Tuesday, July 31, 2018


The Jewish community in the Dutch city of Deventer was evicted Monday from its former synagogue in what members said was the first such occurrence in years in the Netherlands.

Members of Beth Shoshanna, a Conservative Jewish congregation of approximately 30 people, packed up and loaded into a van their Torah scroll and other scripture, as well as other items used for worship and furniture. The move followed a legal fight against the building's new owners, who are seeking to turn it into a restaurant.

"It's a very heavy feeling that this thing can happen here in 2018," said Tom Furstenberg, the community's chairman.

His community had been told to move out by the office of Ayhan Sahin, a Dutch-Turkish developer and owner of several eateries, who in January bought the building housing the Great Synagogue of Deventer with a partner. Last week, the city blocked his plan to open an eatery in the 125-year-old synagogue. But as the owners, Sahin and his associate can still determine who has access to the building and have asked the congregation to move out, according to Sanne Terlouw, a member of the congregation.

The community has found a new home in the nearby municipality of Raalte.

"We will continue. But this means the end of centuries of Jewish life in Deventer itself," Terlouw said.

A dozen community members sang songs in Hebrew, including "Am Yisrael Chai" and "Kol Ha'Olam Kulo," before leaving the synagogue. Furstenberg, wearing a tallit, blew the shofar one final time before leaving. He helped carry out the portable ark holding the Torah scrolls.

Several Dutch journalists documented the move, which Terlouw and Furstenberg said was the first such case in years.

The synagogue on Gol Street, a tall building in the neo-Moorish style, was built in 1892. Of the 590 people who in 1942 were registered as Jewish residents of Deventer, 401 were murdered in the Holocaust. The depleted community could not afford the building's upkeep and sold it in 1951 to a Christian church group, which installed a massive pipe organ in the spacious interior.

In 2010, Beth Shoshanna got permission from the church group to use the space as a synagogue. The Jewish congregation installed a Torah ark and scroll, and held regular services there until the sale. Attempts to raise enough funds to buy the synagogue from the church did not succeed.

In 1940, in the days following the German invasion of the Netherlands, members of the Dutch National Socialist Party ransacked the Deventer synagogue as police stood by, destroying the interior.



Monday, July 30, 2018

Judge dismisses discrimination suit over Rabsky’s Broadway Triangle development 

A judge has dismissed the lawsuit against Rabsky Development's Broadway Triangle project, helping clear the way for the controversial development to proceed.

Churches United for Fair Housing and other groups filed a suit against the city and Rabsky earlier this year, arguing that the project would discriminate against people of color. The plaintiffs asked the court to nullify the rezoning of the former Pfizer site for Rabsky's project and require the city to conduct racial impact studies whenever it rezones a property.

The eight-building development, bounded by Union and Harrison avenues in South Williamsburg, would consist of 1,146 housing units — 287 of which would be affordable — and 65,000 square feet of retail.

Churches United argued that "wealthy whites" would rent most of the market-rate units, Hasidic tenants would rent most of the affordable units, and rents would rise in the surrounding area, pricing out current minority tenants and preventing new ones from moving in, according to legal documents.

In March, the court put a temporary restraining order on the site, which both sides claimed as a victory.  The judge dismissed the lawsuit outright on Friday, which should allow the project to move forward.

"The city needs more housing … a lot more," Judge Arthur Engoron wrote in his ruling. "The Pfizer Project has already passed political process muster; today it passes judicial process muster. This court finds no legal impediment to it and will not stand in its way one more day."

Rabsky Group spokesman Tom Corsillo said in a statement that the company was pleased with the ruling and planned to begin construction on the project soon.

Representatives for Churches United and the city did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Engoron did write in his decision that the plaintiffs' claims were "well-intentioned, passionately argued" and occasionally produced "a glimmer of plausibility." However, he ultimately found that the city was not obligated to carry out a racial impact study when it rezones properties and attributed concerns about gentrification and displacement to broader social trends as opposed to conscious decisions by the developers.

"The Pfizer Project will probably extend a predominantly white area (Williamsburg) closer to black (Bedford-Stuyvesant) and Hispanic (Bushwick) areas," he wrote. "This appears not to be the result of some nefarious midnight plot but, rather, the inexorable, on-the-ground realities of population growth (Hasidic) and income disparity (White compared to People of Color)."



Jewish leaders react with caution to Supreme Court’s ‘end of life’ ruling 

Jewish representatives have reacted with caution to a Supreme Court ruling allowing doctors and families to agree to withdraw hydration and food from those in a permanent vegetative state without legal permission.

The landmark legal case raises an ethical question in the Jewish community, said the Board of Deputies' medical adviser, who said the organisation "will look at the judges' ruling in detail to understand its full implications for end-of-life care".

University College London's Emeritus Professor of Immunopathology David Katz, speaking on behalf of the Board, said there were conflicting principles to consider.

"Judaism upholds the principle of sanctity of life," he said. "When confronted with a seriously ill patient, the default Jewish option is a presumption in favour of saving life. At the same time, Judaism is also sensitive to the very real issues of suffering."

He added: "Jewish teaching does not support futile treatment; but does regard a failure to provide for basic needs, including hydration, as unacceptably cruel."

Other senior physicians, however, saw that the court as right to say that when families and doctors agree, medical staff can remove feeding tubes without applying to the Court of Protection.

Professor Stuart Stanton, president of the British Society of Urogynecology and former chairman of Hadassah UK, said: "I entirely agree with the Supreme Court verdict. As long as the family and doctors agree, we should respect that."

He said there were several factors to consider. "The first thing is respect for the patient. The second very important issue is respect for the family, who are stood around not knowing what to do, seeing their family member in that state. A third issue, though less important, is demand for beds and huge pressure on the service."

He added: "I agree with Professor Katz that saving life is very important, but there comes a time when more than one doctor agrees that there is no hope, when the family see that, and when the patient is permanently vegetative with no brain activity."

Stanton said the court's ruling could foreshadow a bigger national debate. "It prompts the question of euthanasia," he said. "You've got people with terminal illnesses, in pain, having to go to Switzerland, and family members who accompany them arrested on their return. It believe parliament needs to debate it."



Saturday, July 28, 2018

Montauk seasonal synagogue opens, allowing surfing and Shabbat 

An East Hampton-based Orthodox synagogue has expanded to Montauk, offering a space for observant Jews who want to surf but also attend Shabbat services this summer.

Chabad of Montauk, a temporary space that one worshipper likened to a popup synagogue, started hosting services and community events Memorial Day weekend and will continue through Labor Day.

Rabbi Aizik Baumgarten, 30, and his wife, Musia, 28, of Chabad of the Hamptons, have opened their Montauk rental home to the local Jewish community where they host Shabbat in their living room.

“There is a need and people want it,” Musia Baumgarten said.

The nearest Chabad center is in East Hampton, where the couple and Aizik’s Baumgarten’s parents, Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten  and his wife, Goldie, all live full-time. Chabad is an Orthodox, Hasidic Jewish educational and religious organization with more than 30 centers across Long Island.

Montauk hasn't had a synagogue in recent history, the Baumgartens said, but they frequently receive phone calls at the East Hampton center asking for services further east.

“In the summertime, that drive is a minimum half-hour" from Montauk to East Hampton, Musia Baumgarten said. "No one was schlepping out.”

She said the year-round Jewish population in Montauk is relatively low, but estimated it swells to more than 1,000 on summer weekends. Kosher community dinners and challah bakes at the Baumgartens’ home provide an opportunity for Montauk Jews to connect, she said.

“They’re like, ‘I thought I was the only Jew in Montauk,’ ” Musia Baumgarten said.

Although Chabad is Orthodox, the Baumgartens stressed the center, at 16 N. Gravesend Ave., is open to all Jews.

