Commentary Magazine


What You Don’t Know About the Ultra-Orthodox

The so-called ultra-Orthodox may be the most recognizable Jews by virtue of their distinctive garb, but they continue to be the least-known actors on the American Jewish scene. Clustering in densely populated enclaves, speaking Yiddish or Yinglish (a mixture of Yiddish, English, and rabbinic Hebrew) among themselves, consciously rejecting much of modish Western culture, and arranging their family lives, daily routines, finances, and politics in a manner entirely different from their highly acculturated co-religionists, they are a people apart. For want of a better term, they have come to be known collectively as Haredim,1 “those who tremble in fear of God.”2 More colloquially, in recognition of the preferred head coverings of their males, a different shorthand is used, though not as a term of endearment—“black hatters.” Yet rather than constitute a single monolithic body, these Jews demonstrate that there are at least 50 shades of black.

The largest contingent consists of Hasidim, the inheritors of an 18th-century mystical strain of Judaism. They divide themselves into at least two dozen sects, each with its own leader. Some, such as the two warring factions of the Satmar group, are riven internally; others simply refuse to cooperate with one another and at times come to blows.

Then there are the historical antagonists of the Hasidim, the spiritual descendants of their Lithuanian opponents. These are the “Yeshivish,” men whose lives are oriented around upper-level academies of Torah study. To insiders, the subtle but very real distinctions in customs, garb, allegiances, and ways of living that characterize these different sub-populations loom far larger than their commonalities.

Where did the Haredim come from? Until the Holocaust era, the most religiously traditional Jews rarely immigrated to America. For one thing, they were tightly bound to their communities in Eastern Europe; for another, many of their rabbis discouraged relocating to the Treyfe Medina, a country deemed unfit for Jewish religious life. To be sure, some traditionalist Jews, including rabbis, joined the mass migration of East European Jews to the United States in the three decades prior to World War I, but they could not hand down their way of life to the next generation.

Highly traditional rabbis in particular found America to be a Jewish desert. In his cri de coeur of 1887, Jews and Judaism in New York, Rabbi Moses Weinberger lamented the upside-down religious life he found on these shores, where learned Torah scholars were marginalized, showboating cantors were all the rage, and Jewish know-nothings dominated the community. Weinberger threw in the towel and returned to Hungary. But other European-style rabbis stayed and established no fewer than three separate rabbinical organizations during the first two decades of the 20th century, none of which exercised serious influence over native-born Jews.

The triumph of Communism in the Soviet Union and the rise of Nazism soon thereafter—the former intent on destroying Judaism and the latter on ruthlessly slaughtering Jews—prompted traditionalist Jews who never would have considered coming to America to flee for their lives. Their arrival marked a turning point. Unlike earlier generations of Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe, they imported sophisticated techniques to cope with modernity. Their armamentaria included all-day Jewish schools designed to immerse youngsters in the texts and rituals of the Jewish tradition; an extensive community infrastructure to support and reinforce their distinctive religious ways; and what some have called an “enclavist” mentality, to insulate themselves from Jews holding different views. Central to their ideology, in the words of the scholar Jeremy Stolow, was opposition to “all ‘liberalizing’ tendencies in Jewish thought and practice…[and a self-conception as] the unique bearers of Jewish authenticity.”

Haunted by the memory of the decimated communities that had nurtured them in Eastern Europe, appalled by the defections of most American Jews to various “deviationist” forms of Judaism (including Modern Orthodoxy), and convinced against all odds that the future lay in re-creating what they imagined had existed in the obliterated communities of East European Orthodoxy, they labored far from the centers of Jewish power and influence to rebuild traditional Judaism in America, preferably in splendid isolation. (Interestingly, perhaps the best-known of them—the Hasidim of the Lubavitch sect—have been outliers in this regard by virtue of their active engagement with all sectors of Jewish society, even though they share most of the countercultural values of the Haredim.)

