'God's police' enforce strict modesty code in orthodox Jewish Brooklyn


LETTER FROM NEW YORK:Say “Williamsburg”, to most New Yorkers and they hear “Hipster”, a sprawling subculture in the city’s Brooklyn enclave across the East River from downtown Manhattan.

But a 10-minute walk south of Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue, past brunch hotspots and overpriced vintage shops, and you’re in the heart of American Hasidism (“pious ones” in Yiddish) – the 45,000- member ultra-orthodox Satmar community.

At the north end of Lee Avenue, the Satmar business backbone, is Division Avenue; and after that it’s women in high-collared, long-sleeved black dresses with hems at least four inches past the knee.

Males sport the same Payot haircut regardless of age: long curls hang down the sides of the face in a style worn by several Orthodox sects to observe the Biblical injunction against shaving the “corners” of the head.

Torah-armed men wear black trousers, black shoes, black coats and a sort of top hat, also in black. Most also carry black smartphones.

Williamsburg Satmar drive soccer-mom cars, lining them up on Lee Avenue alongside a multitude of yellow schoolbuses inscribed with information in Hebrew and Yiddish. On the footpaths young women push strollers as they bring their broods to neighbourhood Yeshiva schools.

Worship of the Lord

Satmar identity, to use Hasidic parlance, is “avoidas haboirah”: the worship of the Lord. The presiding Rebbe (community leader) is their role model. It’s a life in which the American dream doesn’t feature. In fact, it’s something some men from the community are fighting to keep out.

Last week, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights sued seven Satmar businesses close to Lee Avenue for hanging signs that demanded customer “modesty”. They read: “No shoes, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in store.”

Deputy commissioner Cliff Mulqueen said the signs violated basic human rights: “These stores are public accommodations and they are prohibited from posting any kind of advertisement specifying a preference for one type of customer or another, or expressing discrimination against one type or another.”

Reports recently began to surface of increasingly violent “modesty squads” that threaten Lee Avenue businesses for such matters as displaying mannequins.

Only one shop on Lee now displays mannequins. Most shop windows display nothing.

“Lee wasn’t always like that,” said an Orthodox Jewish journalist from Williamsburg who asked to not be named. “But other Jewish sects moved out and now it’s Satmar territory.” Iit’s a shame a small group of “zealots” enforcing a code of modesty is giving Hasidism a bad name, he said.

The Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, housed in Williamsburg, issues guidelines on modesty but said it does not explicitly enforce any code.

“This kind of thing has always happened, the idea of safeguarding the word of God and making sure tradition is passed down and obeyed,” the journalist explained, adding that a “culture of acquiescence” exists in Hasidism.

“If you have someone come to you or put up a poster telling you what not to do, it’s easier to just follow it and not bring trouble into your everyday life,” he said.

“It could mean bad business and who needs that when they’re trying to feed a family?”

Those behind the posters sprang into public view only in recent months, with the trial of Nechemya Weberman, a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidim sentenced to 103 years in prison in January for sexually abusing, over three years, a girl sent to him for counselling.

Modesty committees

He testified that children were regularly referred to him by “modesty committees” concerned about inappropriate attire and behaviour. Zealous members of these committees, who reportedly harass neighbours stepping out of line, have been dubbed “God’s police”. Orthodox Jews interviewed said that’s what the committee members think they’re doing: policing God’s word.

“It’s a small group that gained power from the fact that most people want to go about their daily lives,” said Rabbi Yankie Horowitz, a school principal who writes extensively about community abuse among Orthodox communities. “They’re emboldened by the inactive silent majority.”

In Satmar Williamsburg it’s clear this majority prefers to live behind the veil of its customs and doesn’t really want to talk to you. There’s no way around sticking out like a sore thumb.

The irony of the Weberman trial was his membership in modesty patrols; and the great historical irony is that the Hasidim were once seen as the revolutionaries of Judaism.