American Jews are actively supporting a demographic trend that threatens the fabric of American Jewish life: the unchecked growth of Jewish fundamentalism.
Call them what you will — ultra-Orthodox Jews, “fervently Orthodox” Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic.
We’ve read stories recently of Haredim in Israel comparing Israeli politicians to Hitler and throwing stones at women praying at the Kotel; of Haredim in New York fighting to restrict the prosecution of sex abuse claims; of Haredim in Germany threatening the fragile truce on circumcision by defending the practice of adult men sucking blood directly from the penises of infants.
And that is just the tip of the fundamentalist iceberg. In recent months, the Forward has depicted the coercion and ignorance prevalent in American ultra-Orthodox communities: in brilliant essays by Judy Brown and Shulem Deen, in exposés of Hasidic money laundering, and longer ago in its award-winning coverage of the Agriprocessors meat processing plant. And of course, “fervently Orthodox” leaders have defended, justified, covered up and explained away sexual predators in a way that would make a Vatican official blush.
What has emerged from all this is a picture of a subculture that looks more like “The Sopranos” than like “Fiddler on the Roof” — a world in which a small elite maintains power at the expense of thousands of serfs.
What we’ve also learned is that this entire apparatus of fear, manipulation and power mongering has been supported by you and by me.
We’ve learned, for example, that flagship institutions of ultra-Orthodox life are basically on the dole. Seventy-six percent of students at one of the most prominent yeshivas in the country, in Lakewood, New Jersey, are receiving Pell grants. Indeed, the top three institutional recipients of these grants are ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.
The Chabad-affiliated Michigan Jewish Institute scored $25 million in federal aid meant to go to low-income students, despite an appalling academic record and due largely to chicanery involving an online application mill.