Their distinctive worldview—with its assumption that Judaism will flourish only if Jews sequester themselves in self-segregating enclaves—was antithetical to the integrationist agenda prevailing in the rest of the American Jewish community. The large majority of American Jews aspired to win complete acceptance and were prepared to pay a high price for it; the Haredim, then as now, insisted on fitting in on their own terms. This unbridgeable divide within the American Jewish populace was captured in Philip Roth’s prescient short story of 1959, “Eli the Fanatic.” Sent as an emissary by his Americanized Jewish peers to persuade the head of a newly opened yeshiva for Holocaust survivors to dress and behave like an American so as not to embarrass them, Eli regularly must pass what Roth none too subtly identifies as a Gulf gasstation. The chasm Roth perceived 55 years ago continues to be maintained deliberately, and it’s geographically reinforced by the settlement of Haredim in places far removed from the centers of American Jewish life, such as Lakewood in New Jersey, Orange and Rockland Counties in New York, and several highly insular neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

Aside from meeting for business-related purposes, most American Jews rarely have had occasion to speak with a Haredi Jew (other than Lubavitch emissaries)—or vice versa. My own first encounter with Satmar Hasidim happened by chance during a visit to Budapest in the early 1980s. Striking up a conversation with what seemed to be European Jews with strong Yiddish accents and a limited command of the English language, I realized gradually that my interlocutors had been born and educated in New York City but were raised in an environment where English remained at best a third language after Yiddish and Hebrew. Had we not been travelers abroad searching for remnants of Jewish life, our paths never would have crossed—certainly not in our native city.

For those of us outside the Haredi camp, the persistence of these seeming throwbacks to an earlier era calls out for explanation. The tolerant mood of postwar America surely played a role in opening a space for Haredim, along with other minority groups, to live according to their own customs. Like other Jews, the Haredim have benefited from the generosity of Americans, who have accorded respect to different forms of religious expression and garb, however alien they may seem. Yet fundamentally, the vibrancy of Haredi life owes most to their single-minded rabbinic leaders. When they found traditional Jewish life on the wane upon their arrival in the United States, these leaders set in place the necessary conditions for the renewal of their communities.

The most basic of these was a strong pro-natalist orientation. Young people in their late teens or early twenties are paired off either by their parents or professional matchmakersand, once married, are expected to produce children quickly and often. In contrast to non-Orthodox Jews, who average fewer than two children per household, yeshiva-oriented Haredim customarily have four to six children; Hasidic families frequently have as many as 8 to 12.

Though we do not know how far back these high fertility rates go or precisely when they became the norm, their impact on Haredi life today is unquestionable. In Lakewood, New Jersey, for example, 4,000 children were born last year into a Haredi population of perhaps 10,000 to 12,000 families. The fertility rate of the Jewish population of Lakewood is nearly four times that of the residents of Jersey City and Newark, two far larger municipalities in the Garden State. Each year, more classes have to be added to local Jewish day schools to accommodate the swelling population. Even with 12 kindergarten classes in some schools, it is impossible to find room in existing institutions for all the children coming of school age. In September 2012, 14 new Jewish day schools opened in Lakewood—and even that number has not reduced the pressure to find space to accommodate the still larger cohort of children entering the system in September.

For Hasidic families, the center of their activity is Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, where the dominant Satmar sect is surrounded by many smaller groupings. Nearly half of its Jewish population are children younger than 18. On a recent visit to Bais Rochel, a K–12 girls’ school in Williamsburg, I was informed that enrollments exceeded 3,000 students, making it one of the largest Jewish day schools in the country—matched only by other Satmar schools in Kiryas Joel, about 50 miles north of the city. A recent report in the Forward noted that Bais Rochel had 10 eighth-grade classes, 15 classes of first-graders, and 16 classes of preschool girls. The growth rate could not be more stunning.

Hasidic and Yeshivish families residing in nearby Boro Park, Flatbush, and Crown Heights also have high fertility rates: Compared with the general American norm of 80 children born per thousand women, the birth rate in those two neighborhoods is somewhere between 186 and 192 per thousand. Walking the streets of these communities, one is overwhelmed by the sheer number of children and the resulting spillover of Haredi populations into contiguous neighborhoods to relieve the pressure building up due to insufficient affordable housing. The demographic trajectory, according to one analyst of census data, is for the Hasidic population to more than double in the next 20 years. The Yeshivish lag slightly but also are expected to grow by at least 30 percent with the birth of each new generation.3 What this means for New York’s Jews is already evident: A demographic study conducted in 2011 found that 49 percent of Jewish children who are younger than 18 are being raised in Haredi homes.

