New York Mayor Bill de Blasio unleashed a torrent of criticism when he ignored the throngs of people watching the Thunderbirds’ aerial acrobatics honoring the heroes combatting Covid-19. Instead, last week he decided to castigate the “Jewish community” for not following appropriate social distancing to flatten the curve of the coronavirus.
His immediate target was a crowd of Satmar chasidim who defied social distancing at the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This occurred despite pleas from Satmar leaders and the police to disperse the crowd.
A letter signed by Jewish and elected leadership — such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), several Assembly members, rabbis, and diverse Jewish organizations — expressed outrage that the entire Jewish community was painted with the same broad brush as those who flouted social distancing rules by attending the funeral, in effect accusing all Jews of contributing to the spread of the disease. The letter said in part, “In the midst of an historic wave of antisemitic hate violence in New York City, our community — like the Asian community — has been feeling the pain of being singled out and blamed for the spread of this deadly disease.”
The Satmar, a tiny subset of the Jewish community, had a police permit for the funeral, but the onslaught became too difficult to control, said one of their leaders. In other words, the crowd of hundreds was an accident, not an intentional disregard of the rules.
Only after a torrent of criticism to his tweet did the mayor apologize for his poor choice of words.
So what was the reaction of the Satmar leaders to this controversy? Shaul Perlstein, a Satmar leader, disavowed “the attacks and derogatory language against our mayor, from people outside the community and from reckless people among us,” as reported in The Times of Israel.
This response is typical of how Satmar chasidim have disassociated from the fabric of the Jewish people.
When 25,000 concerned Jews outside of their self-described community marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in a demonstration against violence, primarily directed against groups such as the Satmars, they were greeted with indifference if not indignation by the group’s leaders. Many Jews from New Jersey participated in the January march.
When the Satmar hero who thwarted a murderous knife attack in Monsey, N.Y., was offered a $10,000 award for his heroism by ADL and UJA-Federation of New York, he refused it because he said the organizations support Zionism. Satmar is virulently anti-Zionist; followers believe no sovereignty should be established by the Jewish people before the coming of the Messiah.
Speaking of the Jewish state, Satmar chasidim in the U.S. had a $12 million fund-raising campaign to bribe fervently Orthodox voters in Israel not to participate in elections. One of the organizers hoped to sway 35,000 voters, according to JTA.
In a speech last April, Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum, one of the head rabbis of the movement, condemned Israeli leaders because “they took part in the murder of Jewish souls and were built by evildoers,” as reported in JTA. Another Satmar leader called the Israeli government “uprooters of Torah and haters of religion” who pose a “terrible danger projected onto future generations.”
Such statements are particularly ironic as the secular Israeli taxpayer heavily subsidizes charedi yeshivot, tens of thousands of whose students are allowed to forego mandatory military service by virtue of their Torah study, even as this puts a strain on Israeli citizenry to address the gap in manpower.
This visceral hatred of Israel is pathetic in that the Satmar-Hungarian community, almost wiped out by the Germans during World War II, could have been saved if there had been a Jewish state.
To be sure, I am not anti-chasid; in fact, I come from chasidic stock. My maternal grandparents and their parents were members of the Gerer chasidim in Poland. The chasidic movement was, in its religious populism, a reaction to the elitism of the Talmudic scholars, exemplified by the Vilna Gaon of Lithuania. As such they celebrated spiritual Jewish practices and enfranchised the poor and uneducated.
Moreover, the work of the chasidic group Chabad Lubavitch has had a profound positive impact on building and sustaining Jewish communities throughout the globe, which we should celebrate.
But the members of Satmar are beyond the pale.
In Pirkei Avot 2:4, the great sage Hillel implores us not to “separate yourself from the community.”
By ignoring this, the Satmar are indeed ‘unorthodox” in their isolation from klal Yisrael.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.