City Faces Balancing Act as Hasidic Community Grows
Needing to abide by their traditions of modesty, Hasidic women want the city to post a female lifeguard during a women-only swim session at a municipal pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and have lobbied a local councilman to take up their cause.
On another front, Hasidic matzo bakeries, citing ancient Jewish law, have insisted on using water from groundwater wells rather than from reservoirs in preparing the dough used for matzos and have found themselves tangling with health officials worried about the water’s purity.
And on a public bus service that plies a route between the Hasidic neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park, Brooklyn, men sit up front and women in the back, hewing to the practice of avoiding casual mingling of the sexes, even after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg condemned the arrangement.
While these episodes may not have reverberated beyond New York’s Hasidic enclaves, taken together they underscore a religious ascendancy confronting the city’s secular authorities in ways not seen in decades.
The remarkable rise in the population and the influence of Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews has provoked repeated conflicts over revered practices, forcing the city into a balancing act between not treading over constitutional lines by appearing to favor a particular religious group and providing an accommodation no more injurious than suspending parking rules for religious holidays.
A politically astute new generation of ultra-Orthodox leaders has become savvy at navigating the halls of government, while the grand rabbis of Hasidic sects wield electoral power like few religious leaders can, turning followers into cohesive voting blocs. “No one can deliver votes like a rebbe can,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, who has written extensively about ultra-Orthodox Jews.
That power was evident most recently in last September’s primary for Democratic district leader in the area covering Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Two factions of Satmar Hasidim turned out at the polls in astonishing numbers for such a relatively obscure post, yielding a turnout of 11,000 votes, among the city’s largest. Many members of both factions admitted they did not know whom they were voting for but had been instructed to do so by their rabbis or yeshiva officials. The dominant Satmar faction made the difference in vaulting a candidate to the leadership.
As a result, the image New Yorkers and the city’s power brokers have of Hasidim has changed. “They are no longer an obscure group — they’re not just quaint,” Professor Heilman said.
A telling example of how dutifully officials respond to Hasidic interests came at a Brooklyn synagogue forum in this year’s mayoral campaign in which each candidate staked out a position on metzitzah b’peh, a circumcision ritual obscure to most Jews, let alone non-Jews.
Hasidim insist that they are adopting a more confrontational approach only because they are defending their faith’s precepts. Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, said issues like the use of well water in matzos are “core Jewish religious beliefs and will not change, but where there’s ways to work with the government, we will do that.”
On the other side, city officials say their main obligation is to enforce the laws even if it might seem antagonistic to ultra-Orthodox traditions. “We don’t have a formal policy, but we can’t commit to providing a female lifeguard because it would run against the establishment clause of providing a service on the basis of a religious belief,” Liam Kavanagh, first deputy commissioner for parks and recreation, said of the Hasidic request.
Meanwhile, the conflicts and predicaments seem to be multiplying. The city’s Commission on Human Rights issued complaints last year against a half-dozen Hasidic merchants on Williamsburg’s Lee Avenue for posting signs stating, “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store.” The signs, the city said, discriminated against women and non-Orthodox men in places patronized by the public. Hasidic advocates said the signs were no different than dress codes at places like the Four Seasons Restaurant. The dispute is still being litigated in a city administrative court.
Most prominently, the city has battled with ultra-Orthodox Jewish representatives over the health risks in metzitzah b’peh, a technique for orally suctioning a circumcision wound. Instead of banning the practice outright, health officials instead required parents to sign a consent form so they could be alerted to the risks. But ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders were still infuriated. The matter even became an issue in the mayoral campaign, with Christine C. Quinn defending the city’s policy and her Democratic opponents, including Anthony D. Weiner and John C. Liu, arguing that the Hasidic practice has stood the test of millenniums.
Hasidim have also been pressing public libraries in their neighborhoods to open on Sunday, just as the post office and banks now do, since they cannot patronize them on the Sabbath. But Brooklyn library officials refuse, pointing out that union contracts require expensive Sunday overtime.
If city officials feel they need to respond in full-throated fashion to Hasidic appeals, that is partly because the increasing sway of the city’s Hasidim has been nothing short of remarkable. The sparse remnants of Hasidic sects in Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union were almost decimated by Hitler’s slaughter of the European Jews and arrived in New York after World War II in tiny numbers, barely enough to fill a sect’s single small yeshiva or room-size synagogue. But families have an average of six, seven and eight children, helping the sects replenish.
The latest population survey by the UJA-Federation of New York counted roughly 330,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, or 30 percent of the city’s 1.1 million Jews, a figure that melds Hasidim with others who are as scrupulously observant but do not revere a particular grand rabbi. Today Hasidim dominate neighborhoods like south Williamsburg and Borough Park, and support scores of schools, synagogues and kosher stores. Rising numbers have also brought increasing tensions with government authorities.
Two years ago, when the city transferred a female lifeguard at Williamsburg’s Metropolitan Pool to a beach and replaced her with a man, Hasidic women stopped going and felt cheated.
“It’s the only exercise I get,” said Rose Herschkowitz, a Satmar Hasid who swam with her 85-year-old mother.
They turned to their local councilman, Stephen Levin, explaining that wearing bathing suits under the eyes of a male lifeguard would violate the tradition of modestly clothing themselves before men who are not their husbands. Mr. Levin agreed that it was “a reasonable accommodation.” But parks officials did not see it that way, arguing that explicitly assigning lifeguards by gender could violate the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause, not to mention union seniority rules.
Hasidim were somewhat more successful in the tussle over matzo bakeries. After inspectors told a Satmar bakery that it could not use well water without a permit since reservoir water was “available,” the Hasidim marshaled their lawyers. The lawyers, with Talmudic hairsplitting, argued that the reservoir water was not technically “available” to the Hasidim because it had been treated with chemicals like chlorine and so violated religious requirements for matzo baking. The conflict was resolved when the bakery installed carbon filters that allowed the well water to meet state chemical and bacteriological standards. A half-dozen other bakeries still have not met city requirements.
Sometimes a city ruling seems beside the point. A city-franchised company that operates the B110 bus that ferries people between Williamsburg and Borough Park no longer enforces the Hasidic custom that men and women sit apart in social situations. But since virtually all the riders traveling that route are Hasidic, the men and women choose to do so on their own and do not complain about segregation.
Eric Rassbach, the deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative civil rights group, accuses the city of using “the power of government to suppress Orthodox religious practices.”
‘’Why all the targeting?” Mr. Rassbach wrote in a blog post. His blunt answer: “Because of differing birth and adherence rates, the future of Judaism in New York City increasingly appears to be Orthodox.”
Professor Heilman said that many Hasidim specifically blame Mr. Bloomberg’s liberal Jewish background for his intransigence on matters like the circumcision technique. Mr. Bloomberg is Jewish but not Orthodox. The recent clashes with Hasidic tradition, Professor Heilman added, also feed into a tribal memory of centuries of oppression in Europe.
Alexander Rapaport, a Hasid who runs Masbia, a nondenominational group of soup kitchens, urges officials to think about these matters as less about establishing a preference for religion than “accommodating a less conventional lifestyle” of people who pay taxes and are entitled to city services. Jewish Web sites have featured his list of ten “rights” where officials — and mayoral candidates — can demonstrate sensitivity to Hasidic mores. He included Sunday library hours and permits for well water, but not the circumcision ritual or bus seating.
“I don’t approve of any behavior that imposes your way of life on others,” Mr. Rapaport said, adding that the assignment of a female lifeguard does not do so.
“You’re accommodating a person’s having a good time at a pool,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re accommodating that person’s religion.”