'Secular Jews Need to Stick Up for Us': Fighting anti-Semitism, Orthodox Search for Jewish Solidarity

The Orthodox community in the U.S. has been on the front line of recent anti-Semitic incidents. But they don’t always feel the support of secular Jews

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ultra-Orthodox residents of Borough Park, Brooklyn, during the Sukkot holiday, September 20, 2013.
ultra-Orthodox residents of Borough Park, Brooklyn, during the Sukkot holiday, September 20, 2013.Credit: AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – When some 25,000 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge this month to voice their opposition to anti-Semitism, few Orthodox Jews seemed to be on hand.

“It is my identifiable Orthodox Jewish community that has recently come under attack more than any other,” Jewish community activist Chaskel Bennett said at the rally after the march. “Despite us desperately sounding the alarm, until today, we really have not seen nearly enough sympathy for this sad reality – even for some of our own.”

Leading up to the massive show of solidarity, questions had arisen in the Orthodox community on whether to attend the event. Some Orthodox Jews say they felt excluded from the organizational efforts, some felt out of place in the crowd of Jews from other denominations, and others believe the march should have gone through the Orthodox neighborhoods directly affected by the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents.

A protester during a march against anti-Semitism, New York, January 5, 2020Credit: Gili Getz

The gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews has surfaced in light of the recent wave of violent assaults against Orthodox Jews in Jersey City, Brooklyn and Monsey in New York’s Rockland County.

“Especially in American Jewry, there is ignorance when it comes to Haredim” – Orthodox Jews – said Eli Steinberg, a member of the community and a resident of Lakewood, New Jersey. “There are a lot of years of history that have gotten us to this point, but there is a perception of Haredim as a subclass, and that’s dangerous.”

He told Haaretz: “It’s not something that anybody today created, but I think it’s something that there are people today who exploit. There definitely have been people in the Jewish community who have been aiming to exploit this division and make it deeper.”

Steinberg, who uses the handle TheMeturgeman on Twitter, believes the disconnect between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the Jewish community has created a “landscape where the worst things anybody wants to say about us automatically become believable.”

The mainstream Jewish community, he added, lacks an “understanding of Haredim and Haredi life as something human .... I just wish that people who aren’t Haredi would understand and learn about us as people.”

The CEO of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn, Avi Greenstein, said he’s grateful for the recent displays of solidarity from the rest of the Jewish community, including the march.

“I went there strongly and proudly as a Jew,” he said. “We do need to build bridges, but you do have to appreciate when they do something like this.” Still, Greenstein believes that “absolutely more can be done” to bridge the gap between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community.

“There should be a level of trust and working together,” he said, adding that the Boro Park Jewish Community Council is ready to work with organizations outside the Orthodox Jewish world to build “a level of respect that people could live their lives and culture and not be threatening to others, and that people should be appreciated and respected for their culture.”

He added: “I think we are on the path to it.”

A NYPD car patrols in South Williamsburg Brooklyn on December 30, 2019 in New York CityCredit: AFP

A closed world?

The Orthodox Jewish community has been on the front line of recent anti-Semitic incidents in Brooklyn, Monsey and Jersey City. Last year the NYPD recorded 234 anti-Semitic incidents in New York City. For the five weeks from December 1 to January 6, the Anti-Defamation League confirmed 43 anti-Semitic incidents in New York State, up from 30 the same period a year earlier.

The New York State figures include 11 reported assaults against Jews, including the mass stabbing in Monsey that wounded five people at a rabbi’s Hanukkah party; 22 incidents of anti-Jewish harassment; and 10 acts of anti-Semitic vandalism. This list excludes the deadly shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City on December 10. Most of the victims of these attacks were Orthodox Jews.

Regarding the gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, Steinberg said he is bothered by “the idea that the Haredim are somehow judgmental or aren’t accepting of irreligious Jews as people.”

But Steinberg noted that reaching out to people outside the Orthodox community is complex for Orthodox Jews who don’t want to go against religious rules by being accepting of a more secular lifestyle.