Providing a Jewish education for these swelling numbers of children has not been left to chance. Attendance at private Jewish day schools is well-nigh universal from early childhood through high school, and that includes children with learning disabilities. In these schools, students spend considerably more hours immersed in religious studies than in general-education classes. The former are regarded as critically necessary to prepare them for life in Haredi communities, the latter far less so. This stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of the Jewish community; most day schools outside the Orthodox orbit devote considerably less time to Jewish learning than to general studies.

The Haredim have built an extra tier onto their educational infrastructure, at least for males. Young men are expected to pursue post–high school studies at institutions called Kollelim, yeshivas of higher learning where they will continue to learn after they have married and started their families. Some seek to attain rabbinic ordination, but most engage in Torah learning for its own sake. This was the dream of rabbinic leaders who arrived during the Holocaust era. Most notable in this regard was Aaron Kotler, who came to America in 1941 from Lithuania and two years later established a high-level yeshiva in Lakewood. His long-term aspiration was to recruit 100 men in their twenties to devote themselves to full-time study. Today the Lakewood yeshiva enrolls more than 7,000 men, making it the largest advanced institution of its kind in North America. Though it has but a fraction of the student body found in Lakewood, the Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore also attracts many Haredi Jews. Baltimore today boasts a Jewish population that is 30 percent Orthodox, the highest proportion of any Jewish community in the United States, in large measure due to the presence of Ner Israel.

Within the Haredi world, devotion to Kollel study varies. The Satmar and Lubavitchers, for example, retain men for a year or two of post–high school Torah study and then encourage them to begin earning a livelihood. In other Hasidic groups, such as the Bobover and Skvarer, men linger for more years, in some cases their entire lives. The Yeshivish maintain an ideal of continued study by adult males until they are well into their twenties. For the most part, though, Haredim studying in American Kollelim should not be conflated with those in Israel. There, the government supports yeshiva students and thereby enables their unemployment. That is not the case in the United States.

In fact, none of this would be economically feasible were it not for the remarkable social safety net constructed by Haredi communities to support their own. The ethos of those communities is for every Jew to be engaged actively in Hesed, a term often translated as “acts of loving kindness” but that might simply be defined as giving of oneself. Far from being an invention of the Haredim, Hesed has a long history; but the Haredim have made it an art form by creating hundreds of aid programs, known as Gemachs. (Gemach is a Hebrew acronym for gemilut hasadim, literally “the giving of loving-kindness.”)

On a stroll through Williamsburg, a visitor can spot Gemachs at almost every turn. Down a flight of stairs is a Kallah Gemach storing hundreds of white wedding gowns, shoes, and veils, all donated by wealthier families to be rented, for free, by new brides. On the same street in a huge school building are two large wedding halls, offering an all-inclusive package, including a single musician and food for 250 guests, at the bargain cost of $10,500. A few blocks over, a store selling Kosher meat products at prices subsidized by the Satmar community allows shoppers to contribute funds anonymously so that the poor can receive an added discount. A few blocks on, the Bikkur Holim society, an enterprise run entirely by volunteers, prepares Kosher meals daily for shipment to a dozen hospitals and rehabilitation centers in the New York area for distribution to patients. Its purpose is to provide free Kosher food up to the standards of the most demanding Haredi Jews. Farther on, there are “stores” with rack upon rack of used clothing, all free for the taking.

