When Menachem Stark still hadn’t come home late in the evening of January 2, his wife started to get scared. It had snowed several inches in Brooklyn that night, and the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg was coated in white.
His wife Bashie Stark called a friend, who called a member of the Orthodox Shomrim security service. Soon she had even more reason to be worried: A security video showed Stark, a father of seven with piercing eyes framed by curls, bundled off into a van outside his brick office building on Rutledge Street.
The next day, the Satmar Hasidic man’s half-burnt corpse was found in a Long Island dumpster, some 16 miles away from snowy Williamsburg.
Who was Menachem Stark — and how did he wind up dying such a violent death so far outside the insular community where he had lived his entire life?
For his Satmar friends and colleagues, Stark, 38, embodied the best of their world: a generous person with an open wallet for anyone in search of aid.
“People who needed help, he was the address,” said Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and a leader in the Satmar community.
For outsiders, like some of the tenants who rented his properties, Stark was someone quite different.
News reports about one former Stark property, the Greenpoint Hotel, describe a decrepit, drug-infested building with filthy bathrooms, sloping hallways and a long history of drug-related deaths.
Stark appears to have personified a contradiction familiar both inside and outside ultra-Orthodox circles: a pious philanthropist whose business dealings didn’t always live up to avowed communal standards.
“I knew him as a big businessman,” said one member of the Satmar community in Williamsburg, who asked not to be identified. The Satmar community member said that he had not been aware of the conditions in some of Stark’s buildings, but that others had explained them to him in recent days as a normal part of the real estate business.
“What I found out was that it’s not that he neglected his buildings,” he said. “A lot of his investment that he did was buying rundown stuff. This was the nature of his business.”
Stark was raised in Williamsburg, and his father was a teacher in the Satmar schools. One brother, Yaakov Stark, is a prominent cantor.
Stark managed to avoid becoming embroiled in the bitter factional quarrel that has divided the Satmar community in Williamsburg since 2006, when both Zalman Teitelbaum and Aron Teitelbaum claimed leadership of the sect following the death of their father, Satmar leader Moses Teitelbaum. Stark was not closely aligned with either side, according to people in the Satmar community. He prayed regularly at the Lodine Shul, a small, unaffiliated congregation in Williamsburg. He also prayed at the synagogue of the Krule rebbe, leader of another small group.
That lack of partisanship means that representatives for both Satmar sects have stepped forward to defend Stark. Niederman, affiliated with followers of Zalman Teitelbaum, has been vocal, as has Moshe Indig, a spokesman for the followers of Aron Teitelbaum. (Indig appeared on the Village Voice’s annual 10 Worst Landlords list in 2010.)
Niederman said that he grew up in the same building as Stark’s father. At the shiva, Stark’s father told Niederman they had been surprised by stories of Stark’s generosity. Stark was to be the honoree at a January gala dinner for an Orthodox infertility charity called Bonei Olam.
Though Stark’s relatives spoke widely to the press in the first days after the murder, by January 7 they were fed up. Zalman Kaufman, Stark’s brother-in-law, declined to speak when contacted by the Forward, saying that the media was out to harm the family. Abraham Buxbaum, another brother-in-law, wrote an opinion piece for the Forward on January 5, condemning the New York Post’s coverage of the murder; he did not answer his phone January 7.
Much of what angered the family may have been the press’s emphasis on Stark’s business troubles.
Stark’s involvement in real estate goes back to at least the early 2000s. Along with a partner, Stark purchased troubled real estate properties in such North Brooklyn neighborhoods as Bushwick and Williamsburg. He was one of many Hasidic businessmen to make investments in the areas, which were on the brink of a massive wave of gentrification.
According to accounts posted online since his death, Stark also advised other Orthodox investors on their own residential developments.
He developed some of his properties into high-end condos. At one Stark-owned building at 239 Banker Street in Greenpoint, a former brick factory marketed as “The Sweater Factory,” industrial space was converted into lofts without city permission, stop-work orders were ignored and security deposits disappeared.
