On Wednesday, June 13th, members from the Orthodox Union’s policy and advocacy team met with several legislators and key federal administrators in Washington D.C. One of those administrators was US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man who is singularly responsible for the horrible treatment of undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. I am shocked and upset by the Orthodox Union’s decision to show any honor or recognition to Sessions.
As an Orthodox woman who is a member of an Orthodox Union affiliated synagogue, I am upset that an organization that bears the title “Orthodox” would create such a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. I was raised in Orthodox schools from Kindergarten through my undergraduate education, and I have always been taught that our first imperative as Jews is to sanctify the Name of Hashem and perfect His world. I fear the optics of the moment in which the OU handed Sessions a plaque did neither. Moreover, as a PhD candidate in Urban Affairs and Public Policy, I am appalled that the OU and its leadership displayed such a significant misunderstanding of the current state of American politics and policy. President Bane stated that the meeting included a closed-door session with the AG in which several issues, including immigration were discussed. He also stated publicly that righteousness should be pursued in just ways. These comments are fairly meaningless when they come next to a picture of Sessions holding a plaque that says “Tzedek Tzedek Tirduf” (Righteousness Righteousness, You Shall Pursue). In today’s political climate, Bane’s attempt at such nuance is likely to be completely overlooked. The media coverage of this matter does not and will not reflect well on the Orthodox community.
Nope, not from The Onion: The Orthodox Union [“one of the oldest Orthodox Jewish organizations in the United States”] presenting an award to Jeff Sessions pic.twitter.com/2GSyj18rKA— Michael Levin (@MichaelLevin11) June 13, 2018
But that’s not all.
Sessions also announced yesterday that the Administration would be creating a “Places to Worship” initiative to review cases that have been brought against cities under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The RLUIPA is a law that prohibits zoning boards and commissions from discriminating against religious groups and practices. It is an important planning/zoning measure, particularly because it allows religious minority groups to worship in buildings that suit their needs. Sessions announcement was endorsed by the OU, as the agency claims that recent building and zoning permits in several small cities in New Jersey have been held up because of anti-Semitism. However, it is clear from the statement reportedly made by the OU and Sessions that there is a misunderstanding of urban/suburban planning, policy and governance and I am concerned that this ignorance will not play out well for our community.
Jewish families and organizations often feel that they require large homes and buildings to accommodate their needs. When they face pushback from local authorities, claims of anti-Semitism and RLUIPA violations are often made. I would contend that the claim of anti-Semitism regarding zoning/building and local ordinance is arrogant, misplaced and can appear to be incredibly self-serving.
The history of non-urban development indicates that suburban and small city developments have long used zoning and building restrictions to create low-density residential communities that restrict the ability of anyone they deem “other” (most often poor and African American families) from moving in. Ordinances that narrowly define the family, limit the number of multi-unit homes and regulate business activity within homes were historically used to discriminate against large non-traditional families, poor residents and people who conducted at-home businesses, including centers of child-care and worship. This process has been discussed at length in the policy world and is often referred to as NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard). The Orthodox community has been privileged enough to be able to move to these communities, mostly because of our own intergenerational wealth and whiteness, and many Orthodox families are not shy about their desire to live far from African American or Latinx families. However, when these ordinances are enforced, and the Orthodox community finds that they are on the receiving end of the bad policymaking, they assume the actions are anti-Semitic. This claim is not only short-sighted and inaccurate, but it is also deeply offensive to communities of color that have faced decades of housing discrimination. If the Orthodox community wants to advocate for a change in policy in these local authorities, they should advocate for a complete overhaul of the zoning codes to allow for high-density, multi-unit living that would benefit ALL communities, not just our own. This isolationist and victimized approach to solving what is inherently a larger housing policy issue, can harm our community’s image and create a narrative of white privilege that is not and will not be positive for our community.
Moreover, I would urge the OU to consider the impact of its actions and its policy stances on those that live outside of the New York/New Jersey area. I do not believe that the leadership of the OU recognizes how incredibly blessed the Orthodox community is in states where public policies are overwhelmingly favorable to poor families. In many swing states where significant Orthodox populations reside, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida, our communities are in a constant state of disarray because of policy changes that have the potential to impact one’s ability to have their basic needs fulfilled. Medicaid, food stamps and educational services for children with disabilities are all on the chopping block constantly in these states. Housing assistance and paid family leave legislation are current issues within these state legislatures and the lack of support from the Orthodox community does not go unnoticed.
I encourage the OU to better educate itself in regards to contemporary policy and politics. The old methods of politicking are changing rapidly, and even a photo of the all-white, all-male delegation of a group that claims to be a minority is seen as outrageous and insulting to other minority groups. As someone educated in urban governance, urban planning and public policy, I would even like to offer my service to the OU to help with these issues — but first, there would need to be an appropriate Committee or Commission I can join to bring another perspective to the table.