Mad 'Max'? The Paradox of the Murdered Brooklyn Hasid

How does one reconcile Menachem Stark's image as a philanthropist in the Satmar community with that of an exploitative slumlord?

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NEW YORK – The paradox of Menachem “Max” Stark became clear the moment he first article about the brutal murder of the Satmar father of seven and real estate investor was published. “Who didn’t want him dead?” screamed the New York Post front-page headline, touting an article alleging that the 39-year-old Hasid was a slumlord with a list of enemies “a mile long.” Yet at his funeral on bitter-cold Saturday night, attended by some 1,000 people standing on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Stark was lauded as a pillar of his community.

How can Stark’s two faces — on the one hand a wealthy philanthropist in his community, but on the other an alleged exploiter when it came to business dealings outside of it — be reconciled? Should people compare Stark to crime-syndicate bosses, like the Jewish gangsters portrayed in the book, “But He Was Good To His Mother” ?

People in Williamsburg have been unequivocal. The Post headline was “pure anti-Semitism,” said Sarah Teitelbaum, a Satmar housewife who asked that her real name not be used. “He was a big ba'al tzedaka (giver of charity). Everybody only has good to say about him.” Leaders of the Hasidic sect as well as Brooklyn politicians condemned the headline.

Security footage showed Stark being attacked and pushed into a van late last Thursday night. His burned body was discovered Friday in a gas-station dumpster. New York City police have thus far not identified any suspects.

Subsequent accounts have detailed some of the financial and legal troubles Stark faced. With a partner he owned dozens of rental buildings with roughly 1,000 apartments in trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods including Williamsburg and Greenpoint. He had not paid tens of thousands of dollars in fines levied by the city for rental properties in severe disrepair, according to the Post, which also cited anonymous sources saying that Stark was desperately seeking loans from business associates the day he was abducted.

Stark’s business troubles date back at least a few years. The real estate trade paper The Real Deal reported in 2011 that he and a business partner had been sued for $51 million for defaulting on five separate loans. On the consumer review website Yelp, one tenant wrote that he lived in a building owned by Stark for five years and “the plumbing was a nightmare. The first-floor was overrun with big-ass rats. Electricity would randomly be shut off for days at a time.” Another poster wrote, “Think of every terrible stereotype and characterization you can possibly imagine when the phrase ‘New York City slumlords’ enters your head.”

Also in 2011, Stark was arrested by undercover cops and charged with assaulting a woman on a Manhattan subway, according to The New York Daily News. After the charges were dropped Stark filed a lawsuit against the city and later received “a payout” when he settled out of court.

Sources say that in fact there is no contradiction between the role Stark played in his Satmar community of Williamsburg, and how some tenants and legal documents say he behaved outside it.

“What you do to the goyim is not the same as what you do to Jews,” said Samuel Heilman, an expert on Hasidic communities like Satmar. Heilman, author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” and a distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College, is currently at work on a book about succession battles in Hasidic courts.

That attitude stems from days when Jews were actively persecuted, he said. “Part of the collective mind-set in the crucible of history when this part of Jewry was formed, the outside world was filled with anti-Semitism and persecutors. The whole understanding of that was that you need to keep a distance from them, that they are a different level of human being,” Heilman told Haaretz.

According to Samuel Katz, who was brought up as a Satmar but later became secular, boys in the community are taught that non-Jews aren’t quite human. Speaking from Berlin, where he is doing biomedical research on a Fulbright fellowship, Katz explained that growing up in such a community, “you don’t see commonality with people who aren’t Jewish. There is a completely different taxonomy of people. There are Jews and then there are non-Jews, who don’t have souls.”

When the messiah comes, “every boy is taught that the bad goyim will be killed and the good gentiles will have the privilege of serving us, of being our slaves," he told Haaretz. "The way Stark dealt with tenants is part of that world view… It’s not taking advantage of them, [rather] that is the world order you’re taught to expect.”

“It informs your moral compass. Like all good people Stark was benevolent and generous to the people who he saw were like himself,” but not to other people, added Katz. “There’s an empathy 'blind spot' that imbues the Haredi outlook.”

But, Katz said he also finds some of the press coverage of Stark’s murder distressing. “The ‘other-ing’ of Hasidim is as abominable as what the Hasidim do to other people. We shouldn’t ‘other’ other people. No one should.”

New York Post front page January 5, 2014
Satmar Jews in Brooklyn. Satmars were 'arrogant and superior and bombastic and proud ... they were the winners, and it was good to be a winner,' writes Shulem Deen.Credit: Archive

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