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Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who was raised in the Satmar community of Wiliamsburg, and is the director of the Beit Midrash program at the modern Orthodox rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, told the Forverts that the Va’ad Hatznius isn’t an organized body but an informal group of people who act on their own, and whose actions the Rebbe doesn’t officially condone. Every v’aad is comprised of a theoretician, one who decides which kind of behavior to ban, and enforcers.
The theoretician is usually a well-regarded figure, while the enforcers give a more fanatical impression, Katz explained. “They usually wear their tsitsis out, their hair and clothing is unkempt, and they have no job, so they don’t elicit much respect from the community. Weberman was undoubtedly a theoretician, his tsitsis didn’t hang out, his hair was combed, he had a job, this is why families trusted him.”
Katz recalled that the Va’ad Hatznius of Williamsburgh issued an edict about 20 years ago against women wearing ponjelos (loose houserobes) and turbans that revealed some hair, as they stepped outside to dump the garbage. Posters were hung everywhere, warning that tragedies might befall the community if women didn’t start dressing modestly. The Va’ad also rebuked the owners of dress shops for selling ponjelos and immodest turbans.
Katz says that the Satmar Hasidim he knows are privately upset with the Va’ad. “They say they’re bullies, extremists and have nothing better to do because they have no jobs,” he said. “But even if people don’t admire them, they still fear them.”
Rabbi David Niederman, President of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, denied any knowledge of the Vaad Hatznius. When asked whether the group has the blessing of the Satmar rebbe, Niederman replied: “I don’t know (what) the Va’ad Hatznius is all about.”
The UJO is the central planning and social service agency for more than 200 organizations in Williamsburg.
The Satmars are not the only Hasidim to use modesty patrols. Katz remembers an incident his friends had with the Va’ad Hatznius of the Gerer Hasidim, while studying in Israeli yeshivas during their teen years. They had heard that the Tel Aviv Museum was interesting, so they took a trip there. Soon afterwards, their parents back home in the United States received anonymous phone calls, warning them: “You have no idea what your children are doing in Israel.”
“My friends suspected that the Va’ad was shadowing them – Katz said – and one day there was a knock at the door, and there was a Gerer Hasid saying, in Yiddish: ‘We’ve heard that improper things are going on here, that there are too many newspapers. So I’ve come to check it out.”
“Look all you want, you won’t find anything,” one of the students replied. The Gerer Hasid searched the entire apartment until he found an issue of Time Magazine with a photograph of Princess Diana on the cover. “You see?!” he exclaimed. “There really are impurities here!”
This article was adapted from the Forverts.