When the Slumlords Are Us

Public Judaism

By Jill Jacobs

Published April 21, 2010, issue of April 30, 2010.
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Thirty human households, and countless rodents and cockroaches: Those were the census figures in the apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where I lived for about five years. When a neighbor living in a rent-stabilized unit complained that the gaping holes in her walls allowed rats to run free through her apartment, the landlord responded that she did not pay enough rent to justify plugging the holes.

Through a bit of legal detective work, I learned that my own apartment’s rent had been illegally de-stabilized. When I presented this discovery to the landlord, he agreed to drop my rent, but never again replied to any of my requests for repairs.

One day, the landlord himself dropped by the building. I shuddered when I saw his long black coat, black hat and bushy beard. Would the other tenants, mostly Latino families, think that all Jews treated others with such neglect?

Alas, my landlord was hardly the only religious Jew letting rats plague his tenants. While in rabbinical school, I volunteered with two tenants’ rights organizations in Harlem and Brooklyn. I also spent hours investigating Jewish laws of landlord-tenant relations. I would talk to the other organizers and members about my discoveries: the obligations of landlords to keep their buildings in livable condition, to provide sufficient notice prior to evictions and to avoid evictions when substitute housing would be impossible to find. I spoke of the inspiration that I found in Jewish texts and in the Jewish historical experience of homelessness.

And inevitably, heartbreakingly, someone would say to me, “Jill, you’re telling us that Judaism says all of these great things about how landlords should treat their tenants. So why is it that my landlord, a religious Jew, won’t turn on the heat?” Or worse: “You’re the first Jew I’ve ever met who’s not a slumlord.”

So when The Village Voice recently published its annual list of New York City’s 10 worst landlords, I scanned it anxiously, hoping I wouldn’t find too many Jewish names. Unfortunately, I can’t say I was surprised to find that out of the 10 worst landlords identified by the Voice, Jews appear to account for about half.

And some of these offending landlords have more than Jewish names. At least a couple have been accorded positions of leadership and prominence in their Jewish communities because of the money they give to Jewish groups and causes.

There’s Moishe Indig, who, according to the Voice, controls a Brooklyn building infested with rats and bed bugs, where tenants were without heat for three years. The Voice describes Indig as “a rabbi and developer in Williamsburg’s Satmar community” who “has built a well-known synagogue on Hooper Street, and acts as something of a Hasidic community spokesman in the mainstream press.”

Then there are the brothers Aaron and Solyman Yashouafar of Milbank Real Estate, which, the Voice reported, bought up a number of buildings in the Bronx, many of which are now in foreclosure, while other buildings went without heat and hot water for months at a time or have hundreds of outstanding violations. Aaron Yashouafar’s online biography on the Web site of a bank where he serves as a director points to his service on the boards of Jewish organizations.

After the Madoff scandal, the Jewish community performed a communal al cheyt, a confessional for embracing someone who turned out to have defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars. It seemed like a moment of collective repentance, or teshuvah. But Moses Maimonides famously declared that the test of true teshuvah comes when one finds oneself in the same situation that previously caused one to sin, and resists the temptation to again go astray.

Jewish organizations, with their limited budgets and staff time, cannot be expected to investigate the business dealings of every donor. But when misbehavior comes to light, we have the opportunity to consider our obligation to use our influence to change the behavior of members of our Jewish communities who cause pain and suffering to others.

Such internal pressure can be effective. A well-respected rabbi in New Jersey once told me the following story about a member of his congregation, a notorious slumlord. A few weeks before the High Holy Days, the rabbi summoned the landlord to his office and warned him that he had until Yom Kippur to fix the problem, or else the rabbi’s Kol Nidre sermon would have “an intended audience of one.”

Using even more formal means, in 1968 a Boston rabbinic court, or beit din, forced three brothers — Israel, Joseph and Raphael Mindick — to make repairs to their buildings. When the Mindicks failed to comply with the initial ruling, the beit din took action again. In their book “The Death of an American Jewish Community,” Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon recount: “Tenants in twenty of the brothers’ buildings went on a rent strike that winter, charging that the landlords had failed to live up to the terms of the rabbinic court’s agreement. The rabbis concurred and slapped the Mindicks with a $48,000 fine to be distributed among the affected tenants.”

Just three years later, another Boston rabbi, the newly ordained Daniel Polish, publicly confronted Jewish slumlord Maurice Gordon, a prominent member of the Boston Jewish community. Speaking at a protest against an Israel Bonds event honoring Gordon, Polish said:

Our gut instinct is to come to the defense of any of our own who are criticized or attacked for whatever reason…. It is no accident that the office of Bonds of Israel and Capital for Israel Incorporated and the Development Corporation for Israel are all located in the building at 141 Milk Street, a building owned by Maurice Gordon. And it is no accident that these organizations, along with others in the Jewish community, have repeatedly showered this ‘philanthropist’ and his family with honor and distinction…. It is time the Jewish agencies severed their dependence on, and desisted from honoring and elevating men whose values are in explicit conflict with the Jewish people and whose conduct can only be described as contemptible.

It has now been four decades since the rabbis of Boston took action, and almost two years since the Madoff scandal rocked the Jewish world. Have we learned anything? Will Jewish organizations continue to accept donations from landlords whose wealth comes at the expense of guaranteeing safe living conditions for their tenants? Will these landlords continue to be accorded positions of honor in their Jewish communitiess? Or are we finally ready for teshuvah?

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of “There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition” (Jewish Lights, 2009) and the rabbi-in-residence at Jewish Funds for Justice. She is currently on sabbatical as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute.

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