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.
jdn pictures
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.