OPINION: The real truth about Menachem Stark and Hasidic culture
Shiva has just ended for the Stark family and the media frenzy has moved on to new targets. We have not. The horrific abduction and murder of Menachem Stark continues to shock our entire community to its core, and rightfully so.
As most know by now, the New York Post, headline and subsequent articles, created uproar the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time. What is still most troubling to me is the defamation of an entire community. When the Post references an entire group of people “Hassidic”, while reporting about an individual that is sensationalist journalism at its worst.
As was discussed ad nauseum, aside from its despicable headline “Who Didn’t Want Him Dead?,” the Post article was filled with stereotypes and inflammatory innuendo about the Chassidic community. As examples: “the millionaire Hassidic slumlord,” “he is a Hassidic Jew from Williamsburg and we think he is a scammer” among other stereotypes.
The use of the term “Hassidic Slumlord” is clearly inappropriate and intentionally provocative. Fair-minded observers recognize the ramifications of negatively stereotyping individuals and communities. The Post, to no one’s surprise, shrugged its shoulder and moved on to its next meal.
Let’s be honest. There is no justification for identifying the alleged misdeeds of one individual with an entire ethnic or social group. Portraying a landlord of Chasidic lifestyle as a “hasidic slumlord” is insensitive at best and disgusting at worst. In the aftermath of such a terrible tragedy I believe it was unconscionable. Lost in the blaring headline was an innocent family and close knit community reeling from the shock of Stark’s untimely demise.
I am a big First Amendment supporter and the media certainly has a role to play in reporting the news. It’s no great surprise that the Post seems far more interested in scoring cheap circulation points at the expense of a truly heinous crime than informing their readers with facts and information. To my personal dismay, the coverage also symbolized the negative perception of Chasidic Jews overall and how they are viewed in the secular media. Like all sects and nationalities, one person or a group of people should not represent the totality of that group. The word stereotype is mostly used in a negative connotation for exactly this reason.
As someone who is engaged in the profession of representing clients in the public relations arena, I am fully cognizant of the fact that perception is the first step towards reality. I’ve been trying to understand why it is that the Chasidic community seems to be held to a different standard.
Years ago, I was having a conversation with a non-Jewish friend of mine, a fellow who traces his heritage all the way back to the Mayflower. I asked him why Orthodox Jews are often perceived in a negative light.
His answer was simple: “Because you are different,” he said.
I asked him to elaborate. And this is what he told me: “Anytime anyone separates themselves from the general population, be it by dress, tradition, or customs, they create a distinction that is inherently resented by others. That’s just the way it is.”
I didn’t really understand him then, but as time goes on I am beginning to realize how accurate his words are.
As I try to make sense out of the media’s coverage of this evil murder, I see no justification for any newspaper to have recognized Stark by his Chassidic identity. He was a Brooklyn-born businessman who happened to be of Chassidic persuasion. I understand that reporting that would have been boring. Sadly, the media has allowed their insensitivity and dare I say, bias, to fester over time, and may no longer even realize that identifying a subject matter by his or her religiosity is simply wrong and unprofessional.
It should be obvious by now to even the most callous and indifferent reporter that Orthodox Jews are deeply sensitive to allegations of institutional impropriety. Other minorities and groups rightfully and vociferously protest being tarred and stereotyped as well. I would offer that people and groups that have bared the brunt of racism and intolerance over decades are especially attuned and sensitive to being paint brushed or labeled. I believe the Post’s front cover was greeted with outrage and condemnation by my community for this very reason. Clearly not understanding the origin and authenticity of that outrage, the Post felt no need to apologize and that simply proves my point.
And so I ask myself how can we change the conversation and really get the media off our backs? I am more and more convinced that there are internal lessons to be learned from all of this. Perhaps our community needs to reassess how we are viewed by the secular world and how we must present ourselves outwardly to change that perception.
The fact is when identifiable members of our community are alleged as being involved in criminality, it makes all of us the subject of sensationalist reporting. It is as if the media is lecturing us — “Look, you dress and act a certain way, you are holding yourselves to a higher standard, yet you don’t seem to be living up to those same high standards.” Certainly, the vast majority of our community is proper and law abiding citizens. But let there be no doubt, the media enjoys honing in on the few bad stories. That will never change. Yes, it’s unfortunate and unfair, but reality nonetheless. Maybe we might consider expending as much energy preventing misdeeds with proper education and preparation so we need not have to expend as much defending them.
That’s why I propose that any member of our community who intends to enter the business world be offered the opportunity to get formally trained in a fully accredited program in their chosen profession, be it real estate, finance, retail, or others. Very often, our children go straight from Yeshiva into the ‘real world’ without any practical training or knowledge of applicable laws and rules of business. I don’t pretend that this will solve all of our problems or end the double standard towards us in the media, but I believe knowing and understanding individual responsibility is a good first step towards a better future for our people.
I cannot stress enough how much negative damage is generated for all of us through media coverage like this truly tragic story. It reverberates way beyond the scope of the individuals in this story. It is not just about Menachem Stark and his alleged business dealings. It impacts every single Orthodox Jew who engages in any commercial activity with members of the non-Orthodox world.
Yes, we need to confront and condemn newspapers like the New York Post who have defamed all of us and have behaved in a heartless manner towards a grieving family. But we are also required to address the rising stories of white collar crime and shady business dealings when we see them, even if they are few and far between.
As someone who is engaged in public relations in both the Orthodox and non- Orthodox Jewish world, I can only recommend that we address this issue both on an educational level and on a societal level. It is incumbent upon us to stop glorifying those individuals whose wealth is amassed through unscrupulous sources and not in accordance with our code of ethics.
Let me be very clear: I am not writing these words to address Menachem Stark. I am shaken by his murder and truly heartbroken for his family, not only for the obvious loss of a cherished husband and father but also for the fact that his reputation and that of our community were also assassinated along with him. I am writing this here and now because the conversation is unavoidable. We need to place value on the public’s perception of our community. This requires introspection.
It is my fervent hope that my words will be understood in its proper context. Believe me when I say that, as a proud Orthodox Jew, I am deeply hurt on a personal level when members of my community are unjustly and unnecessarily maligned. It need not be.
If my words will change even my own personal behavior then it would have been worthwhile to state my position public on this matter.
Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public consulting group based in New York City and Washington DC. He can be reached by email at [email protected] follow on Twitter @EzraFriedlander