More disturbing are descriptions of conditions at the Greenpoint Hotel, a single room occupancy residence that Stark and a partner purchased from a not-for-profit organization in 2003 for $1.5 million. A 2006 story in The New York Times described the hotel as one of the most dangerous SROs in the city, where 20 people had died since 1998, mostly of drug overdoses. Federal prosecutors, who eventually seized the property, alleged that a drug-peddling operation was run out of the hotel dating back to before Stark’s purchase.
Some of Stark’s business troubles appear to have been precipitated by the 2008 economic crisis, which drove many development projects into foreclosure. In 2011, the real estate publication The Real Deal reported that Stark and a partner faced more than $51 million in lawsuits from creditors on loans made for Williamsburg and Greenpoint properties in 2006 and 2007.
Stark’s partner, Israel Perlmutter — identified in some press accounts as Sam Perl — was identified by the New York Daily News as a possible suspect in Stark’s murder. Perlmutter’s attorney told the Jewish newspaper Algemeiner that his client was angered by the allegations and had been cooperating with police.
The murder itself was a thing of nightmares. A video released by the police shows Stark being hustled into a waiting van at 11:45 p.m. January 2 by two assailants. Police later found handcuffs and plastic ties discarded on the ground at the site of the kidnapping.
Stark’s wife contacted a family friend when she realized her husband had not come home. At 1:05 a.m. January 3, according to Yossi Gestetner, an Orthodox activist who was in direct contact with people involved, that friend contacted an acquaintance who is a member of the Shomrim, the local Orthodox security patrol.
It’s not unusual for the ultra-Orthodox to contact Shomrim before contacting civil authorities during emergencies.
“Their default setting is to call Shomrim,” said Michael Tobman, a political consultant who works with the community. “There’s a language issue and a cultural sensitivity issue. I think people just are more comfortable with it.”
A spokesman for the Shomrim declined to speak with the Forward when contacted on January 6.
The Shomrim member and the family friend went to Stark’s office just after 1 a.m. to try to track down Stark. They soon found the security tape that showed Stark being pushed into the van.
It does not appear that the Shomrim waited a substantial time before calling the New York City Police Department, an issue that has been a point of friction between the two organizations in the past. Gestetner said that the NYPD was called by 2:00 a.m. Earlier press reports quoted police saying they were called at 2:30 a.m. The NYPD would not tell the Forward when they were first contacted.
By the next morning, news of the abduction had spread fast through Brooklyn Orthodox networks. Connections were immediately made to the abduction of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Hasidic boy snatched from a street in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn in July 2011. Thousands of Orthodox people volunteered to help search for Kletzky, who was found murdered days later.
On the morning after Stark was abducted, organizers began putting together a similar effort to find him. But it was already too late.
Nassau County police found the developer’s burnt body in a dumpster on Long Island at 4 p.m. on January 3; the body was identified as Stark’s on the following day. Stark was mourned at a massive funeral in Williamsburg on Saturday night, then taken to the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel to be buried later that evening in accordance with Orthodox custom.
Speculation has been rampant in recent days in Williamsburg about the circumstances surrounding Stark’s death. Newspapers have quoted officials saying that he died from “compression asphyxiation,” which sources attributed to his attackers sitting on him inside the van, perhaps to subdue him. That raises the possibility that the kidnappers planned to keep Stark alive, but he died accidentally during a struggle.
Some community members report that the murder has left them frightened. “Anybody who is not shaken — if you see a lovely person who has done so much good and can be brutally, brutally killed — that should shake up every human being,” Niederman said.
The Satmar community member, however, was less concerned, noting it was likely that Stark was personally targeted in the murder.
“I don’t deal with goyim, I don’t deal with tenants,” the community member said. “[Am I] scared? I don’t know. I don’t have enemies.”
New York City police commissioner William Bratton said on January 7 that the police still had no significant leads in the case.
This story "Who Was Menachem Stark — and Why Was He Murdered?" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.