Seth Bender, 37, a Manhattan banking attorney who purchased a Montauk vacation home last year, took 15 friends to a recent Chabad of Montauk cookout where margaritas were served with kosher grilled meat.

Bender said he hadn't considered himself religious but found himself wanting to put down roots after buying his East End home as well as pay respect to an uncle who recently died.

“It’s a place for people to come and get closer to their culture,” Bender said. “It’s not this intensely formal place of religious worship. You can get what you want out of it.”

Friday night services draw a mix of secular and Orthodox Jews, with some wearing shorts and flip-flops, others in Hasidic garb.

Part-time Montauk resident and surfer Coby Zekry, 47, said he recognized about half the attendees at the synagogue’s community dinners from the surfing community.

“They [the Baumgartens]  are very open to different backgrounds. You don’t have to be Hasidic or Orthodox,” Zekry said. “I think most surfers are spiritual regardless of religious background.”

Word of the gatherings spread through ads in local papers, social media and word of mouth. The biggest crowd was on July 13, when Shabbat services drew about 40 worshippers.

The couple, along with their children, Sholom, 5, Esther, 3 and Zelig, 2, plan to return to East Hampton on Labor Day, but hope to one day build a permanent facility in Montauk.

“G-d willing," Rabbi Baumgarten said, "we’ll be able to purchase something.”



Friday, July 27, 2018

Members of Hasidic community start vacating home in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts 

Members of a Hasidic Jewish community have vacated a home in the Laurentians that was being used as a house of worship, according to the local mayor.

They had until 5 p.m. Thursday to vacate the building under an agreement reached between the city and community leaders, said Denis Chalifoux, the mayor of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, about 100 kilometres north of Montreal.

That deal came after the Quebec Superior Court ordered them to leave the home earlier this month, following years of complaints from local residents and the town about excessive noise and frequent comings and goings at the house.

Chalifoux said most of the young men staying at the house over the summer were out by Thursday afternoon.

He told Radio-Canada the city planned to tour the building, which is on Des Bouleaux Street, on Friday to make sure it has been completely vacated.

Longstanding complaints

The city had asked the residents of the building to respect local zoning regulations and stop using the house for multiple purposes as early as 2015.

It said the building was being used as a religious school, a place of worship, and a dormitory for about 30 young people from Quebec, Ontario, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Alex Werzberger, a member of the Hasidic community in Montreal whose grandson works in the town, says the homes were being used as a private, all-boys school for the summer.

He says the boys might have been a little rambunctious but he doesn't believe they made enough noise to warrant an expulsion order.

Still, Chalifoux said the community was using the house "for purposes that aren't permitted under the regulations."

"They're creating problems," he said.

The Hasidic community leaders refused Radio-Canada's request for comment on the court decision earlier this month.



Thursday, July 26, 2018

Lawsuit Protesting Special Standards For Jewish Schools Might Get Thrown Out 

More than 100,000 children in Orthodox Jewish schools in New York state are getting a substandard education that makes it virtually impossible for them to function in secular society, a federal lawsuit brought by former students alleges — but the suit has a potentially fatal legal weakness that might get it thrown out, experts say.

The group Young Advocates for Fair Education filed the suit on Monday arguing that Gov. Andrew Cuomo violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and state education standards when he allowed some schools to ignore certain state standards after Borough Park State Senator Simcha Felder held up state budget negotiations in April over the issue.

But a constitutional law expert told the Forward that a judge might throw the suit out, since no parent with children currently in the schools are signed on as plaintiffs.

Law professor Robin Charlow says that even though the not-for-profit, also known as YAFFED, was founded by a man who went through yeshiva education, the suit could be tossed if they don't have any plaintiffs or YAFFED members with children currently in the schools.

"They could have a standing problem unless they can somehow personalize the injury and identify a concrete remedy the court could afford them," said Charlow, who has taught at Hofstra University for 30 years.

There are 273 Orthodox yeshivas in New York state, 211 of which are in Brooklyn, teaching 115,000 elementary and high school students annually, according to the organization.

The group conducted a 2017 survey they said "shows average young Hasidic man leaves the yeshiva system completely unprepared to work in — or interact with — the world outside his community" due to speaking little to no English.

The professor added they had a much stronger case in arguing the standards carve-out favors a specific religion if the judge lets the suit go forward.

"If the amendment is targeted to these particular schools in clear way then there could be an Establishment Clause problem," Charlow said. "So if the state has reason for [education] standard in first place there doesn't seem to be much of a neutral reason for changing the standards for these schools."

The advocates argued in the legal filling that they do have the legal grounds for suing, because the "Felder Amendment" thwarts their mission, "which is to ensure that all students within the ultra-Orthodox community receive the critical tools and skill sets needed for long-term personal growth and self-sufficient futures."

YAFFED's law firm, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, reiterated to the Forward that the standards carve-out "grants [YAFFED] standing to challenge the unconstitutional Amendment."

YAFFED founder Naftuli Moster said they brought the suit to stop "special interest groups and individuals" who sought to hurt children's access to a quality education.

"Nowhere have they been more successful than right here in New York, where many yeshivas have gotten away with providing no secular education at all, or at best a very limited one, to tens of thousands of children," Moster said in a statement. "This sub-standard secular education was codified into law with Senator Felder's amendment."

Many of those children grow up to be young men who have large families at a young age and then depend on public assistance, YAFFED found.

The group explains on their website why they feel it is difficult to get parents within the community to speak out publicly.

"Within the Hasidic community, many parents and former Yeshiva students are extremely frustrated by the state of Hasidic education, but they often refuse to speak up and demand change for fear of reprisal," the group's FAQ page says. "The ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic community have a long history of threatening livelihood, intimidation and expelling children from Yeshiva when parents speak against the status quo."

Yeshiva advocacy group Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools countered that the religious schools contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide "high quality, standards-compliant textbooks, teaching guides and professional development."

"Today's lawsuit recycles many false claims about yeshivas that were previously made in Tweets, Facebook posts and press releases. They are no more true or valid now that they are contained in numbered paragraphs," the group said in a statement published Monday. "The depiction of yeshivas in YAFFED's complaint is supported only by YAFFED's own self-styled 'report,' which was itself based solely on a small group of self-selected YAFFED Facebook friends. And even among that group, there are literally zero complainants about the vast majority of yeshivas YAFFED continues to mischaracterize."

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the governor's office had yet to receive the complaint.

"Earlier this year in the budget, the legislature passed a law that sought to balance the unique needs of yeshivas with the high educational standards we require for every New York student, and we remain committed to achieving that balance," Azzopardi said in a statement.

Felder's office did not return a request for comment.



Turnout sparse at KJ rezoning hearing 

Almost three years ago, more than 1,000 people crammed into a banquet hall in Kiryas Joel to witness a momentous vote by the Monroe Town Board to let the village annex 164 acres and oppose a request for a much larger expansion.

There was a lot less hoopla on Wednesday for one of the final ripple effects of that decision and the heated debate that preceded it.

Fewer than a dozen spectators watched in a meeting room above the village shopping center as Kiryas Joel officials and their consultants held a public hearing on their plans to rezone those 164 acres. It was an obligatory step toward an outcome that was obvious throughout the past annexation controversy: Kiryas Joel would now extend its zoning for dense, multi-family housing to the areas it formally annexed in 2016.

The hearing, which began with a short explanation of the zoning studies and amendments under review, nearly ended with no comments or questions for the nine assembled village officials or their consultants. But three spectators from outside the Hasidic community finally spoke up with some pointed questions about Kiryas Joel's growth and relations with neighboring communities, leading to a polite round of back-and-forth with Kiryas Joel Administrator Gedalye Szegedin.