In neighborhoods with dense Haredi concentration around the greater New York area and Los Angeles, pennysaver newspapers list a broad panoply of free services offered by Gemachs. Locked out of your house or car? Haverim will send someone to open your locks at no charge. Are you in need of transportation to medical facilities outside the community? Call Bikkur Holim, which has volunteer drivers lined up to shuttle people to and from those health centers, including family members visiting the sick. Need an emergency ambulance? Call Hatzolah, a well-known volunteer ambulance service started by Satmar Hasidim intent on avoiding the kinds of delays that have cost lives when ambulances did not arrive in time. For disabled children and adults, Ohel and Bais Ezra will help. Bonei Olam arranges free fertility treatments. Or Chodesh offers support groups for people with emotional troubles. To aid bereaved families, Misaskim will literally provide gravediggers, chairs for mourners sitting shiva, and support programs for orphans. As for goods, one can find Gemachs offering furniture, clothing, and books; Hasidic bridegrooms can even expect to receive the gift of a fur-rimmed hat from a streimel Gemach. And at major medical centers in the greater New York area, Haredim provide free apartments so that family members won’t have to travel on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays to be with hospitalized loved ones. The list of services is nearly endless, and because of the value placed upon Hesed, members of the community are constantly dreaming up new Gemachs to address as yet unmet needs.

Current Haredi leaders insist that this extensive volunteer effort resulted from the model set by European-born rabbis. As one former insider put it to me, students in yeshivas are taught that “tzedakah [Jewish giving] is part of your religious direction.” Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, an influential Haredi rabbi, wrote of the imperative for Jews to act in a godly fashion, and that means the good Jew must give and not only take. Driving this point home, the story is told of the time Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, learned of students in his yeshiva who were shirking their responsibility to visit the sick; his response was to threaten closing down the yeshiva.

Without diminishing the remarkable achievement of the Hesed work, a volunteer effort in which all must tithe and give of themselves, we might note the function it plays in making life in poor Haredi communities economically viable by offering so many free services and goods. It also serves as a powerful instrument for building community cohesion and, like all social-service programs, ties the beneficiaries to the provider. The community has the power to withhold support and expects a high degree of social conformity in return for its Hesed. In fact, the three key institutions of Haredi life—family, religious schooling, and Hesed—all serve to bind people together within shared and tightly embracing communities.

One might assume that the intensity of Jewish living in Haredi communities would spark some curiosity, if not admiration, among their more acculturated Jewish counterparts. After all, the larger American Jewish community has been failing in the very tasks Haredim seem to have mastered. Outside the Orthodox community, fertility rates have plummeted below replacement level, ignorance about Judaism and Jewish civilization abounds, and Jewish community life is eroding. It stands to reason that the dramatically different patterns within Haredi society in precisely these areas might provoke closer scrutiny, if not grudging respect. Nothing of the sort has happened. Anyone following Jews’ discourse about their communities cannot fail to note the near-universal hostility and derision directed at Haredim. Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that no other Jews are as reviled by their co-religionists.

Why might this be? Simply put, the Haredim have managed to alienate many of their co-religionists. To take one negative example, repugnance directed at the “holier than thou” surfaces powerfully whenever a Haredi person, let alone a rabbinic leader, is accused of a crime. Not only are other Jews embarrassed by the misdeeds of people so readily identifiable as Jewish, but they resent the hypocrisy of criminals parading as pious persons. The Jewish press seems to spotlight criminals clad in black hats or yarmulkes with a greater zeal than it does other Jewish criminals. And the power of the Internet magnifies the reporting. FailedMessiah.com, a blog started in 2004, specializes in documenting in excruciating detail crimes and sins committed by Haredim in every corner of the globe. As when Catholic priests and evangelical preachers who have sinned (or worse) are exposed, the misdeeds of Haredi rabbis are taken as confirmation that for all their holy-rolling, they are charlatans. Does the Haredi population contain more crooks, pedophiles, tax evaders, and embezzlers than the rest of the population? We have no way to know, but probably not. Still, those who carry themselves as paragons of religious piety are held to a higher standard: The Haredim, after all, are expected to be free of vice because they are supposed to “tremble in fear of God.”

When Haredi communities close ranks to protect offenders, insult is added to injury. Efforts to shield criminals in their midst, especially rabbis accused of pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse, are taken as evidence of a morally bankrupt community. Haredim would argue that history has taught them to distrust state legal systems, but such an argument fails to persuade their Jewish critics and is regarded, understandably, as especially pernicious when children are harmed while their molesters are given refuge.

