OPINION: `Ultra-Orthodox Jews’: who are they?

March 27, 2013 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Now that we are in the middle of Passover, perhaps the time has come to talk about the media’s constant use of the term “Ultra-Orthodox Jews” – a term newscasters and writers sometimes misuse or overuse. 

Often, those writing the articles or giving the newscasts have only a minimal knowledge of Judaism. For example, one article described the Satmar part of Williamsburg as an “Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.” This is technically correct, but it would be more accurately described as a “Hasidic Jewish community.” All Hasidim are Ultra-Orthodox, but not all Ultra-Orthodox are Hasidim.

To many in the media and the general public, it seems, “Ultra-Orthodox” mainly means “religious Jews who wear funny outfits.”

To begin with, what is an Orthodox Jew? An Orthodox Jew, by and large, is one who believes that God revealed himself at Mount Sinai through the written law (the Torah), the oral law (the Talmud), and through Jewish philosophers like Maimonides. Orthodox Jews believe in a set of religious laws known as “halachic law” that govern their lives.

There is a difference between Modern Orthodox Jews, who until recently were the majority of American Orthodox Jews, and Ultra-Orthodox (also known as “Black-Hat Orthodox”) Jews. Modern Orthodox Jews usually dress in modern attire, although the men wear yarmulkes and the women wear longer-length and longer-sleeved outfits than most American women. They seek to balance religious beliefs with the secular world.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, by and large, seek to separate themselves from the non-religious world. Aside from their distinctive style of dress, they carry out the separation of sexes more stringently – for example, in their schools, separation between girls’ and boys’ classes begins as early as first grade. Many Ultra-Orthodox men will not even listen to the voice of a woman singing on the radio lest they think improper thoughts – this is called “kol isha” (the “voice of a woman”).

Most Modern Orthodox Jews go into the professions as a career, while Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to go either into business or as religious teachers and other functionaries. Of course, there are many exceptions—the leaders of the Ultra-Orthodox town of Monsey, N.Y., recently set up computer classes for their young people, where male and female students are taught in separate rooms.

In general, while most American Jews are the descendants of Eastern European immigrants who came here between roughly 1880 and 1920, most of the Ultra-Orthodox are descenants of Holocaust survivors who came to the U.S. after World War II. During the earlier immigration boom, Ultra-Orthodox Jews stayed in Europe because they felt religious observance in America was far too lenient. My very religious great-grandfather, for example, came to the U.S. around 1900, returned to Belarus several years later for this very reason, and was eventually killed by the Nazis.

Now, what are Hasidim? The Hasidic movement started in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s. It stressed joy in worship – Hasidic men dance in a circle for hours in festivals – and the study of mysticism, of seeking union with God. The founder of the Hasidim, the Baal Shem Tov, found holiness everywhere, especially in nature. Many of the Ultra-Orthodox of that era bitterly opposed the Hasidim, because they thought that the Hasidim de-emphasized the study of sacred texts and were undignified in their celebrations. Also, Hasidim tend to be more devoted to their “rebbes,” sometimes believing that they have almost-supernatural powers.

In New York, the Hasidim are the most visible Ultra-Orthodox Jews, although there are others, such as the Breuers in Washington Heights. There are significant distinctions between the Hasidic sects in Brooklyn. For example, the Satmar in Williamsburg are very anti-Israel, while the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights are pro-Israel. Also, the Lubavitchers actively engage in outreach to non-Orthodox Jews, seeking to educate them about religious observance, while the Satmar and many other sects basically separate themselves from outsiders.

At any rate, this is a very, very brief primer on “Ultra-Orthodox Jews.” We hope that media representatives will be able to use much of this information in the future when writing or broadcasting about Brooklyn’s Hasidic and other Ultra-Orthodox communities.

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