Carol de Beer of Blooming Grove asked how the rezoning would affect the surrounding area, and whether outsiders like herself would be able to use a library or any other services in Kiryas Joel.

"I want to know what services Kiryas Joel provides that are going to be available to me," she said.

Szegedin answered that Kiryas Joel residents pay property taxes to their village, town, school district and Orange County, and that its fire department and ambulance corps collaborate with their counterparts in neighboring communities. He added a touch of humor by touting the pastries of a nearby bakery: "We also provide great kosher rugelach downstairs that anyone can have, if that's what you want."

Peter Dombroski of Monroe asked: "Will there be any open space in your community that other people can enjoy?"

Szegedin replied that the densely populated village is just a little over one square mile, a fraction of Monroe's size.

"There's not much recreational land available in the Village of Kiryas Joel," he said.

Kiryas Joel's planners have estimated that more than 4,400 multi-family housing units could be built on the 164 annexed acres and 56 additional acres that will be joined with Kiryas Joel in the Town of Palm Tree. That new town, which is being carved out of the Town of Monroe, will come into existence in January.

Kiryas Joel is accepting written comments on its rezoning studies and amendments until Aug. 7. The documents and contact information are online at kj-seqra.com/164Zoning/.



Wednesday, July 25, 2018


At the December meeting of the Outremont, Que., borough council, something unprecedented happened: sufganiyot, which were ordered from a local kosher bakery, were served, courtesy of council.

Goodwill has been extended in both directions in recent months in the Montreal borough of Outremont, where for at least 30 years, tensions between the Hasidic and francophone populations have simmered and frequently boiled over.

In April, on the eve of the first visit in more than two decades of Belzer Grand Rabbi Yissochar Dov Rokeach from Israel, a historic occasion for the community, Outremont residents found a letter in their mailboxes. It politely explained the significance of his visit and advised residents that there would be large crowds on the streets, but that the community was endeavouring to keep activities away from residential neighbourhoods and working with authorities to minimize the inconvenience.

Thousands, many of whom came from New York, lined Jeanne Mance Street, outside the main Belzer synagogue, and even more turned out for the Lag ba-Omer festivities, which included a tent that could accommodate more than 5,000 people and a huge bonfire.

In years past, even much smaller public events would have been cause for vocal complaints, but this time, objections were few and restrained, say organizers. In fact, a significant number of non-Jews joined in the excitement.

In appreciation, the Belzer community placed a full-page ad in a local newspaper, thanking "our dear neighbours," as well as the municipal government and the police, for helping the event go off without a hitch.

A positive atmosphere is discernible in Outremont these days, which Hasidic and non-Hasidic residents attribute to the changes at the borough council, following the municipal elections in November. Four of the five seats are now held by Projet Montréal members, including the newly elected mayor, Philipe Tomlinson, and the re-elected Mindy Pollak, the first Hasidic woman to hold public office in Quebec.

Tomlinson helped set the tone when he stated: "We live in one of the best areas in the world. We live in a very privileged situation.… Let's work on what unites us and we will diminish what divides us."

"There's definitely a change," said Pollak. "The council plays a huge role in setting the tone of what goes on. Past councils have sort of encouraged the conflict."

The new mood is also the fruit of years of grassroots efforts by Outremont residents to engage in dialogue and find constructive ways to deal with the issues.

There have been long-running grievances levelled against the Hasidim about illegal synagogues, customs considered unsightly (such as sukkot and burning the hametz), as well as traffic, parking and noise issues that have been the subject of numerous council meetings and resulted in restrictions placed on the community. Although some of the complaints were justified, the Hasidic community saw the mounting regulations as a naked attempt to drive them out.

The most divisive fracas of late was a bylaw passed in 2016 that banned any new places of worship on Bernard and Laurier avenues, on the grounds that commercial activity on the major arteries had to be revitalized. The Hasidim, who were planning to build another shul on Bernard Avenue, objected vigorously and threatened legal action. A referendum ultimately upheld the bylaw.

Nanci Murdock, who spearheaded the campaign to limit the development of new shuls, objects to the "vilification" of those who support the ban.

Writing in the Huffington Post in 2016, she said that "we are certainly not afraid of diversity," but argued that the lack of "a healthy balance of secular and non-secular activity" on Bernard Avenue could adversely affect merchants on the street.

Some residents have found the Hasidim's traditional insularity unfriendly, and their overt religiosity regressive. What has simplistically been portrayed as a clash of cultures became more pronounced when Outremont – which has historically been the home of the wealthy, francophone elite – transitioned from a city to a borough in the early 2000s.

The rhetoric intensified during Quebec's contentious secular values and reasonable accommodation debate. That was around the time when Pierre Lacerte, a resident who would regularly show up at council meetings to complain about the Hasidic community, launched a caustic blog called Les Accommodements Outremont. His aim was to expose alleged violations by Hasidim, whom he often ridiculed, maintaining that he had to do it because successive councils were too lenient with the community.

It was an intrusive pursuit that provoked a lawsuit from a Hasidic leader, as well as a counter-lawsuit. But even Lacerte has given up: he shut down the blog in December, after running it for 10 years.

Throughout these years, the number of Hasidim (largely Belz, Satmar, Vizhnitz and Bobov), who typically have high birth rates, has increased dramatically.

Those with grievances against them have not disappeared entirely. A small group showed up at the March borough council meeting with yellow pieces of fabric pinned to their shirts, as a protest against the proliferation of yellow school buses that are used by the Hasidim. That it would offend Jews because the badges were reminiscent of the Holocaust apparently did not dawn on the protesters, who remained unapologetic.

Soon after, Mayor Tomlinson promised to set up a committee, called Bon Voisins (Good Neighbours), composed equally of Hasidic and non-Hasidic residents, to resolve conflicts. That committee was recently approved by council.

"I'm very happy that citizens have chosen a path of working together, rather than conflict with no end in sight," said Pollak.

However, she is not certain whether bylaws targeting the Hasidim can be repealed and said that reopening the places of worship interdiction is not in the cards at the moment. "It's tricky. It's going to take some planning. We're not tackling it yet," said Pollak.

That bylaw does allow for new religious institutions in the northeast zone, an old industrial area where the Université de Montréal is building a new campus.

As for the school bus grievance, Pollak said a police report shows that the buses pose no risk to public safety. "There are a lot of kids, it's a busy neighbourhood. It's just what it is," she said.

Pollak is hopeful that the new committee will find long-term solutions to some of these problems. "We want to tap into our citizens and figure out together how to best move forward," she said.

Pollak said her first four years on council were very stressful, but that's all changed.

"I didn't realize how bad it was. Now I'm excited to go to work. Now we have a team, we are brainstorming and it's wonderful," she said. "The citizens are the winners. There's a vision now."

Chudi Herzog, whose husband, Samuel, was one of the organizers of the Belzer rebbe's visit, is heartened by how smoothly it went and how few complaints in garnered – a sign that life in Outremont is changing for the better.

"Day-to-day life is more congenial," she said. "We say hello to each other, it's easier."

The Herzogs, who have eight children, appreciate how the Hasidic kids are being welcomed by the community. At the same time, there is a greater understanding of why they can't always play with the other kids.

"I explain that we teach our children to respect others, but because our lifestyle is so different – for example, we don't expose them to the Internet – it's not possible," said Herzog. "People totally understand that it's not because we think we are better. It's important to talk and share."

Alex Werzberger, who has lived in Outremont since 1950 and is the longtime president of the Coalition of Outremont Hasidic Organizations, agrees that things have been changing for the better, especially on the borough council.

"Numbers talk in politics. We are now at least 35 per cent of the population – and growing. When I first bought a house on Querbes (Avenue), I was almost the only Jew. Today, maybe there are two or three non-Jews," said  Werzberger.

