Chassidism: The Truth

Let me give you a little information about myself to justify that rant that I am about to go on: I grew up in Borough Park of Brooklyn, New York. As many of you might already know, Brooklyn is home to a few Chassidic communities and Borough Park hosts one of them. My family is affiliated with Tosh which is similar to Satmar. I attended three very different schools before I graduated high school; these schools– Bobov, Vein, and Stolin– covered the spectrum of Chassidism, save for Chabad.

In school I was taught that African Americans (or שווארצה as they were fondly referred to) were, basically, stupid; the standard fool of every story that we were told was played by an African American. Women that were housewives and completely shaven were pious, all others, modern. When a non-Jew died, we would say Baruch Hashem happily as opposed to the standard Baruch Dayan Emet, which is usually said with some sorrow. And as for our secular– and even Jewish– education… well for now I will just say that if not for Yeshiva University, I would be an ignorant bigot. (Now I am just an educated one.) It is thanks to professors like Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Dr. Ari Mermelstein, Professor Johanna Lane, and Dr. David Johnson that I actually see people for who they are as opposed to coming to a prejudiced conclusion  based on the gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliations of a person. It is for this reason that it bothered me so greatly when I saw signs of Chassidism encroaching YU.

My second semester at YU is when it first showed up. I was speaking to a fellow student who had spent the Shabbat in Brooklyn; he was in awe. He couldn’t stop talking about how amazing tish was (when hundreds of Chassidim watch their rebbe eat on Friday nights). The ‘holiness’ of the rebbe had penetrated his very soul. At the time, I thought one student cannot influence a whole student body; I figured I had nothing to worry about.

My third semester saw me waiting on line, in the Glueck bais, to speak with Rabbi Hershel Schachter. I saw a man with a flache biber hit (flat beaver hat1) on line with me. After a few minutes he went over to one of the young men who were sitting and studying the Talmud nearby. In a heavily accented voice he asked him if he had ever been to the Stoliner Rebbe. When the young man said that he hadn’t the Chassid went on a rant glorifying “the Rebbe.” At this point I was ticked off; in my experience, they bash YU in their own communities but they have the audacity to come to YU and spread their cult-like beliefs?

My fourth semester saw an actual Chassidic rebbe come to YU at the invitation of a few students to spread his ‘holiness.’ I figured, if a rebbe is open-minded enough to come onto the YU campus, he might be willing to listen to some of the problems that plague the Chassidic community. I signed up to see him and, to my dismay, I saw that MTA had brought a number of classes to receive the man’s blessings. My turn arrived. I approached the rebbe, he took my hand and asked me if I wear tzitzit. I told him that I didn’t and then I launched into my routine about cadaveric organ donations, or lack thereof, in the Chassidic community. He told me that he couldn’t do anything about it, and if I wanted to affect change, I needed to talk to Rav Elyashiv; but as long as I wore tzitzit my spirit would grow.

I left disappointed for a number of reasons. First, I was expecting to meet a Chassidic rebbe who was different. Second, I had hoped to send my son to MTA, but I could never send him to a school that shows any respect to Chassidism. Third, in my mind’s eye, I saw a future for YU in which African-Americans’ only purpose in life was menial labor. I saw a YU in which women were bred solely for giving birth to children and serving man’s every need. I saw a YU in which Rabbi Tendler was not respected as a halachic authority. A YU in which secular studies was nonexistent, a YU in which the death of non-Jews was celebrated; a Chassidic YU.

At this point you might be telling yourself: “That cannot be what Chassidism is about. What, in reality, is so bad about Chassidism?” Let me tell you what inspired me to write this article: On September 22nd I attended an art exhibit at Footsteps2. I know nothing of art, and didn’t really know what to expect other than something related to images of members before leaving the Chassidic community, and after (3). I had received an invitation to the reception and I knew that I would be inspired by some of the works there, so I decided to attend. As I made my way down the hallway to the entrance of the exhibit I noticed a small hat stand in the corner. It had a biber hat on the top level and on the second level it had two graduation caps. At the center it had a simple paper taped to it which read: “The term ‘artist’ is so not heimish, most of us don’t think you’re talking to us when you talk about an art exhibit.” It was signed “-Footsteps Member.” I smiled and entered the main room. The walls were covered with pieces of art; some were collages, others just unique, interesting, pieces of work. There was a large TV in the front of the room that had the “It Gets Besser” video playing on repeat.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that I understood most of the pieces, not that they weren’t artistic; I simply know nothing of art. There was one piece, however, that kept on calling to me. It was a shaver; its cord wrapped around a white frame and an MP3 player in the place of its battery. In order for anyone to understand and appreciate what this conveyed, they only needed to be human. The title of the placard on the side was “Shaving Women of Their Rights and Dignity” and it read:

“This telephone message is from a woman in the Chassidic community calling to request to come to my home to check if my head is shaved. She called immediately after I applied my son to the local cheider (school). I was informed that my son will not be accepted until it is confirmed that my head is shaved. I was blacklisted in all three cheiders in the community, and I had no choice but to enroll my son in one of them because my husband refused to move out of the community and I wasn’t ready yet to leave on my own and plunge into a custody battle. Thus, after this woman called I once again took this shaver, and crying with humiliation and anger, shaved my head completely bald.”

