OPINION: Hasidic Jews must put history aside and drop a dime on perverts
By now, everyone is aware of the problems stemming from the reluctance of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg and Borough Park to report to authorities instances of sexual abuse against children in their communities. Just as in the Catholic community, when such abuse occurs it is sometimes perpetrated by religious leaders and teachers.
In Hasidic communities, when brave individuals do report abuse against their children, the community itself often shuns them as outcasts, as if they were the criminals. Rabbis cite an old prohibition in religious law against informing on members of the community to “outside” authorities.
In Williamsburg, a group of Hasidim went so far as to hold a big fundraiser for Rabbi Nechamya Weberman, who was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl who went to him for counseling.
While most people could likely condemn this attitude, to understand it, let’s see where it’s coming from.
The biggest group of Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg, the Satmar Hasidim, originally come from the town of Satmar in Hungary. What was life like for Jews in Hungary before World War II? One person I knew who grew up there at that time, who has surely passed away by now, says she encountered anti-Semitism on her way to school every single day.
In addition, the government was openly anti-Semitic. Until the mid-19th century, Jews had to tolerate a special “tax of toleration.” Although there was a period of liberalization after that, in 1938 the government passed laws limiting the number of Jews allowed to enter each profession and job field. Through subterfuge, it also took away the Jews’ right to vote.
Other Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg and Borough Park have their roots in Romania and the Czarist Russian empire, no havens of tolerance either, to put it mildly. In the Ukraine, you had the pogroms, where roving bands of men, usually drunk, destroyed Jewish property and killed as many Jews as they could find.
And, mind you, this was well before Hitler and the Nazi era. It’s easy to see how centuries of this treatment could make these Hasidic groups suspicious of the non-Jewish world and perceive it to be hostile.
The trouble is that this perception has very little to do with modern-day Brooklyn, America. The United States is a democracy where there is no official policy of harassing and intimidating religious minorities. While there are occasional episodes of swastikas and vandalism, a Jew in Brooklyn doesn’t have insults hurled at him or rocks thrown at him every day. If you walk into a bar, most of the time, you won’t see people muttering about how much they hate Jews or singing, as in the Borat movie, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.“
Still, many of the old attitudes persist. In most cases, ultra-Orthodox Jews have little interaction with the outside world — including other Jews (it might surprise many to learn that most Satmar Hasidim oppose the state of Israel). I remember once, when I worked for the NYC Housing Authority, a Hispanic woman asked a Hasidic co-worker something about whether certain food was kosher. He refused to answer her, just saying she should “speak to a rabbi.”
Lest readers think I’m criticizing only Jews, I’ve found the same behavior in some other groups. Once, when I was interviewing a high official of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he said that they pay tax because they believe in “giving unto Caesar what is due to Caesar.” I felt like telling him that such an analogy was insulting, that it was ludicrous to compare Caesar’s Roman Empire, where half the people were slaves and the emperor was thought to rule by divine right, with modern-day America. But I didn’t want to provoke him, so I said nothing.
Getting back to Hasidic Williamsburg and similar communities, sex criminals there will have to be prosecuted just like anybody else. Maybe, with time, the members of ultra-Orthodox religious groups will come to realize that everybody in the outside world isn’t necessarily out to “get” them. If they can’t move into the 21st century, at least they can move into the 20th.
Raanan Geberer is managing editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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