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.
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In Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the Diaspora, where Jews were often barred from government positions, Jewish communities appointed middlemen to represent their interest before government officials.

“There’s always been some guy like that, a sort of court Jew,” said Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and author of books on Hasidic Jews in America. “That’s not unique to the Hasidim. That’s always been an element of Jewish life.”

The middleman role persisted in only vestigial forms for most American Jewish communities. Non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews have been elected to some of the highest offices in the country. Even ultra-Orthodox non-Hasidic Jews have held seats on the New York State Legislature and the New York City Council. Yet members of such Hasidic Jewish sects as Satmar, Bobov and Lubavitch have yet to hold any offices other than the most local.

That’s due, at least in part, to Hasidic Jews’ sense that they don’t really belong in America.

“We view ourselves as being in exile, in golus,” said Yossi Gestetner, a Hasidic political activist, consultant and blogger who is among those pushing the boundaries of Hasidic involvement in politics. “The thinking of those is, you’re in golus, it’s not your country, it’s not your place… Don’t attract outrage against you,” Gestetner said.

According to Gestetner, the extreme position opposing any participation in public life is held by only a small minority of Hasidic Jews.

Still, actually running for office remains controversial. Gestetner said that most, though not all, Hasids have become comfortable with the idea of a Hasidic Jew holding an elected legislative position. Fewer are comfortable with a Hasidic Jew being elected to serve in an executive role, like mayor or county supervisor.

Hasids have long served as mayors of exclusively Hasidic villages, like Kiryas Joel in Orange County. Elections to positions where they exercise authority over non-Jews have been slower in coming.

To bridge that gap, Hasidic communities have used fixers. These fixers are not the most influential or important people inside the Hasidic community itself; those would be the rebbes or the leading Torah scholars. The fixers are simply operators who build bridges to the outside world.


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