Of late, there has been a huge spillover into the American Jewish community, because of fierce struggles in Israel over Haredim who shirk military duty. When Israel passed legislation in March ending the draft exemption for most yeshiva students, an estimated 50,000 Haredim took to the streets of Manhattan to denounce the new draft law and lambaste state officials. Some hotheads did not shrink from comparing the Israeli government to Nazis. Significantly, the most severe criticism of Haredi draft exemptions has come from Modern Orthodox quarters in the United States, as it does in Israel from the religious Zionists. Here is how a prominent Modern Orthodox leader, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, responded: “It is unconscionable that there exists [among the Haredim] this idea that work and army service are beneath them, and the rest of society which they hold in contempt must work and pay higher taxes in order to support them [so] they should sit and learn.”

Embedded in this statement of outrage is still another source of resentment: Haredim have made the choice to sustain their lifestyle—and large families—by working the system to obtain government support. Significant percentages of Haredim in the U.S. collect food stamps, and benefit from Section 8 rent assistance, Medicaid, and other subsidies. One might expect conservatives to protest loudly, but, interestingly, Jews on the left are at least as exercised. This was made evident in an editorial in the Forward, a liberal national newspaper, denouncing Haredim as “undeserving poor.” What seems to set critics off is the life of poverty-by-choice embraced by the Haredim. How dare they have so many children and then rely upon government subsidies to help support their brood?

Haredim would respond by noting that their private schools educate 150,000 students, thereby saving the public coffers a good deal of money. Why, then, shouldn’t they enjoy other government benefits to which they are entitled? They also would point to the dynamic economies in Haredi neighborhoods that stem not from government support but from a rising middle class and a small tier of wealthy Haredim that together shoulder a good deal of the responsibility through their voluntary contributions to schools, synagogues, and other institutions. The vast network of Hesed, moreover, relies not on government assistance but on private initiative to sustain people from cradle to grave. A tally of goods and services provided through Gemachs amounts to many millions of dollars donated by volunteers, thereby relieving the government of some burdens.

Hesed activities nevertheless come in for criticism. Some have questioned whether they mask untaxed funds or in other ways benefit the ostensible givers. And champions of the liberal Jewish conception of social justice known as tikkun olam (literally, “repairing the world”) who focus their attention on universal causes are turned off by the parochialism of Hesed. Why do the Gemachs care about Haredim only, they ask? In fact, many do not. Hatzolah ambulance drivers don’t check the pedigree of people needing hospitalization, any more than Haverim only help Haredim locked out of their cars. The most famous “store” giving away free clothing, Bobbie’s Place in Flatbush, serves Haredim and non-Jews in the neighborhood equally. And on the individual level, acts of kindness are not confined to Jews. To cite one example: A Haredi man regularly visits the pediatric oncology unit of a major hospital in Manhattan where his own son was successfully treated in order to offer words of encouragement to every parent he encounters. True, the Haredim give priority to helping their own. But when asked, they give beyond their community.

The list of grievances against the Haredim would be incomplete without reference to their countercultural positions on a range of issues. Haredim and their Jewish critics operate with vastly different assumptions about modern life, mores, and sources of knowledge. Here once again, I quote Rabbi Pruzansky’s critique of Haredi culture: “Why would a ‘secular’ Jew be attracted to a ‘Torah’ lifestyle that purports to demand estrangement from the general society, a cloistered abode, a rejection of general knowledge, an inability to function in the presence of women, a disdain for gainful employment and self-support?… It doesn’t seem very attractive, except for one who wants to escape from the world.”

From the Haredi perspective, escape may be the only viable option if one aspires to live a godly life. How else should they behave if they perceive modern culture as corrupting? In their view, prevailing sexual mores are immoral, the Internet culture poses manifold temptations, the easy social association with non-Jews may lead to intermarriage, and advanced culture as exemplified by the universities is overwhelmingly secular and often anti-religious.

As is true in the culture wars at large, gender issues are often a flashpoint. The vastly different roles of women in Haredi society compared with the larger Jewish populace have created resentment on both sides of the divide. And then there are sharp differences in attitudes toward sexuality. Where else but in a Haredi school would anyone be teaching that Jewish men and women must refrain from premarital sex? Or that same-sex attraction is to be discouraged? Such thinking has become anathema in most of the American Jewish community and in society at large. Little wonder that the principal of a Haredi girls’ high school issues an annual appeal to parents of her seniors, urging them to avoid sending their daughters to colleges not under Orthodox auspices, because those schools “stand against everything we have taught them and will undo everything they have learned here.”

