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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“The fixers don’t have their seat in mizrach in any Hasidic shul,” Alexander Rapaport said, referring to the front row of the synagogue, where those most honored sit. Rapaport, head of the Boro Park soup kitchen Masbia, explained, “The very pious among Hasidim and the very religious have traditional distaste for anything around politics.”

The backroom, under-the-table nature of the fixer role can lend itself to shady dealings, as in the cases involving Stern. According to Rapaport, who is a member of the Kosov Hasidic community, that tendency toward the ethically murky is in no small part a creation of the non-Hasidic politicians, who may see no other way to appeal to the powerful voting bloc other than to cut some kind of financial deal.

“The needs of the Hasidic community are seen by people in power as a special interest instead of as a legitimate need,” Rapaport said. “[When] you need to do something more than [have] legitimate needs to get the attention of the people in power, that’s how things like this are created,” he said, referring to the Stern case.

When more Hasids start running for office, however, it’s not just Hasids who are made to feel uncomfortable.

The bleeding edge of Hasidic political involvement has been the local political scene in suburban Rockland County, where large concentrations of Hasidic Jews live in and around the towns of Monsey, New Square and Spring Valley. In the East Ramapo School District, which covers parts of Spring Valley and all of New Square, a fight has been broiling for years over Hasidic Jews’ role on the local board of education.

The election of Nathan Rothschild to the board in the late 1990s made him the fourth Orthodox member on the nine-member board. Rothschild, who is not Hasidic, said in an interview two years ago that the Orthodox community in the area had at the time decided not to take a majority of board seats.

“The dynamics of the population of the community weren’t what they were today,” Rothschild said. “The implied threat that there could always be a fifth member put on to take the majority was enough, and the leaders of the community, the rabbis and the people who are very involved, felt that that was always good enough.”

By the time Rothschild resigned from the board in 2011, under indictment in a federal corruption probe unrelated to his school board service, the Hasidic community’s thinking had changed. Five of the school board members were Orthodox. Four of those five were Hasidic. Today, seven of the East Ramapo trustees are Orthodox; six of those are Hasidic.

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