In the Hasidic enclave of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, there are many things that women can’t or just don’t do: Be counted as one of the 10 people needed to make up a minyan, or prayer quorum. Walk around in pants. But vote?
According to the bylaws of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, a social service agency and community pillar that has received millions of dollars in government grants over the years, only those who meet the following requirements can vote for its leadership:
* Jewish and religiously observant residents of Crown Heights
* Married, previously married or at least 30 years old
Now Eliyahu Federman, a Crown Heights resident and recent law school graduate, is challenging that last requirement, saying he believes it to be unconstitutional.
In Crown Heights, religion and life are inextricably interwoven. But the council itself is not a religious organization, Mr. Federman argues. And in 2008, according to the most recent tax filings available, the council received $1.9 million in government grants.
“Women, especially widows and divorcees, are gravely impacted by decisions regarding the distribution of food stamps, housing subsidies and other vital social services” that the council handles, Mr. Federman, 26, wrote in an April 7 letter to the council and the local rabbinical court. “It should hurt us to see religion being misapplied to wrongfully subjugate women in a context that has no basis under Jewish law and is probably unconstitutional.”
Since Mr. Federman first raised the issue, in 2009, he has heard several explanations for the policy: that voting is immodest, that this is how it’s always been done — and that allotting women votes could sow discord among married couples, working against the ideal of “Shalom Bayit,” or marital tranquillity.
Mr. Federman argues that women are encouraged to vote in secular elections — and that true marital harmony comes from “a couple appreciating and accepting each other’s viewpoints.”
“If there is one vote per household, then the husband and wife have to fight over that one vote!” he wrote. “If they each get a vote, then let them vote for whomever they each want. It’s just common sense.”
His wife, Shainy, 21, agrees, saying, “Judaism empowers women to have a voice.”
Rabbi Eli Cohen, the council’s executive director, said the entire structure of the council was being reconsidered, with the voting policy “definitely in the mix of issues.” The next election is scheduled for the summer of 2013.
In an e-mail to Mr. Federman on April 6, Isaac Tamir, a lawyer known as Zaki who is the council’s chairman, mentioned the possibility of a “hybrid vote” on community matters, with one vote per household — giving a say to widows and unmarried women over 30. In a telephone interview, Mr. Tamir said the council’s bylaws were being reworked, and that he was confident that all adult women would be able to vote in the next election. Mr. Federman said that would be welcome news — which he looked forward to seeing in writing.
Marc D. Stern, the associate general counsel at the American Jewish Committee, said it was not at all clear whether the voting policy was unconstitutional, and that the only way to find out would be to litigate it.
“There is a crazy quilt pattern of anti-discrimination provisions and funding provisions,” said Mr. Stern, a lawyer who has specialized in religious liberty and civil rights for more than 30 years. “They are in a constitutional gray area. The government is in a constitutional gray area.” Were government financing not involved, he said, the policy would be “plainly legal.”
On the one hand, he said, the Supreme Court has in several cases ruled that organizations receiving most of their money from the government should not be held to the same standards as government agencies on matters including hiring and firing — so “merely having taken government money doesn’t make it unconstitutional for them to discriminate.”
On the other hand: “If the government, by some neutral rule, decided it wasn’t going to fund organizations whose boards were picked in a discriminatory way, that would probably pass constitutional muster.” Such a decision, however, would have major ramifications for the debate over faith-based initiatives.
While many Crown Heights Jews affiliate with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a Chabad spokesman, said the movement was “as separate from the civic affairs of the Crown Heights Jewish community as the White House is from Washington, D.C., civic affairs.”
Mr. Federman said he decided to speak with The New York Times only after his behind-the-scenes efforts were unsuccessful, saying, “I believe this discussion belongs in the public forum, not behind closed doors.”
“The topic of women’s suffrage in Crown Heights is apropos considering that Passover, a celebration of liberation from slavery, is around the corner,” he said. “According to tradition, the women are credited for redeeming the Jewish people from slavery by defying Pharaoh’s orders to kill their newborn children.”