The American Hasidic community is largely the creation of refugees who came to America during and shortly after the Second World War and who settled, for the most part, in New York City. Led by rabbinic leaders, known as “Rebbes,” who headed or descended from heads of various Hasidic courts in pre-War Eastern Europe, these remnants of the large and diverse Hasidic communities of Hungary and Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe that were destroyed in the Holocaust, passionately labored to rebuild, replenish, and perpetuate the Hasidic communities that had been lost. Seven decades later, it can be said that their mission has met with remarkable success. There are now 20 to 30 flourishing Hasidic communities of significant size in America today. The largest group is the Satmar, with large enclaves in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Kiryas Joel, an all-Satmar town in upstate New York.9
The determination to perpetuate the Hasidic pre-War way of life in America affects all aspects of Hasidic life. The most striking feature of Hasidic life to the outside observer is dress and appearance. Each community has its own distinctive form of dress for its male members that replicate the form of dress worn by males of the community in pre-War Europe. Female dress generally is less distinctive as between the different groups; all maintain stringent modesty requirements, including the covering or shaving of married women’s natural head hair.
The different Hasidic communities, if they are of sufficient size, have their own educational systems, including yeshivas and kollels for men and often schools for girls and young women, as well as shuls or shtiebelach, and social service organizations, all of which are usually under the control and direction of the Rebbe.
Hasidic boys and young men receive little secular education. The near-exclusive focus of their schools and yeshivas, where students spend long hours, six days a week with little vacation, is the study of Torah, with Talmud constituting the major preoccupation from the fifth or sixth grade onward. Hasidic girls and young women receive a relatively greater amount of secular education since Hasidim do not believe that women have a religious obligation to study Torah.
A consequence of the educational curriculum for Hasidic young men is that they do not develop basic English language skills. Yiddish is the native language of Hasidim; it is the language in which they conduct their daily lives, and it is the medium of instruction in their schools and yeshivas. Hasidic men generally have limited ability to read or write English, and the English that they do speak is a pidgin commonly referred to as “Yinglish” – a heavily accented English that is inflected with Yiddish words and grammar. Hasidic females, on the other hand, have far better English language skills as a result of the inclusion of secular studies in their education. Hasidic young men face considerable barriers if they wish to pursue a college degree or technical certification, while the young women have more options. There are college degree and certification programs at such Orthodox institutions as Touro University and elsewhere that are geared toward Hasidic students, enabling them to be trained in such fields as computer science, accounting, business administration, and healthcare.
Hasidim marry at a young age, typically in their late teens, or early twenties at the latest. Procreation begins immediately upon marriage (barring fertility issues), and large families are the result – it is not uncommon for Hasidic families to have a dozen or more children. According to the UJA-Federation study, the mean number of children for Hasidic women ages 35-44 in the New York area is 5.8 (the number for non-Orthodox women is 1.3).10
Early marriage, large families, limited secular education, distinctive dress, lack of English fluency, and consuming religious and family obligations, all make for a life highly insulated from American society. There is a clear recognition, and fear, that assimilation of social patterns and values of non-Jewish America, or any mingling with non-Jews, would cause their carefully constructed and protected community edifice to crumble. On the other hand, Hasidim embrace many aspects of modern life, such as technology, medical science, fashion, and consumption of novel cuisine and material goods.