A Life Apart - Hasidism in America Image Loading...

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    Hasidim have aroused controversy both within and without the Jewish community. Hasidim are politically well-organized and sophisticated. They often vote as a strong, and usually very conservative, bloc, and have acquired influence in New York City politics and among a variety of federal agencies. Some of this politicking is driven by need: for example, despite the middle-class veneer of the largely Hasidic neighborhood of Boro Park, 1980 statistics show eighteen percent of its population living below the poverty line. And our advisor George Kranzler notes that the 1990 U.S. Census figures suggest that as many as fifty percent or more of the Williamsburg population lives below the poverty level. At the end of the 1980s, the figure was roughly thirty-five percent. (The overall average for white Americans is ten percent.)

    Designated a "disadvantaged minority" under Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," Hasidim became beneficiaries of federal community development funds. Federal and city assistance received over the years include CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) monies, Section 8 housing assistance, school meal funds, Headstart, HUD grants and low interest loans. In 1984, federal aid was expanded when the federal government included the Hasidim in a priority group of six disadvantaged minorities recognized by all federal agencies. These are some of the factors that have contributed to charges of favoritism by African American and Hispanic neighbors of Brooklyn Hasidim.

    In the summer of 1991 incidents occurred in Crown Heights that highlighted and exacerbated existing tensions between the Hasidim and their neighbors. A car in a motorcade accompanying the Lubavitcher Rebbe spun out of control and hit a Black child who was playing on the sidewalk, killing him. There are conflicting accounts of what happened immediately after the accident. A Hasidic ambulance arrived first on the scene, followed by another (non-Hasidic) ambulance and the police. Many African American witnesses believe that the Hasidic ambulance ignored the dying child, ministering instead to the Hasidic driver and his companion. The police say they instructed the Hasidic medics to leave the child, as the other ambulance had already arrived and the Hasidic driver was being threatened by an angry, distraught crowd.

    That night saw violent rioting in Crown Heights, and the stabbing murder of an innocent Hasidic student--an Australian who was visiting Holocaust archives in New York--by a young Black man. The rioting continued until New York Mayor David Dinkins sent in massive police contingents to contain the violence. The damage, to both the African American and the Hasidic communities, continues still, with violent scuffles and political tensions continuing through the fall of 1992, and promising to play themselves out in the New York mayoral race of 1993.

    It may be a legacy of the Crown Heights violence that recently it seems the Hasidim are garnering much more news coverage in general in the New York area. Stories have included a disturbing and fascinating case where a Brooklyn Hasidic rabbi has been accused of kidnapping and "brainwashing" a teenage boy from a non-Orthodox Jewish family; the strange advent of a young Italian menswear designer's interpretation of "the elegant Hasidic look" on the fashion runways of Milan, Italy and shown on the Today show; continuing disputes between Hasidim and their neighbors and local governments in upstate New York about school funding and other political issues; a African American and Hasidic rap group; and the writer/artist Art Speigelman's drawing, featured on the cover of the Valentine's Day issue of the New Yorker magazine, picturing a Hasidic man and an African American woman in an embrace.

    Many in the Hasidic community called what happened in Crown Heights "the first pogrom in America," and proof of deep-seated Black anti-Semitism. Many African Americans saw it as the outcome of long-standing tensions, bred from Hasidic indifference and arrogance toward their neighbors and the outside world.

    Clearly, both communities know little about the other and perhaps care even less. The Hasidim know little about the history of African Americans in this country. Most are barely familiar with the civil rights movement, with the achievements of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. And not many in the Black community know about pogroms, or even very much about the Holocaust that brought the Hasidim to Brooklyn.

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