Hasidic Fixer Key to Sprawling Corruption Probe — But Are They Dying Breed?

Ancient Aversion to Public Life Fades Among Ultra-Orthodox

Changing Times: Grand Rabbi David Eichenstein, a Brooklyn Hasidic spiritual leader meets with state Senate candidate Simcha Felder. Such overt political activity was once unheard of for the ultra-Orthodox. But things are changing.
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Changing Times: Grand Rabbi David Eichenstein, a Brooklyn Hasidic spiritual leader meets with state Senate candidate Simcha Felder. Such overt political activity was once unheard of for the ultra-Orthodox. But things are changing.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published April 16, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.

Mark Stern likely cut a familiar figure when he approached several New York politicians offering cash and lucrative real estate deals.

A member of the Satmar community, Stern is one of scores of fixers on the New York political scene, bearded men who serve as go-betweens connecting ultra-Orthodox Hasidic groups with elected officials.

Unlike other fixers, Stern was also cooperating with the FBI and offering illegal bribes. The sprawling sting that he participated in ensnared six New York politicians, including former State Senate Majority leader Malcolm Smith and the mayor of upstate New York’s Spring Valley.

Yet despite his starring role in this latest political scandal, Stern himself may be a member of a dying breed.

Hasidic Jews have traditionally avoided elected office, bound by age-old fears that a public misstep could spur an anti-Semitic backlash. Those fears have tied New York’s growing Hasidic community to fixers like Stern, investing them with enormous power to move votes and money.

Today, however, long-standing Hasidic objections to taking public political stances, and even controlling elected bodies, are slowly falling away, leaving less need for fixers like Stern.

In Brooklyn last fall, a Boro Park Hasidic rebbe put up a mezuza on the door of the campaign office of New York State Senate candidate Simcha Felder, something that would have been unheard of less than a generation ago. In Rockland County, N.Y., one Hasidic man sits on the county legislature while another is running for mayor in the diverse town of Spring Valley.

“There was always the tradition to be under the radar screen,” said Ezra Friedlander, son of the rebbe of a small Boro Park Hasidic sect and CEO of the Friedlander Group, a public policy consulting firm. “I predict that sooner rather than later you will have someone who is Hasidic, and identifiably so, in public office.”

Hasidic Jewish leaders can deliver large and well-disciplined blocs of votes, giving them enormous power in the districts where they live. Yet unlike other minority communities, Hasidic Jews have traditionally shied away from using that power to elect members of their own communities to public office.

Some trace Hasidic objections to public office to the Megillah, the holy book read on the holiday of Purim, which commentators say condemns the hero Mordechai for taking a political post.



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