Lower Outremont is "solidly Jewish now," he added.

In fact, the community is increasingly spilling over into the neighbouring Plateau Mont-Royal borough – without opposition.

"Park Avenue, between Bernard and Van Horne, is becoming synagogue alley, with six or seven new ones," he pointed out, and with no deleterious effect on businesses in the area.

Werzberger maintains that the vitriol directed at the Hasidim has always been limited, saying that "there never really were hard feelings among neighbours, between Jews and francophones. (That impression) was artificially made by a small clique that was always running to the council."

They found a sympathetic ear in independent councillor Céline Forget, who was defeated in November.

Diane Shea has lived in Outremont and the adjacent Mile End district for close to 40 years. She is a member of the Friends of Hutchison, a grassroots organization that was formed several years ago, when there was concerted opposition to the expansion of a shul on the street.

The group – which was founded by Leila Marshy, who is of Palestinian heritage, and Pollak, before she ever dreamt of entering politics – spearheaded a campaign to unite Hasidim and non-Hasidim.

They organized the first "town hall" meeting, in which Hasidic and non-Hasidic residents met face-to-face for reasoned discussion.

"We now have a council that does not intend to use bylaws to stifle the activities of the Hasidic community," Shea said. "Tomlinson has said very clearly that he wants dialogue and you can already feel a lifting of the tension. The new administration is not afraid to show leadership … and has opened the door to a more civilized way of moving forward."

She views the problems of the past as stemming from "a small number of troublemakers – radical secularists" who are not representative of the population.

Shea noted that the Belzer rebbe's visit seems to have been a turning point. "One man said at the following council meeting that he appreciated the efforts of the Belzer community to inform everyone before the event with leaflets that were in French," she said.

A newer group called Pluralisme Outremont was started by parents of different backgrounds who want children to be raised with an appreciation of diversity. They were the ones who told the yellow-square wearers at the council meeting that their choice of symbol was insensitive.

Thanks to Pluralisme Outremont's efforts, the borough's annual spring fair, which was held in June, was extended into Sunday, rather than only taking place on Saturday, so that the Hasidim could participate. The group had requested that change last year, but were refused by council. The Hasidic community was pleased to be able to take part in this year's festivities.

Resident Rani Cruz is optimistic about the future.

"I feel the Hasidic community, especially with the rabbi's visit, has made real efforts to reach out to neighbours and invite them to participate in the celebrations. I took my kids to the procession in the daytime and also went to the bonfire, which was festive and inclusive," she said.

"I think that many in the Hasidic community feel more secure to open themselves up."

Cruz also said that Hatzolah, the Hasidic community's volunteer emergency medical service, will be helping man the first aid tent at an upcoming run.

"When I asked, there was no hesitation," she said.



Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Group Files Suit Against New Exemption for Yeshiva Schools 

An advocacy group filed a lawsuit Monday alleging that a recently amended New York state law that relaxes educational standards for ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools is unconstitutional.

In the lawsuit, Young Advocates for Fair Education, a nonprofit organization that seeks to bring secular education standards to ultra-Orthodox schools, known as yeshivas, argues that the measure violates the Constitution's First Amendment by granting special treatment to yeshivas.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, names as defendants New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa. The legislature passed the measure as part of the state budget in April. Mr. Cuomo signed it into law on April 12.

"With this lawsuit, we're sending a clear message: Hasidic students deserve the education that is constitutionally guaranteed to them by the state of New York," Naftuli Moster, the advocacy group's founder, said at a Monday news conference. He alleges that some yeshivas don't prepare students for the broader world.

Yeshiva leaders have in the past expressed concern with government-mandated standards, saying they intrude on religious tradition.

State guidelines require private schools offer a "substantially equivalent" education to that of public schools, and charge school districts with enforcing the standard.

The Felder Amendment, named for state Sen. Simcha Felder, exempts certain schools—nonprofit institutions that offer bilingual programs and long school days—and puts the commissioner of the New York State Education Department in charge of evaluations.

Mr. Felder has said the amendment was intended to help parents choose the education their children receive.

The amendment's parameters for exemption from existing state guidelines are so specific that the new standards can only be applied to ultra-Orthodox schools, according to Eric Huang, legal counsel to the advocacy group.

The exempted schools must uphold standards of "substantial equivalency," but the Felder Amendment specifies fewer subjects of instruction than the current state guidelines.

Emily DeSantis, a state Education Department spokeswoman, said it doesn't comment on litigation. A representative for Mr. Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, didn't respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Moster also called on state's education department to complete its investigation into allegations that 39 of the state's 83 yeshivas failed to teach enough secular studies. The state Education Department announced the investigation in July of 2015 but hasn't produced a report of its findings.

Jaclyn Rothenberg, a New York City mayoral spokeswoman, said the city has visited 15 of the 30 yeshivas it determined must uphold the requirements. In light of the Felder Amendment and lawsuit, the investigation is continuing, and the city is awaiting guidance from the state's education department, she said.



Monday, July 23, 2018

Interview: Frum FlatbushGirl Challenges For District Leader Seat 

Depending on with whom you speak, social media star FlatbushGirl, a.k.a. Esther Adina Miles Sash is either a heretic Orthodox Jewish woman, a cutting edge comedienne or just a ditzy comic doing strange things.

But one thing is for sure. With 38,000 Instagram followers, Sash is a serious candidate for female Democratic district leader where she is challenging longtime district leader Margarita Kagan in the 45th Assembly District.

Kings County Politics (KCP) sat down with Sash last week to get her views on politics, the district leader race, religion and more in the following edited interview. Up close, Sash is intelligent, charming and engaging. She holds a master's degree in Medieval literature from Brooklyn College. The same school where her mother, psychology Professor Rona Miles, was recently named the third favorite professor in the nation on the webiste, RateMyProfessors.com.

KCP: So how many petition signatures did you get to get on the ballot for the Sept. 13 Primary?

Esther Adina Miles Sash: I got around 3,000 signatures and my opponent submitted 4000. On her petitions she had listed [Assembly member Steve] Cymbrowitz, [District Leader Ari] Kagan, and some of them even had [State Sen.] Simcha Felder on it. So I think for me to get 3,000 with just like you know two judges on there, and with her [Margarita Kagan] riding the coattails of other people, speaks volumes about the kind of power I can generate.

So you're running against a person and people who are entrenched, that really know the political game…

Right, but do any of us really know the rules of this political game? We're all just making it up as we go along, right, so it's who can fake it the best, right.

How important do you think it is for an elected official within the frum and Hasidic community to address the opioid crisis, both within that community and the greater community?

I think it's extremely important, and I think part of showing one's commitment to fixing that problem is actually removing the stigma against less dependent drugs. So to obliterate the conversation around weed, around marijuana, is to basically create a breeding zone for obliterating the conversation for drugs that really can kill a person.

Part of having this conversation is actually recognizing , what is the youth interacting in, what kind of drugs is the youth consuming and which drugs are a problem and which ones are less of a problem. And I feel like we just lumped them all into one breed, of anything is just bad, and a lack of that distinction is just making things more of a breeding ground for danger.

I've heard from some in the frum community that you're not really frum because of some of the things you make light of as FlatbushGirl. Do you consider yourself a frum?

I consider myself frum.

So how do you react to Orthodox Jews that see your Instagram FlatbushGirl persona and say, 'She's not really religious.'

I say that you should use this [her Instagram persona] as an opportunity to challenge yourself to have self-awareness. You know it's funny, I had once a women who told me something like, 'Oh, in the times of Meshach (the Jewish redemption), you're not gonna be able to wear anything from your wardrobe because it won't comply with the standards of modesty', and I said, 'You know what? There are people in Israel – in very close minded communities – who would say the same thing about your wardrobe.'

