsible for a franchise of diminishing returns, and introducing the world to “Chucky” the homicidal doll.
- NA NACH: A Hasidic sect which follows an esoteric set of teaching from the Rabbi Nachman of Braslov. Known for their large white knitted head coverings, and their enthusiastic chanting of the “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman” incantation while dancing to techno music.
Put ‘em together and whaddya get? A Jewish doll that’s truly terrifying.
Pity the poor child who wakes up to discover their well-intentioned bubbie has slipped this into the bed with them as a surprise present…
Thursday, June 05, 2014
On Monday, Village Hall hosted public hearings on three proposed local laws: Two would hand Bloomingburg's planning and zoning functions to the Town of Mamakating. The third institutes a minimum 30-day halt to commercial and residential permits.
Bloomingburg Mayor Frank Gerardi says the dissolution of the boards follows Gov. Andrew Cuomo's call for local governments to consolidate services.
The moratorium, he said, will give the village time to inspect properties belonging to Lamm, whose effort to build a 396-home Hasidic complex ignited widespread opposition.
"It's to give us, the building inspector and the engineer, the chance to go through all of what was done in the past year without permits," Gerardi said. "I'm more concerned that there are no health issues."
Gerardi is part of a newly elected Village Board whose members rode a wave of anti-Lamm sentiment into office in March.
They confronted essentially nonfunctioning planning boards and nonpermitted work done on Lamm-owned properties along Main Street, he said.
"It's just completely and totally out of hand," said Holly Roche, president of Lamm critic Rural Community Coalition. "There are buildings I know that have been almost demolished and then rebuilt without a permit."
In April, the village ordered work halted on some of Lamm's Main Street buildings, including a property he wants to convert into a private girls' school. At the time of the order, it was being used as a mikvah — a ritual bath house — without proper permits.
For the last month, Bloomingburg's building department has been inspecting Lamm's properties, Gerardi said. The developer is cooperating with the review, he said.
"Depending on what year they're built, there could be asbestos and lead paint," Gerardi said. Village officials are discussing giving property owners the ability to apply for a "hardship" waiver from the building moratorium. That law and the ones dissolving the Planning and Zoning Boards could be voted on at the next village meeting.
Turning Bloomingburg's planning and zoning functions over to the town will not only satisfy the governor's push for consolidation, Gerardi and Mamakating Supervisor Bill Herrmann said.
It also starts a process in which the village and town align their zoning codes, and could be a step toward full merger, they said.
"It would certainly make sense," Herrmann said. "These are wasted layers of government service."