While reading it, a friend came over, smiled, and said: “That’s my mother.” I asked, “Who is?” He answered, “The woman leaving the message.” This friend had been lucky enough to get out of the community. He was able to appreciate what that message meant, what the victim had gone through. After reading the placard and listening to the recording, I couldn’t help being filled with anger and frustration. This woman was never asked if she wanted to be Chassidishe. She was forced into a submissive lifestyle from which she could do nothing to get away. The helplessness that people experience every day in these communities is unforgivable. And what makes things worse is that people in the modern orthodox community, in the YU community, and in the secular community, idealize the Chassidic lifestyle. This is the community that YU could turn into one day. This is the Jewish version of Saudi Arabia, of Iran. Every religion has its extremes; don’t ever think that Judaism is an exception to that.

The Chassidic community produces children that simply have no way of getting out. From a young age they are taught that everyone in the world (including modern orthodox Jews) hates them and either wants to see them dead or off the derech. Their secular education varies between none and horrible, with many schools not introducing the English alphabet until fourth grade. And the few things that they are taught is accompanied by ridicule from their Yiddish principals and rabbeim. Often the teachers don’t know English well enough to speak it themselves, and the English classes end up being taught in Yiddish (the holiest language). They are taught that they are not capable of making decisions on their own and are required to seek guidance from elders and rebbes at any point in their lives. They are taught that anything written by a non-Jew will destroy their souls. From as early as second grade they are taught that Zionism is a crime and directly and intentionally contributed to the Holocaust. They are taught that a woman’s place in the world is at home. They are taught that, given a chance to get away with it, it is better not to save a non-Jew. And the kicker, the people who teach this to the children went through the same system. They went through the same brainwashing that they are administering to this generation’s children.

They dare not dream of going to college, because that is where Jews lose their faith. The schools will either deny the students their transcripts or mark it full of F’s if they find out that the student is applying for college. How is a twenty year old from such a background supposed to get an education that he wants, that he deserves? If he cannot even speak in English how is he supposed to get by outside of the Chassidic community? These victims are chained to their community; they are stuck with no place to go.

Kiryas Joel, Tosh, and New Square are all products of the Chassidic belief. These places are run through a dynastic monarchy in which each rebbe’s heir takes his place on the throne as the current rebbe slips into senility. This allows for absolute power and for the abuse of such power. What happened in New Square this past May 22nd 5 is a product of Chassidism. What happened in Brooklyn on June of 19834 was a direct result of Chassidism, not to mention that the man responsible for that crime is currently employed, and revered for his actions, at Satmar Yeshiva of Kiryas Joel. What happened between every Chassidic group that saw a split in political power is a direct result of Chassidism. Chassidism cultivates violence by keeping the intellectual level of its followers at the equivalent of medieval peasants. When a group of people know nothing other than “whatever the rebbe says goes;” then that rebbe holds the power of a mob at his hands. He need only say the word and they would commit any crime for him; whether that means harassing a person for taking his or her molester to court, or whether that means beating and breaking a few bones of a ‘dissident,’ is irrelevant.

It is true that every Chassidic sect varies from the next and some are worse than others. Some might say that what is written above does not apply to Chabad and that might hold some truth. Chabad is not as insular as any of the other Chassidic sects due to their kiruv missions, and this may open a door for some people to get out. Their women, while still not considered to be absolute peers of men, do experience more freedom than in other Chassidus. But don’t think that they offer their children the education that they are legally and morally obligated to offer. As a matter of fact, Chabad has the only school in Brooklyn that offers absolutely no secular education; this includes elementary school and high school.

And don’t think that racism isn’t rampant in Crown Heights; African-Americans are respected by the Jewish residents of Crown Heights as much as they are respected by the residents of Kiryas Joel. People like to claim that Chassidism was never meant to be what it is today. However, if you go back to Isaac L. Peretz (1852-1915, one of the “fathers of Yiddish literature” who devoted his writings to enlightening the Chassidim of his time), you can see (in Mekubolim, Drai Matonis, and other stories) descriptions of communities that practice the very insularity and self-righteousness that Chassidim practice today.

My message to the YU student body and faculty, including Roshei Yeshiva: Please, for the sake of Judaism and for the sake of humanity, do not idealize Chassidism. It is a cruel practice that should not be welcome at YU. It may seem amazingly warm and spiritual, but if you ever analyze the inner workings of its communities, you would be horrified. Keep Chassidic rebbes out of YU and keep the Chassidic belief out of YU. Do whatever you can to help Chassidim get out and find a place in the world where they can actually contribute to society and live meaningful lives. There are an enormous number of Chassidim who would love to get out of their communities, but are unable to do so. This is either because of a lack of education, or because of societal pressures, including the fear that their families would disown them. It is our responsibility to help them get out. But if a Chassid ever tries to spew Chassidus, tries to bring Chassidism into Yeshiva University, lock him out. Do not let YU become another Chassidic community; keep Yeshiva as an institution that actually does bring wisdom to life.




In Opinions. Tagged Chassidism, Hasidism, modern orthodoxy, .