Everyone perceives themselves that they are in the middle, but there's always someone who's more stringent than you. And just like you wouldn't want them to strip you of your right to consider yourself a frum Jew you can't do that to someone else.

The district is diverse with a growing number of Muslims, Chinese and Christians as well as Jews. As a district leader would you feel comfortable say going into a mosque and campaigning or anywhere?

That's actually very interesting. I think you are allowed to go to a mosque, right. You're allowed to go to a mosque I think. I think you're not allowed to go into a church. I guess i would consult my rabbi just to get some sort of formal approval. But for my insides, my insides tell me whatever it takes to create peace and connections between neighbors I'm going to do it. Whatever it takes.

What do you see the role of a district leader being?

The role of district leader is two-fold. It's a volunteer unpaid position that requires you to invest thousands of hours and dollars to even try to obtain that role. That shows a certain level of heartfelt commitment to the role. So there's no ulterior motives, at least for now. Obviously it's a stepping stone, but for right now for what it is, for the short-term, it's just completely volunteer. So I think that kind of filters through who is willing to put in the work and not get anything out of it. Who is willing to model for others what it means to make positive change, positive influence in our community just for that sake, just in of itself, that goal.

And second, I think i am perfect for this role because I have 38,000 followers on Instagram and that just shows a certain propensity to be able to rally an audience around me. I know how to make my message resonate. I know how to get people to unify for a cause and for a belief and for having that I'm also able to represent my people before the politicians.

If I can go to someone's office and knock on the door. If my opponent for example, Margartia Kagan knocks on the door of Simcha Felder and he doesn't answer the door, right, whats she gonna do? She's gonna call her male district leader. But if I'm standing at the footsteps of the door and I'm streaming  to 38,000 people and I'm like knocking on the door and I'm like guys, he's not answering me, this is the person who represents us, then I have power in my hand that I can utilize for good. It's not only about showing people how I do my makeup and what dress I'm wearing and what shoes I'm wearing, but it's also about influencing them to use their platforms for good.

I work with several very smart frum women that are the right hand to a frum male elected official. Do you think it's time for orthodox females to step up and run for elected office?

I think that our girls are not modeled enough on what it means to be female leader. I think that within our community we have somehow associated things like being in the spotlight as being synonymous with being an attention whore, as being a slut. We have completely demonized women who want to put their faces out there to be a positive influence and change and that has made many women shy off from the spotlight.

They [women] want to be modest, they want to be timid. Yet these are power houses of women. If you open up their doors to their home, they are running their homes. They are no-nonsense. They are powerhouses, but when they open the door they present themselves timidly, modestly, which is associated with being more quiet and coloring within the lines.

I think it's time to show people a new frame of reference for what it means to be an orthodox female.



Sunday, July 22, 2018

Lawsuit questions real-world learning at New York’s ultra-Orthodox schools 

At the ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools Pesach Eisen attended in Brooklyn, most of the day was spent studying religious texts with classes taught in Yiddish. One class at the end of the day was spent on secular subjects including English and math, enough to be “able to go to the food stamps office and apply.”

“Everything was super basic. … Nobody took it seriously, so even if you were a studious person you had no chance,” said the now-32-year-old Eisen, who had to take remedial classes and study intensively on his own before he succeeded in graduating from college in 2016.

Complaints that schools like Eisen’s run by New York’s strictly observant Hasidic Jews barely teach English, math, science or social studies have fueled a movement to demand stricter oversight by state and local educational authorities. Critics plan to file a lawsuit on Monday in federal court, seeking to stop the state from enforcing legislation that was intended to shield the schools, called yeshivas, from some government oversight.

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“When we grew up there was no such thing as big aspirations — ‘I want to be a doctor, I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a businessman,'” said Eisen, who no longer practices the ultra-Orthodox faith. “It’s, ‘I want to be a rabbi. That’s the only thing.'”

Defenders of the yeshivas say parents have the right to send their children to schools that provide a Jewish education consistent with their beliefs and traditions.

“We specifically for generations have chosen this kind of education for our children,” says Ari Goldberg, who has seven children attending Hasidic yeshivas in Brooklyn. “This is what we want. Why should it be taken away?”

The yeshiva backers also say critics err by just counting the minutes of a school day spent on secular studies.

“The problem solving, the literacy, the critical thinking, all that is in Judaica studies as well,” said Yitzchok Kaufman, a Brooklyn yeshiva alumnus and parent.

The planned lawsuit by Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED, which is pushing for improved secular education in the ultra-Orthodox schools, names Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Education’s top two officials as defendants.

Department of Education spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the department is working on updating its guidance on equivalency of instruction at the yeshivas.

There are about 275 Orthodox Jewish yeshivas in New York state, but many are modern Orthodox schools that provide a full secular curriculum along with religious studies.

YAFFED founder Naftuli Moster said the Hasidic yeshivas where secular education is generally given short shrift number 83 in New York City and 38 in other parts of the state. An estimated 115,000 children attend the schools.

For boys in the Hasidic yeshiva system, the emphasis is on studying religious texts. Classes are taught in Yiddish, the language spoken in most Hasidic homes. Secular subjects are relegated to the end of the long school day, when the boys are restless and inattentive, critics say.

Once the boys reach high school, they don’t study secular subjects, devoting their entire day to the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts.

Hasidic girls can’t study Talmud and therefore learn more English, math and social studies than the boys do, though taboo subjects such as evolution and sex education are typically omitted.

“They erased anything about dinosaurs,” said Shavy Rosenberg, who attended Hasidic schools for girls. “Anything more than 5,000 years old was erased.”

Although the schools are private, they are not entirely free of government oversight because of a state law requiring that instruction in non-public schools be substantially equivalent to the instruction given at the local public school.

YAFFED was founded in 2012 with the aim of pressuring New York City and New York state to enforce the substantial equivalence standard at yeshivas. But that effort was dealt a blow last spring when a state senator who represents a heavily Orthodox Brooklyn district threatened to hold up the state’s $168 billion budget unless the state agreed not to enforce the substantial equivalence rule in the same way at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas as it’s enforced at other schools.

The legislation pushed by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans in the state Senate, singled out schools with long days, bilingual programs and nonprofit status — in effect, yeshivas — and put the state Department of Education, not local school districts, in charge of determining what curriculum rules those schools must follow.



Saturday, July 21, 2018


The leading Reform Jewish seminary has opened a Title IX investigation against Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen after several women accused him of sexual misconduct.

The allegations, published Thursday in a wide-ranging investigative article by The New York Jewish Week, span decades and come from women who have worked with Cohen or associated professionally with him. They include inappropriate touching and grabbing, sexual propositions and advances, and inappropriate sexual remarks.

Five women in the article said Cohen sexually harassed them, while three others accused him of other kinds of sexual misconduct.

Cohen is research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, an electronic database, at Stanford University. He did not deny the allegations and apologized for them in a statement to The Jewish Week.

“I recognize that there is a pattern here,” the statement said, in part. “It’s one that speaks to my inappropriate behavior for which I take full responsibility. I am deeply apologetic to the women whom I have hurt by my words or my actions.”

Cohen, 68, said he has undergone a process of “education, recognition, remorse and repair” in consultation with clergy, therapists and professional experts.

One of the women named in the article is Keren McGinity, a professor at Brandeis University. She wrote a column last month in The Jewish Week detailing assault by an American Jewish academic she didn’t name, but whom she reveals to be Cohen in this week’s article.

“I firmly said ‘good night,’ told him that he did not have to walk me back to my room, and turned to walk away when he suddenly wrapped his arms around me, pressed his body against mine, and forcefully kissed my neck in a way that only lovers should,” McGinity wrote.

