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.
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.
“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.
Tensions between the Orthodox school board members, who send their children to private religious schools, and the non-Orthodox community members and parents are high. School board meetings often devolve into shouting matches.
It’s perhaps not the best advertisement for Hasids in public office. Yet at least one member of the Belz Hasidic sect has used the school board as a springboard for further political involvement. Aron Wieder is a former school board member and a former staff member in the office of Noramie Jasmin, the Spring Valley mayor indicted in the Stern corruption case. Wieder was elected to the Rockland County Legislature on the Democratic line in 2011 to represent parts of the town of Spring Valley and a corner of the Hasidic village of Kaser.
“He’s a typical politician, just like any secular politician,” said Joseph Meyers, another member of the Rockland County Legislature and a member of Preserve Ramapo, an activist group known for opposing the growth of the Hasidic community in Rockland County. “As far as I’m concerned, he fits in very well at the legislature from a standpoint of temperament and thinking the way politicians think.”
Also in Rockland County, a Hasidic trustee of the town of Spring Valley named Joseph Gross has announced plans to run for mayor. Spring Valley has large Hasidic and Haitian communities.
Neither Gross nor Wieder could be reached for comment.
It’s not only upstate that Hasidic Jews have begun to change their attitudes toward open political involvement. In Boro Park, the head of the Burshtin Hasidic community, Grand Rabbi David Eichenstein, was photographed this past October hanging a mezuza in the campaign office of Simcha Felder, who at the time was a candidate for New York State Senate.
“That was probably unheard of 20 years ago or 10 years ago,” Rapaport said. “The rabbis are getting somewhat more comfortable, but it’s still very far.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.