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For the Orthodox, Blurred Lines Between Private and Business Lives

Back in March, the Forward asked the Village Voice’s Elizabeth Dwoskin, who penned the weekly’s highly publicized New York’s Ten Worst Landlordsroundup, if there was anything that made Jews particularly bad property owners; Semites like Rabbi Moishe Indig, Vantage Properties’ Neil Rubler, and alleged Orthodox bully Jacob Bernat populated the list. At the time, Dwoskin said “there’s no big picture” around religion.

But Dwoskin herself raised a similar question in a Voice cover story this month. ‘How can a religious person justify being a slumlord?” blared the headline. One of the writers Dwoskin sought out for answers was Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the “rabbi in residence” at progressive activists Jewish Funds for Justice and author of “There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition” (2009). “A lot of [Jews] just bifurcate their lives,” she told Dwoskin in a pointed interview. “There is a difference in their head between their religious lives and their business lives.”

In today’s New York Daily News, Jacobs herself took to the editorial pages to explain the decision to – as she puts it – “air dirty laundry” in a secular newspaper. In an op-ed headlined “Jew or not, a crook’s a crook,” Jacobs notes that “in the Internet age, the boundary between public and private has largely disappeared. Jews no longer have secret conversations in Yiddish in the pages of the Forverts. Now, Jewish newspapers are accessible to anyone with a Web connection.”

And anyway, she writes, the “dirty laundry” of Jewish slumlords “is already public. Every time a man in a black hat and coat refuses to turn on the hot water, allows rats to run through an apartment building or ignores a city violation, his tenants make assumptions about Judaism. By telling a secular newspaper that Jewish law requires landlords to make their rental units habitable, I am simply publicizing a different interpretation of Judaism. I am not revealing secrets about Jewish slumlords – these slumlords have already revealed themselves.”

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