Accusers described incidents going back to the 1980s and as recently, in McGinity’s case, to 2011. Seven of the eight women interviewed noted that Cohen was “in a position of professional power and superiority when the respective incidents took place,” The Jewish Week reported.

Cohen is perhaps the most prominent American Jewish sociologist, and has conducted studies for a broad spectrum of Jewish organizations, from Jewish federations to Hillel International and the JCC Association of North America. He was a consultant on the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jews. His analyses and columns have been published widely across Jewish publications, including by JTA.

The Jewish Week reported that Hebrew Union College has launched a Title IX investigation of Cohen’s behavior.

According to the newspaper, Cohen was removed from a June 25 appearance at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies summer program at Brandeis and an upcoming appearance at the Association for Jewish Studies annual conference.



Friday, July 20, 2018

Predator Taught At Elite Jewish School A Decade Later Than First Reported 

An educator convicted of molesting a child and accused of molesting at least three others worked at a Jewish school in New York for longer than the school initially reported, the Forward has learned.

SAR Academy, a prestigious Modern Orthodox day school, sent a letter to parents in January stating that Stanley Rosenfeld was their assistant principal for General Studies in the 1970s. They added that Rosenfeld pled no contest to charges of child molestation in Rhode Island in 2001 "with no known connection to SAR."

A woman who was a middle school student at SAR from 1985 to 1987 told the Forward that Rosenfeld was her English teacher. She shared pictures from her 1987 yearbook that show Rosenfeld in the yearbook's "Faculty" section.

"It's just the facts," said the woman, who requested anonymity. "He was there. It's not a question."

SAR, in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, was the first of three Jewish schools in the New York City area to alert its alumni and parents in January that Rosenfeld had worked at their institutions. The Ramaz School, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and Westchester Day School, in Mamaroneck, also sent e-mails to their communities about Rosenfeld. SAR and Ramaz announced investigations by outside firms into Rosenfeld's tenures at the school. Westchester Day School encouraged people with knowledge of any alleged misconduct by Rosenfeld during his time at the school to contact Mamaroneck law enforcement.

Rabbi Benjamin Krauss, the principle of SAR Academy, confirmed that Rosenfeld worked at SAR as a teacher in the 1980s. He said that the school did not know in January about Rosenfeld's time at SAR in the 1980s because its investigation was not underway yet.

"We sent out the information that we knew," Krauss said. "We obviously missed that. All of the details, exactly when he was here, were part of the scope of the investigation."

Investigations of misconduct that occurred decades ago are often fraught, and details like employment records can be hard to pin down, according to Fran Sepler, a private consultant who advises companies on how to conduct workplace investigations.

"One of the things you never want to do is fault an organization for correcting an error," Sepler said.

Krauss declined to say when the school found out about Rosenfeld's time as a teacher there in the 1980s, or give the exact dates of Rosenfeld's employment at SAR. Ramaz, in its January email, said that Rosenfeld was an administrator there in the 1972-1973 school year. Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, the head of Westchester Day School, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"We're doing this [investigation] because we want to do the right thing," Krauss said. "It came to our attention that people on our institutional watch were hurt, and that's something we need to understand fully."

Rosenfeld worked consecutively at the three schools: first at Westchester, then at Ramaz, and finally at SAR. Rosenfeld later became the cantor and eventually the spiritual leader at a Conservative synagogue in Warwick, RI, where he also did bar and bat mitzvah tutoring.

Rosenfeld, in a class picture from his time at Westchester Day School, in 1972. Rosenfeld is in the back row, the tall man on the right.

In 2001 he was convicted on two counts of second-degree child molestation, on charges that he molested a 12-year-old boy he was tutoring at the Warwick synagogue in 1999. He was given a ten-year suspended sentence and probation, and was flagged as a high-risk offender. Rosenfeld, now 84, lives in an assisted living facility in Providence, Rhode Island.

Andrew Blumenthal, 51, an SAR alumnus, told the Forward earlier this month that Rosenfeld tried to molest him at his apartment in Riverdale in 1980, during a sleepover. He said that Rosenfeld was not employed at SAR throughout the time he was a student there in the early 1980s. However, he said that an SAR teacher brought him to Rosenfeld's apartment and stayed over that night. Blumenthal said the SAR teacher did not try to molest him at any point.

The SAR alumna who said Rosenfeld was her teacher in the mid-1980s said she only learned about his history of molesting children in the mid-2000s, after his conviction in Rhode Island. She said that there were no rumors that she can remember of any possible misconduct while he was her teacher. The alumna's mother also told the Forward that she remembered that Rosenfeld was her daughter's English teacher.

The alumna said that she did not get along with Rosenfeld, for reasons she said she can't remember now. She said her children now attend SAR, and that she thought failing to report Rosenfeld's time as a teacher at the school in the 1980s was an honest mistake by SAR.

"I don't feel like they were covering up for any reason," she said. "I trust them to be an honest institution. It's tough to deal with the implications of having employed a convicted pedophile."

Krauss said that SAR has sent its initial January email to over a thousand people, including current parents and alumni, including those that attended SAR when Rosenfeld was a teacher there in the 1980s.

Organizations investigating a past employee for misconduct that learn there are more potential victims should try and contact those people, Sepler said.

"The idea is that as soon as you know that there may have been contact with kids during that time, it is important to do additional outreach," said Sepler, who does not have direct knowledge of the Rosenfeld case. Sepler said that the outreach could be semi-private, such as sending an email to school alumni from the relevant period.

Krauss said that SAR hopes to have completed the investigation by the end of August. SAR's first day of school is September 5.


Thursday, July 19, 2018


While Jews are no more likely to be sexually abused than other Americans, individuals who have left the Orthodox community are more than four times as likely to have been molested as children than the general population, a new study has found.

The study, by two Orthodox Jewish researchers, surveyed more than 300 participants over a three-year period. Its authors — Dr. David Rosmarin of Harvard and Dr. David Pelcovitz of Yeshiva University — said their report was an attempt to address a lack of research on the prevalence of sexual abuse in the Jewish community.

While the rate of abuse was higher among formerly Orthodox individuals, Rosmarin and Pelcovitz also found that abuse was "associated with significantly lower levels of intrinsic religiosity and lower levels of religious observance" among victims who chose to remain part of the Orthodox community.

"This report supports the anecdotal evidence I've seen that indicates a close link between abuse in a religious context and the subsequent rejection of that community, its practices, values and often everything it stands for," said Manny Waks, the founder of Tzedek, an Australian advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse. "This is proof for what he already knew. I've met many people who were religious, especially within the ultra-Orthodox community, who left because of sexual abuse."

Rosmarin is director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts and an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. According to the study, formerly Orthodox individuals were substantially more likely to report abuse than those who remain part of the community — perhaps an obvious point given the inhibitions regarding speaking out in tight-knit communities. Various haredi Orthodox organizations have debated in recent years whether and how to report child abusers to law enforcement agencies.

Among the participants in the study, 100 were Orthodox from birth, 98 became Orthodox later in life, 138 were non-Orthodox and 36 were raised Orthodox and later left. According to Rosmarin, this included Hasidic respondents from the more insular Brooklyn communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park.

The study appears in the July 2018 issue of the  Child Abuse & Neglect journal.

While Rosmarin said he hasn't fully fleshed out the causal relationship between abuse and the abandonment of religion, he believes the study "was pretty conclusive" that there is one.

It seemed to back up previous research showing that "the experience of sexual abuse interferes with people's spiritual lives," an effect not only limited to the formerly Orthodox, he said.

"An Orthodox [victim] who grew up Orthodox and is still Orthodox is less likely to have strong levels of belief than their colleagues who haven't been sexually abused," Rosmarin said.

