New York City Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota
New York City Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota speaks during first televised debate against Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. Photo by AP
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NEW YORK – New York City mayoral candidate Joe Lhota seemed to have something of a woman problem on his hands this week at a campaign stop in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where he made multiple faux pas involving women in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

The gaffes seemed to be more an issue of the Republican candidate’s lack of familiarity with longstanding religious customs than one of growing hadarat nashim (gender segregation), which made headlines in New York last year because of a quasi-public Hasidic bus line running between Borough Park and Williamsburg.

Lhota's first blunder occurred Wednesday, as he, aides and reporters made what appeared to be an impromptu stop at Congregation Shomrei Shabbos, a small synagogue famous for holding services every 15 minutes almost around the clock.

Lhota’s entourage included his liaison to the Jewish community, Michael Fragin, a couple of women among the clutch of campaign staffers and six or seven reporters, said those who were with him. When they walked into Shomrei Shabbos, afternoon prayers were taking place in the sanctuary and the women were soon asked to leave. “The rabbi was clearly agitated and wanted the women gone,” New York Observer reporter Ross Barkan told Haaretz. “Lhota paid his respects and dropped a dollar into the donation box” and then the group left the synagogue. Lhota “didn’t seem as well briefed as he might have been” on the customs, Barkan said.

One of those reporters, Erin Durkin of The Daily News, tweeted Wednesday, “Female reporters and staffers ejected from ‪@JoeLhota4Mayor stop at Borough Park synagogue,” while her story about the incident was headlined "Joe Lhota does nothing as women with him are kicked out of Brooklyn synagogue."

Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Yeshiva World News and a Borough Park resident, said he spoke to Durkin as Lhota made his way into the synagogue. “I told Erin when we entered I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to go in, you should stand by the door," Kornbluh told Haaretz.

He added that Lhota was accompanied by female staffers and that Durkin "pushed herself in" when she saw the other women enter the temple. "Within a minute were all asked to leave because it’s disrespectful to enter with women while people are praying,” he said.

Durkin did not respond to emails requesting comment.

When asked about the incident by reporters, Lhota defended the synagogue, saying, “Throughout the Orthodox world, the Orthodox Jewish world as well as the Orthodox Muslim world, there are certain places that women are not involved in. I will not as mayor violate their First Amendment constitutional rights for their religious practices.”

Democratic candidate and front-runner Bill de Blasio criticized his opponent Thursday, saying he believes campaign stops must be held "in a space open to all."

"I find it perplexing that he would have organized an event in a situation women wouldn't have access to," de Blasio said.

'To call it clueless would be harsh'

After leaving the synagogue Lhota and his entourage continued to Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen that serves both Jews and non-Jews. Lhota attempted to shake hands with an Orthodox woman who was volunteering. She told him she doesn’t shake hands with men, said reporters there. Moments later he tried to shake hands with another female Orthodox volunteer.

“To call it clueless would be harsh, but he is definitely not as well acquainted with the practices of the Orthodox community as other officials who have run in this race,” the Observer's Barkan said. “I can’t imagine Bill de Blasio would create these same sorts of faux pas.”

Fragin, Lhota’s Jewish liaison, defended the candidate’s attempts to shake hands with the women. “Not everybody at Masbia is Orthodox or even Jewish sometimes it can be hard to identify who would be offended by shaking hands and who would be offended by not,” he told Haaretz.

But the hand-shaking slipup wasn't the only one to take place at Masbia. When Lhota served lunch there as part of a photo op, he pointed and called out to a Wall Street Journal reporter, “You, little girl from the New York Post, you want chicken?” The reporter replied, “Me? I’m from the Wall Street Journal.”

A member of the Borough Park Hasidic community who was at Masbia and witnessed the blunders but asked not to be named said, “Why was he offering her soup kitchen food and calling a reporter ‘little girl’ because she’s short? I couldn’t believe what he was doing, how this person is in politics.”

Asked to respond to the specific incidents, Lhota spokesperson Jessica Proud wrote, in an email, “Our staff should have kept everyone outside while he popped in [to the synagogue] upon request. Joe grew up in New York and has spent an enormous amount of time in Hasidic neighborhoods as both deputy mayor and a candidate for mayor. One of the beautiful things about Masbia is that both Jews and non-Jews go there.”