“Without compromising their religious values, Haredi people would do anything for the irreligious Jews to feel closer to them,” he said, adding that some religious values don’t carry the same weight from person to person.

“If I have a religious value that is important to me and not important to somebody else, then that other person could say ‘why are you letting that get in the way of us getting closer to each other?” he said. “You’re being irrational and it’s your fault that we are not close.’”

Steinberg added that preconceived notions about Orthodox Jews as a closed community are “very hard to overcome.” He said he isn’t sure that “the Haredi community is equipped to change it.”

Protesters during a march against anti-Semitism, New York, January 5, 2020Credit: Gili Getz

But for an Orthodox community activist in Crown Heights, Yaacov Behrman, the lack of understanding goes both ways.

“I think as much as the secular Jew doesn’t understand the Orthodox Jew, the Orthodox Jew understands less of the secular Jewish way of thinking,” said Behrman, a member of the Chabad movement. “I think that the Orthodox community could be more open.”

According to Behrman, some of the Haredi community’s outreach strategy to secular Jews shows that it doesn’t understand “the liberal mind.” One example is the debate on the quality of education at yeshivas.

“I think the secular Jews just want the good in the world and they think by forcing yeshivas to change their curriculum [for example], they think that they are doing good,” he said.

But a resident of Borough Park, Orthodox Jew Yosef Rappaport, said it often feels as if secular Jews “treat progressivism as some people treat religion: doctrinaire, Orthodox, either my way or the highway.”

“This is not the way humans interact with each other,” he said. “I definitely feel the way secular Jews and leftist Jews are behaving is undermining the all-time progressives in our community; they’re undermining people like me. They need to stick up for us.”

Rappaport said the portrayal of Orthodox Jews as radical, closed off or judgmental is hurting the moderates among them, “the ones who recognize the other side.” As he put it, “You’re being spat in your face.”

The No Hate No Fear march this month was the largest display of solidarity with the Jewish community in New York in recent years. Rappaport was among the few Orthodox Jews present and says he felt very much embraced at the event.

“Me and my son, we couldn’t walk two steps without being stopped by people,” he said. “There is an unbelievable strong thirst for Jewish unity.” Rappaport came to the protest with a sign reading: “Don’t wait till we are dead, show solidarity with our way of life.”

Orthodox Jew and Borough Park resident Yosef Rappaport during a march against anti-Semitism, New York, January 5, 2020Credit: Alexander Rappaport

“Basically this march was a funeral march,” he said, adding that organizers and large Jewish organizations in the city usually don’t consult with the Orthodox community in Brooklyn on such efforts.

“The entire thing is a bit paternalistic,” he said. “It’s like ‘hey we’re coming to assist you, Santa Claus is coming to town to save you.’ It had that kind of feel.”

Rappaport believes that to create true solidarity, the mainstream Jewish community should show up for Orthodox Jews not just after catastrophic events such as the Monsey Hanukkah stabbing or the Jersey City shooting, but also speak up for them in daily struggles against anti-Semitism.

“I’m not talking about coming and doing a [bonfire] and singing “Kumbaya” with the Orthodox; we don’t need that. But have you been in court to fight the good fight? The American civil liberties fight?” he asked. “Your silence is deafening.”

As he put it, “From Boca Raton to Hollywood to Jackson, New Jersey, there are fights about zoning with Orthodox Jews’ synagogues and so on. The Jewish establishment should come out forcefully against violations of American discrimination laws against Orthodox Jews and fight the good fight.”

Steinberg said the recent shows of solidarity from the larger Jewish community are “definitely appreciated” despite the low turnout from the Orthodox community, but he’s also keen to make sure that such events lead to action against anti-Semitism.

“You didn’t protect a single Jew by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said. “But if you march across the Brooklyn Bridge and that motivates people to realize that there is a problem ... and they do the actual work, then the march is successful and worth something.”

The “worst-case scenario,” he added, is for some marchers to believe marching was enough or use their participation as protection from accusations of anti-Semitism.