Some have expressed skepticism regarding the research by Rosmarin and Pelcovitz. While declining to comment on the study directly, Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, an organization that helps former haredim integrate into mainstream American life, said that while "we certainly see high rates of abuse reported by people" who have left the community, the decision to leave Orthodoxy was not necessarily due to the abuse itself.

Santo said the communal response to abuse was more significant than the declining religiosity brought on by the abuse itself.

"If someone experiences abuse as a child and told a parent who spoke to the school and nothing is done, it opens up a Pandora's box of questions for them," she said. "People who made the very difficult decision to leave ultra-Orthodoxy are leaving because its a place where their questions are not necessarily welcome."

Queens College sociologist Samuel Heilman, an expert on American haredi Orthodoxy, questioned the study's methodology, telling JTA that he believed that the study undercounted haredim from the more insular Hasidic movements, especially as much of the questioning was done online.

The connection between abuse and the abandonment of religion was also not particularly simple, Heilman said, calling it a chicken and egg scenario.

Those who are already "on the borderline of 'deviance' are much more liable to be the subject of abuse because the abusers figure these people are already borderline and are less likely to be believed if they say something," he said.

Heilman used "deviance" in the sense of individuals who deviate from the religious norms of their religious communities, which often include shunning secular education, limiting social contact with non-haredim and dressing according to distinct rules of modesty.

Waks, who grew up within the Chabad Hasidic community and was molested as a child, said that when abuse occurs within a religious context in places such as synagogues and ritual baths, subsequent cover-ups by insular religious communities lead victims to lose "all belief in the so-called religious leaders."

Rosmarin said he has spoken to patients who were abuse victims and did not feel comfortable speaking about their experiences with members of their haredi communities. As a result, he said, such victims never receive the kind of validation they need to cope with their trauma. This lack of validation only compounds the typical religious doubts, such as questioning God's justice and asking how God could allow such things to happen.

Yechiel, an abuse victim living in the New York tristate area who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, described how a yeshiva classmate groomed and abused him for a number of years while teachers and administrators ignored the warning signs.

"I didn't want to tell anybody because I didn't know if I would be believed," he said. "Looking back now, there were so many clues my rabbis could have picked up. I feel like they were purposefully naive. The only answer is they wanted to cover it all up. That really affects me."

Yechiel began losing respect for the community and its leaders, and said the only reason he is still formally religiously observant is for the sake of his wife and children. While he has built his own personal relationship with God, "the actual practices of religion" have become incredibly difficult.

"I struggle with Shabbat and a lot of halachot [Jewish laws]," he said. "Many rules are too much for me."

As for those who have left Orthodox Judaism behind, Yechiel said that he fully understands their decision and believes they will be judged more favorably by God than the rabbis and communal leaders.

"It's completely not their fault" that they left, he said.

According to Meyer Seewald, executive director of Jewish Community Watch, a New York-based victims advocacy group, the tendency of insular religious groups to cast doubt on victims' claims and defend alleged abusers has had far-reaching effects on children who were molested.

"If you had a community that had a leader that called on people to come forward and said 'we believe you and will protect you,'" Seewald said, "I believe 150 percent that people wouldn't be leaving in the way that they are."



Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Orthodox mob harasses teenage girl in Jerusalem suburb over ‘immodest’ clothing 

A haredi Orthodox mob chased a teenage girl down a main thoroughfare in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh due to her "immodest" attire.

City residents have been complaining about religiously motivated violence in the Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighborhood outside Jerusalem for years. Extremists there frequently clash with police attempting to remove signs calling for public gender segregation.

In a video of Monday's incident, the girl can be seen running down Nahar Hayarden Street, chased by what appears to be dozens of screaming men in haredi Orthodox garb. Some residents of the neighborhood have complained that they have been harassed and pushed to leave the neighborhood by the extremists, who recently announced a "war" on formerly haredi residents who frequent the neighborhood.

In response to the attack, dozens of secular and national-religious residents held a rally Tuesday protesting the lack of security.

"In one of the neighborhoods, every time I pass through to go to work the children throw stones at me because I am not dressed modestly," one demonstrator told Walla News.

On Wednesday evening 150 extremists demonstrated outside of the homes of two families affiliated with the Chabad hasidic movement, demanding that they move out. "They have big dogs that they walk around with in the street, they deliberately chase children with them and frighten them, they intentionally defile this neighborhood and we want them to go somewhere else," the Ynet news site quoted one protester as saying. The Chabad movement draws the extremists' ire because of their outreach to the non-haredi world.

Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush's car was mobbed in Beit Shemesh in April. Several months earlier a soldier driving through the city crashed into a lamppost after his car was pelted with stones and trash. Last month, a local extremist was arrested for breaking a woman's iPhone.

Many Israelis consider Beit Shemesh a microcosm of the religious kulturkampf being waged across the country. The city rose to national prominence in 2011 when local extremists began harassing and spitting on young national-religious girls attending a school on territory they claimed belonged to the haredi community.



Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Former Satmar Hasidic Jew now tours world to expose sect’s dark underbelly 

On his Instagram page, there is a photo of Ari Hershkowitz wearing a virtual reality headset. It pretty much sums up his story: an escape from one world to another.

Hershkowitz met with The Times of Israel outside the Sydney Jewish Museum, a few days after he presented at Yom Limmud in Sydney. It is a wintry day Down Under and he is wearing black jeans and a red T-shirt. He doesn't like to wear long sleeved shirts, he later says — it reminds him of his previous life. His American drawl makes it hard to imagine that for most of his life he could not speak English.

Hershkowitz cuts a hipster figure as he "vapes" on his electric cigarette. He winds his way to the museum's café upstairs while snapping photographs of the exhibits on his smartphone. He plans to visit the museum again, he says.

Sitting down, he fidgets, looks sideways and checks his phone. He has a Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter account and appears to be on call. Every now and again he needs to be reminded where he left off in the conversation. He clearly finds it hard to focus — but focus is necessary to tell this 21-year-old's story.

His name is now Ari. During another phase it was Alex, the name he took on when he escaped to Florida for six months.

"I wanted to run away from Judaism as far as I possibly could. I then took on the identity of Alex, who was never a Hasidic Jew," Hershkowitz says.

In his childhood, he went by the name Arye.

"I don't remember much of my early life," Hershkowitz says. "From the age of 14 to 20 I was on the wrong medication. I don't know whether that ruined my memories from before, combined with the fact that I wanted to forget everything, especially aged 8 to 12."

He begins with the basics.

Hershkowitz's formative years are set in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, New York. He is the second of nine children. The Satmar dynasty is one of the largest in the world. It is characterized by strict religious observance, rejection of modern culture, and fierce anti-Zionism. In a podcast interview, he describes this brand of Judaism as "Judaism on steroids."

Yiddish was the only language he spoke. At school they studied Jewish texts. They did also learn English, he adds, but that was only from the ages of 8 to 12, and it was relegated to the last lesson of the day, taught by teachers who could barely speak the language themselves.

"We studied gemara, mishnah and chumash," Hershkowitz says, referring to various texts of the ancient oral law and Bible.

"Initially, I was a very good student. I had a folder for 'best in class,'" he says with a hint of irony.

It is this subpar education which, he claims, has caused the community to be crippled by poverty, beset with ignorance and reliant on government funding for virtually all aspects of life.

But it's what he calls its skewed values and the importance accorded to trivial things which he remembers most vividly.

"What our eyeglasses were made of was very important. Metal is bad; plastic is good. What counts is the color of your socks, which shoe you tie first in the morning. Wearing a watch is discouraged before bar mitzvah; after that it is completely banned. Being a good person was never a priority," he says.

The period he finds hard to recollect is not incidental. "I never talked about it. I choked it for so long," he says.

