Hasidic Village Keeps Women Out of the Driver’s Seat

By Steven I. Weiss

Published October 14, 2005, issue of October 14, 2005.
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Even as the White House presses Saudi Arabia to permit women to drive, an ultra-Orthodox community in New York has launched a campaign to reassert its ban on female motorists.

During her trip last month to Saudi Arabia, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes delivered a speech in which she stressed the Bush administration’s determination to see Saudi women obtain more rights — including the right to drive.

Meanwhile, in the Hasidic village of New Square, N.Y., religious leaders recently issued a document reminding residents that “women should not sit in the front of a car.” Released in July by the community’s top rabbinical court, the document was aimed at shoring up several communal standards — especially those regarding women’s conduct.

“It’s considered not tzniusdik [modest] for a woman to be a driver, not in keeping with the out-of-public-view [attitude],” village spokesman Rabbi Mayer Schiller said. “If you can imagine in Europe, would a woman have been a coach driver, a wagon driver? It would’ve been completely inappropriate.”

The village’s religious leaders have made an exemption for an 80-year-old woman who was one of the community’s original residents and hadn’t known about the driving prohibition before she moved there.

New Square, a 7,000-person enclave located 40 miles north of New York City, was founded by the late Skverer rebbe Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky, a Holocaust survivor, and his followers. The village was established in 1954 and officially incorporated seven years later. It relies heavily on private charitable donations and on government-assistance programs.

In the recent document, New Square religious leaders reiterated the prohibition against girls riding bicycles; also, women are forbidden from going outside in their long housecoats –– a common fashion staple in many Orthodox communities.

The rules “are nothing new,” Schiller said, but “there’s just a sense that for some of the young people they need to reinforce them.” He added that in the village’s entire history, similar comprehensive lists of communal standards have been posted “maybe five or 10 times, but probably no more than that.”

“If you would poll the community… 97.5% would say, ‘Yes, this is what we want,’” Schiller said.

While the rules are meant to apply to residents, clearly they’re not part of the criteria for endorsing candidates for elective office. New Square’s top rabbis endorsed Hillary Clinton in her successful run for the senate in 2000, and delivered all but a few votes for the former first lady. Clinton spokeswoman Nina Blackwell did not return repeated requests for comment.

The recent document in New Square addressed a wide range of prohibitions. One rule requires that a fence be constructed around houses that have a trampoline. Another states that exercise groups can be formed only with the permission of a rabbinical court and that they require a mashgiach (religious inspector) to oversee them.

Some of the regulations are targeted at men, including a clause instructing male worshippers to keep their cell phones off and to refrain from talking during prayer times. But it is the rules pertaining to women — in particular, those related to driving — that bear a striking resemblance to the Saudi practices criticized by the Bush administration.

In some ways, Saudi Arabia’s laws regarding women are more permissive than the religious edicts in New Square. For example, a Saudi woman is allowed to ride in the front seat of a car if the driver is her husband. While husbands and wives in Saudi Arabia are allowed to walk with each other, New Square men and women always must walk on different sides of the street. In strong contrast to Saudi Arabia, the government does not enforce the religious rules in New Square; violations do not result in any form of corporal punishment. But those who frequently violate the rules in New Square are blackballed from the community.

“I can think of just a handful of cases over the years” in which someone was expelled from New Square’s religious community, Schiller said.

“I don’t think any of these transgressions would get you to be expelled from the community,” Schiller said. But, he added, “If a young woman was driving, that would be fairly serious.”

Schiller warned against drawing any negative conclusions about New Square based on the Saudi situation. “It is a mistake to view a religious practice negatively just because another culture, aspects of which we may find troubling, also practices it,” he said. At the same time, the New Square spokesman was critical of the Bush administration’s efforts in the Middle East.

“American foreign policy has moved towards a messianic, crusading secularism which judges all other peoples by the standards of our own ‘fashionable’ elites,” he said. “This monolithic utopianism inevitably yields spiritual, moral and practical disasters.”






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