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!
  • Yeshiva University's lawyer wanted to know why the dozens of former schoolboys now suing over a sexual abuse cover-up didn't sue decades ago. Read the judge's striking response here.
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • 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.