Though the Haredi and non-Haredi worlds of Judaism are quite far apart, it would be false to portray their standoff as static. Within the broader Jewish leadership, awareness of Haredi life is increasing, and some federations of Jewish philanthropy have added services, including help in obtaining government aid for the poor. Movement in the Haredi camp is even more perceptible. Some leaders have come to recognize that extreme separatism is neither workable nor realistic over the long run. In the Yeshivish sector, rabbis are permitting their students to complete college degrees, usually through night school or at Touro College, a university system highly attentive to Haredi sensibilities.

Armed with professional degrees, Yeshivish men and women are entering once forbidden fields—law, accounting, pharmacology, psychology, corporate business—that bring them into increased contact with other sectors of the Jewish population. Contrary to the stereotypical Haredi woman tethered to her children and home, Haredi females are more likely than their menfolk to acquire the education and skills necessary to function in the labor force, and are venturing forth. Relations are also shifting somewhat because the Yeshivish world is sending increasing numbers of emissaries on a mission to draw non-Orthodox Jews back to Judaism.4 In the process, hundreds of Haredi families are encountering the wider Jewish community—and becoming known to their non-Haredi co-religionists.

Looking beneath the surface, it is abundantly clear that much diversity exists among the Haredim. As Moshe Krakowski, an education professor, has argued, the Haredim may be moderating some of their views as they gain self-confidence. As an example, he quotes what a teacher at a “very right-wing yeshiva high school” had to say about more liberal Jews: “My kids know that every person is equal in my house. They might do things different; they might act different; it doesn’t take away from [their]…being equal. There’s no such thing as he’s worse.” This rabbi is not unique, any more than are the growing numbers of well-read, intellectually curious, and worldly Haredi Jews.

None of this is to deny that fundamental differences in lifestyle and outlook still prevail and will continue to create barriers to mutual understanding, or that a modern day Eli the Fanatic could shuttle between the Haredi and non-Haredi camps without encountering a Gulf. Perhaps, Jews outside the Haredi sector might entertain a few modest accommodations to help repair the Jewish world. One would be to acknowledge the good and not only the problematic or off-putting aspects of Haredi life. The sacrifices Haredim make to repopulate the Jewish people, educate their children in the ways of Judaism, and attend to the needs of others come to mind. Even more broadly, the wider Jewish community might resolve to stop stereotyping fellow Jews who dress and live differently. Wouldn’t that be fitting in a Jewish community trying to be inclusive? Some might even call it an act of Hesed.

_____________

My thanks to Bob Kaplan and David Pollock of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council for serving as my personal tour guides on separate trips to Jewish Brooklyn, and to Rabbi Shlomo Landau, my guide to the Lakewood yeshiva. Special thanks to Rabbi David Niederman of the Satmar Community and Rabbi Aaron Kotler of the Lakewood yeshiva for taking the time to answer my questions.


Footnotes

1 The terms Haredi(m), Hasid(im), and Hesed, which recur in this essay, all begin with the Hebrew letter het; in each case the letter is pronounced as a guttural consonant as in chutzpah and Hanukkah.  Haredim and Hasidim are the plural forms of Haredi and Hasid.

2 In the rest of this essay, I will eschew use of the term “ultra-Orthodox” because it at once casts Haredim as extremists and diminishes the legitimacy of other Orthodox Jews by suggesting they are somehow less committed.

3 Though most of this growth is attributable to large family size, the Haredi population has received a significant influx of recruits from other sectors of the Jewish community, most notably from Modern Orthodox families. As many as 20 percent of students at the Lakewood yeshiva were raised in non-Haredi homes. And Lubavitch too has attracted significant numbers to its brand of Hasidism.

4 On these efforts, see my article on “The Outreach Revolution” in the April 2013 Commentary.

About the Author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Most recently he co-authored Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools, under the auspices of the Avi Chai Foundation.




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