Article Library / 2016

2016 Annual Assessment

Organizations such as the UJA-Federation or AIPAC have understood the obligations of the Jewish community as a minority group in American society quite expansively. Recognizing the phenomenal success of Jews in America – their disproportionate social, cultural and political influence and impact and economic accomplishments – these representatives of the Jewish community sense an obligation to act not only for the benefit of the Jewish community, but for the general American society as well.
The Haredim tend to consider themselves an embattled minority in need of protection and autonomy in order for their communities to flourish and their way of life to continue. There are different approaches to achieving this goal within the Haredi sector. At the extreme there is the phenomenon of Kiryas Joel, an independent village founded in accordance with New York State law in 1977.23 In 2013, the village had an estimated population 23,000 in 2013.24 The residents of Kiryas Joel are exclusively Satmar Hasidim, who are expected to adhere to a strict interpretation of Jewish law and modesty rules. Any deviation is punished by ostracization or even physical violence. Insularity and autonomy are founding principles of the village. Municipal officials and functionaries, the mayor as well as the chiefs of police and the fire department, are all Satmar Hasidim. The village is totally segregated from the surrounding non-Jewish community. 25 In 1994, the New York State legislature voted to create a school district whose boundaries were coextensive with those of the village.26 This is but one example of the village’s many successes in securing state aid and legislative favors by leveraging its ability to deliver a bloc of votes into political power. This political power, however, is only deployed for the advancement of the village’s own particular interests.

The Yeshivish community of Lakewood, New Jersey provides an interesting contrast to Kiryas Joel. The Orthodox community of Lakewood is an outgrowth of the success of the yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) founded in 1942 by Rabbi Aharon Kotler with 14 students in what was then a sleepy resort town. The yeshiva now has close to 7,000 students, the largest in North America, and the second largest in the world. The community surrounding the yeshiva has grown with the yeshiva over the years, as alumni decided to settle there after completing their years of study. According to 2010 census figures, Lakewood has 93,000 residents, the seventh largest municipality in the state of New Jersey. BMG sources report that approximately 60 percent of the town’s total population, or 55,000 residents, are Orthodox. Like Kiryas Joel, the Orthodox community of Lakewood is growing at an exponential rate, with over 4,000 babies born annually.27

Lakewood is significantly different in important respects from Kiryas Joel. Its Orthodox community is not homogeneous. Although largely Yeshivish, it also includes Hasidic and Heimish Jews as well. More significantly, as the population figures indicate, the town is not by any means exclusively Orthodox or Jewish. BMG has taken an active role in town affairs and governance. BMG’s local political and social activism is no doubt motivated principally out of a concern for the welfare of the local Orthodox community, but it is clear that it recognizes that in order to advance the interests of the Orthodox community it needs to work on behalf of the broader local community as well, including its non-Jewish residents.

Despite the differences between Kiryas Joel and Lakewood in their concern, or lack thereof, for local non-Jewish residents, the predominant attitude within the Haredi sector is that their political capital and social activism should be expended solely for the benefit of their own Orthodox communities, and not for society at large. It is revealing that Rabbi Zwiebel characterizes Agudath Israel’s lobbying efforts as shtadlanus, evoking the eastern European figures who interceded on behalf of the Jewish community with non-democratic Gentile governments.28 The sole purpose of the shtadlan was to safeguard and promote the interests of the Jewish community. This narrow conception of the obligations of a minority vis-à-vis the broader society verges onto a lack of a sense of citizenship that would seem to be at the root of the series of financial scandals within the Haredi sector that have been widely covered in the New York press. Many of these improprieties involve fraud against the government: typically large-scale schemes whereby government benefits and payments are procured with falsified information and documentation. The flouting of law, often by Hasidim, may derive from their strong identity as members of a transnational group that includes Hasidim living in Europe, Israel, and elsewhere, which stands apart from any specific national identity.

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