“You cannot allow the people who are perpetuating the dehumanization of Haredim in America to say ‘what do you mean? I’m Jewish.’ Or ‘what do you mean? I marched,’” Steinberg said.

A protester during a march against anti-Semitism, New York, January 5, 2020Credit: Gili Getz

One of the ways to bridge the gap, Steinberg believes, is rehumanizing Orthodox Jews for the rest of the Jewish community.

“If you want to have a relationship with a Haredi Jew, you can find a Haredi Jew and even just one time a week study some Torah with him,” he said. “You’ll be able to get an appreciation for this person and his way of life.”

Rappaport added that non-Orthodox Jews should make sure they are “seen as a friend.”

“Show me that you are a brother,” he said. “A brother is not quiet when another brother is in pain or under attack. If you just show up to the funeral of your brother, that’s not something that makes me excited.”

Behrman, whose late parents were “born secular and were die hard liberals before they became orthodox,” as he put it, said the relationship between the various Jewish communities is critical, but he doesn’t see a conflict between secular and Orthodox; he believes this perception is “not accurate in America.”

The relationship, he said, is already burgeoning in many areas.

“It has been happening in Crown Heights for 70 years, which can serve as a great example for some of the other Haredi communities on how to interact with the secular world. In the business world, people interact all the time,” he said.

“I have many very strong relationships and friendships and dealings with secular Jewish organizations. They are very respectful to our values and our culture.”

Greenstein, who has been working to unify the community in the face of the wave of anti-Semitic attacks, said all Jews are affected by anti-Semitic sentiments.

“They may not recognize you, we may be more easily targeted because of our uniform and the places where we live, but let’s not forget that haters hate all of us and we need to stand for each other,” he said.

A protester during a march against anti-Semitism, New York, January 5, 2020Credit: Gili Getz

Vilification in the media

In recent weeks, controversy has been stirred by a January 13 article in The National Review in which the author aimed to explain “long-simmering” tensions in towns and cities with a growing Orthodox Jewish community.

According to the article, the Orthodox Jewish community is a “heavy user of government resources such as Medicaid and food stamps. This is due to the fact that many of the men either don’t work or make low salaries, choosing instead to devote their time to studying religious texts.”

The author, Zachary Evans, added that the community’s members “vote en masse as a bloc in elections for candidates agreed upon by community leaders.”

But the conservative National Review was also strongly criticized for including the quote from an anonymous non-Orthodox Jewish New Yorker saying that many view Hasidic Jews as “locusts, who go from community to community ... just stripping all the resources out of it.”

The article, defended later by the publication, was perceived by many online commentators as making excuses for anti-Semitism and contributing to an “us versus them” narrative around Orthodox Jews.

“The way media generally deals with people like me, visibly Orthodox Jews, has done a lot of [damage],” Steinberg said. “Anybody can say anything about Orthodox Jews and papers will print it without fact-checking anything.”

He said that recently there has been “a little bit of introspection going on in the media to a certain extent and that’s very welcome,” but the vilification of Orthodox Jews in the media is something his community has “dealt with for years.”

“I strongly believe that there is a strong correlation between the recent spike in anti-Semitic attacks and the reportage,” Greenstein added, mentioning another issue currently in the media, yeshiva education.

Orthodox Jewish men pass New York City police guarding a Brooklyn synagogue, December 11, 2019. Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP

The issue has made headlines recently because the New York City Department of Education submitted a proposal to regulate education in the Orthodox schools. This comes after former students alleged that they had not received sufficient instruction in secular studies, particularly English.

“Okay, fair enough, that was their experiences,” Greenstein said. “But the narrative that was built by respected mainstream media figures, marginalizing the entire community, not reporting it honestly or saying that all yeshivas are denying children education, that’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

Greenstein says many reporters haven’t delved deeply enough in their portrayals of the community and have generalized it “in a very big pot.”

“People truly don’t know and realize the contributions that the Orthodox Jewish community contributes to society,” he said. “That’s a story that’s not been told and because it’s not been told, the haters are able to manipulate the ‘us versus them.’”

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