At the age of 8, Hershkowitz says he was sexually assaulted in a synagogue by an older man. After a pause and some hesitation, he recounts the incident bit by bit.

"The man made up some story about my belt. He shouted, 'You hit my son, you hit my son with your belt,' and then he grabs me and takes me downstairs to the basement, takes away my belt and then… whatever… I had no idea about sex or anything. The abuse was violent. I still have the scars," he says.

The "punishment," he says, continued for a number of weeks, in the basement of the synagogue.

"One day, when we walked up the stairs from the basement my dad saw me. I guess by the look on my face he realized what had happened and he started yelling at this guy in front of everyone," Hershkowitz says.

The abuser never returned to the synagogue.

"I told my father from my little understanding what had happened, but I am sure as a grown, smart adult he got the picture. He still told me that I must be thinking that… looking back, I am sure he knew. He never said that he was sorry it happened to me. He couldn't, because that would mean he'd have to report it to the police — something he would never do. Satmar never calls the police. No matter what happens. Never. Which is wrong because in some cases they should," Hershkowitz says.

Hershkowitz's behavior became erratic, or, as he puts it: "I was a very wild kid and always getting into trouble."

Two years later, during a summer camp in Napanoch, a small hamlet in Ulster County, New York, he says he was assaulted again. This time three people were involved.

"They held me down to a bed, I managed to get free. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and tried to fight back with that. They grabbed me and pulled me back into the bunk. I am not sure how long it lasted. It seemed like five hours before my private tutor came to look for me. Then they left. I was tied up and my tutor saw me," says Hershkowitz.

He repeats, "He definitely saw me tied up."

The perpetrators, says Hershkowitz, continued working at the camp. He is skeptical about pressing charges or filing a formal complaint with police.

"All the people who witnessed it… none of them would ever testify. It's my word against theirs. In fact, some of them specifically told me that if they had to testify they would say that it never actually happened. So, realistically, there is nothing I can now do about it," he says.

Like many others who have survived sexual abuse, the experience triggered a deep crisis.

"I thought to myself: maybe I am praying to the wrong God. I was desperately unhappy in the community. I was still dressed as a Satmar but I had no religion left in me," Hershkowitz says.

He adds something, quietly, that only resonates later: "Two people stuck with my in the tough times. Only two people. Everyone else bailed."

It is a revealing glimpse into the isolation and loneliness of a lost teenager whose life was upending.

At 14 he went out to look for answers. He frequented internet cafés and walked the streets.

"I went online searching for anything from particle accelerator to Bonny and Clyde, and anything in between. Slowly I developed my English. I started chatting with strangers. I'd ask them, 'How do earthquakes happen?' A lot of people ran away from me," he smiles.

What followed was a phase of self-harming, and his descriptions of this are quite disturbing. The self-harm morphed into substance abuse. First it was alcohol. He drank whatever his father had at home.

"I love vodka," he laughs, "It's my all time favorite. I drink it neat."

The path to harder substances was just a matter of time. He began smoking cannabis before progressing to stimulants.

"Weed, amphetamine, cocaine… things like that," he lists them casually. "Cocaine was a weekend treat," he grins.

To finance his habits, he says he used imaginative and creative ways to earn money.

At school, when he turned up, no one had any idea.

"To this day, 99 percent of the community don't know that dilated pupils means stimulants. When anyone asked me about my pupils, I told them I needed glasses. They took that for an answer," he says.

By this time Hershkowitz had begun seeing a series of therapists — licensed and not — who prescribed psychiatric medication, starting from age 10.

"One time I broke my leg because the medication I was on made me dizzy and I fell. At one point I was on 2,400 milligrams a day [of a medication he later learned was unnecessary]. I was always drugged up. Sometimes I was asleep during the day for no reason. It messed with my head. I was sure I wouldn't make it past 25," said Hershkowitz.

"I wonder if there's a file with all the medication I've been given," he muses to himself.

August 28, 2015, was a watershed in Hershkowitz's life. He was on his way to a picnic with friends from a recovery community. At the time he was still "a Satmar," as he puts it, and he wore a hooded sweatshirt in the train to avoid being seen by members of the community.

After having felt the support of his friends at the picnic, on the way home he took out his mobile phone, looked up the nearest barber shop and headed for it.

Pointing to where his sidelocks used to be, he says, "I walked two blocks and told the barber, 'Take them off.' I then posted a photo of my new look on Facebook and wrote, 'This is me now, deal with it.' I went back home late at night. In the morning, my mother looked at me and said nothing."

A period of uneasy cohabitation with his family had begun. His parents were by now clearly aware that he had left the fold, yet he was still living with them. It was a trying time for everyone. His father made it clear that because he was not following the rules, including Jewish law, it was time for him to leave.

A Hasidic man from the community who helps the so-called "outcasts" got Hershkowitz into a rehabilitation clinic. That, too, was not without its challenges. He relapsed numerous times. Then came a dramatic fall.

"In June 2016, I overdosed in my bedroom. I was unconscious for some time. I had ingested a cocktail of ketamine, GHB [gamma-hydroxybutyrate] and molly [the street name for MDMA]."

He called a friend who picked him up and later an ambulance was called. "They locked me up in a psychiatric ward and I was there for a few days. My father picked me up [upon his release] and took me to a hotel. He paid for one night and then walked off. I had 24 hours to find an apartment and rebuild my life," Hershkowitz says numbly. He says he still showed up at work the following day, a Monday.

But behind the rather cool façade, it is clear that things did not just happen overnight.

Hershkowitz turned to Footsteps, a New York-based organization dedicated to helping members of the ultra-Orthodox community who wish to leave. They helped him find his feet and get back on track.

And now he is Ari.

"No more cigarettes, coffee, candy, drugs, alcohol, weed — all of that out. Actually, I did have candy and chocolates, but none of the rest," he laughs.

He produces a circular token from his pocket which reads, "1 Year." It was given to him by The Living Room, a Jewish recovery group in Brooklyn. He has been clean since March last year.

Hershkowitz has left the Satmar community and leads a secular life. He has held down a number of jobs and is currently supporting himself through his own business. The relationship with his family "is an ongoing thing," as he puts it.

"I have learned to live without a family," he concludes matter-of-factly.

In other interviews, however, he is a lot more understanding of his parents and appreciative of their relative support, which they have afforded him over the years.

Last year Netflix featured the documentary "One of Us," which follows three individuals from Brooklyn's Hasidic communities as they leave the fold. One of them was Hershkowitz. It shows him perhaps in his most vulnerable and conflicted phases as he grapples with his identity and sense of place.

In one scene he is participating in a Hasidic community event. In another, he is sitting in a church, listening to a charismatic preacher delivering a sermon. But now he is clean, he says, and has his sights to the future.

"I love computers," he declares, his eyes lighting up. "I build computers, I fix computers – anything to do with computers. Troubleshooting, setting up… anything."

Hershkowitz is about to begin studying computer science and electronic engineering at college.

"I cannot see what the future holds; I can only see where I am trying to go," he says.

He is also involved with YAFFED, an advocacy group committed to raising awareness of the substandard education levels within ultra-Orthodox schools.

"We are trying to get the schools to give a proper, valid education — not like what they are currently giving, which is useless," he says.

Hershkowitz proceeds to reel off the grim statistics in Brooklyn and why no one insists that ultra-Orthodox schools comply with the state's education laws.

"They have 300,000 votes in New York City. No politician tries to mess with them. All the Hasidic communities vote in one bloc. That will make or break an election. The authorities allow them to do what they like," he says.

Hershkowitz is still dealing with aggrieved family and friends; still trying to figure out the social norms of secular life and what the Satmar community — the only home he has known — means to him. His is an ongoing story, the chapters of which he is still writing.



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