In the heart of urban America, a troubling Hasidic theocracy

Jonathan Kay (The National Post)
November 11, 2014

Remember the great Shariah-law freakout of 2004? A decade ago, the province of Ontario examined the question of how the province’s Arbitration Act could be applied to religious disputes involving inheritance and family law. Various faith groups, including Jews, had been quietly running small-scale local tribunals for years. But post-9/11, the stakes were raised: When the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice announced that it intended to create tribunals for Canadian Muslims, culture watchdogs warned that the whole project really was about Shariah taking over Canada. Then-Premier Dalton McGuinty read the political winds and declared: “There will be no sharia law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians.”

In the United States, the fight over shariah law’s alleged encroachment has been even fiercer: Since 9/11, lawmakers in just about every bible-belt state have introduced some form of “anti-Shariah” legislation. And groups such as the “Sharia Awareness Action Network” hold conferences to warn Americans about how Muslims are secretly infiltrating all level of government. I’ve attended a few of these events, and can attest that the participants really do honesty believe that their U.S. children and grandchildren may one day live in an Islamic theocracy.

Which makes it all the more amazing that a repressive and patriarchal mini-theocracy really does exist in the heart of America’s biggest city — yet few Americans seem to have noticed. More astounding still, the theocrats who run the place owe at least some of their special privileges and powers to the connivance of local secular officials. It’s like the Sharia Awareness Action Network’s worst nightmare — except that it involves Jews, not Muslims.

For the details, read Rachel Aviv’s epic, newly published New Yorker exposé of the massive Hasidic Jewish community in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Aviv’s narrative focuses on a single legal odyssey, which began in 2008, when a Hasidic man named Sam Kellner came to believe that his son had been molested by a neighbourhood cantor named Baruch Lebovits. After Kellner began digging around, he found that there were all sorts of creepy allegations surrounding Lebovits — some involving the accused driving around the neighbourhood, asking boys to get into his car.

Lebovits eventually pled guilty in May, 2014, to molesting a teenage boy. That is a horrible crime in and of itself. Equally horrible is what Aviv’s article tells us about the reaction of the Hasidic community in Borough Park: Most Hasids robotically rallied to Lebovits’ defence, on the theory that Jews shouldn’t rat each other out to the secular state.

What’s more, Kellner, the whistleblower, became a pariah. By now, all know about that #BeenRapedNeverReported hash tag that’s been going around Twitter lately. In Borough Park, it’s more akin to #BeenRapedShutTheHellUp. “When children complain about being molested,” Aviv reports, Va’ad Hatznius (the secretive council run by local rabbis) “almost never notifies the police. Instead, it devises its own punishments for offenders: sometimes, they are compelled to apologize, pay restitution, or move to Israel.”

Aviv takes us inside a repressive Jewish enclave where locals cultishly conform their behaviour to the fatwas (yes, I’ll use that term) issued by presiding rabbis. Children are married off young, almost always in precise birth order, as in the Middle Ages. Non-procreative sex, pop culture and modern electronics are frowned upon: To the furthest extent possible, Hasidic leaders seek to recreate the social conditions that prevailed when Hasidic mysticism was born in the 18th-century

Why don’t victimized young people escape this stultifying Borough Park life? Aviv answers the question with a piteous profile of a young man named Aron, a victim of molestation, who did try to get out. But it was almost impossible: “Many of the yeshivas in Brooklyn teach in Yiddish and provide less than two hours of secular education a day. Aron had a heavy Yiddish accent, a rudimentary grasp of written English, and no diploma. In a video filmed by a friend, Aron complained about his limited education and social skills. He said that he didn’t know how to interact with women—he had been forbidden to mingle with them or look them in the eye—and no one had taught him ‘what your body is about.’”

For those of us who favour a separation between church/mosque/synagogue and state, Aviv’s story takes a further sickening turn when Kellner, the whistleblower, finally gets the facts in front of a prosecutor. Rather than throw the book at Lebovits, the Kings County then-District Attorney, Charles Hynes, seemed more interested in working with local Hasidic leaders to nail Kellner for blackmail.

Interestingly enough, we learn that Hynes had been elected to office on the strength of Hasidic voters in Borough Park, whom community leaders deliver to the polls as a block. Aviv’s reporting suggests that the Lebovits case is not a one-off occurrence, and that criminal-law enforcement in this part of New York has been strongly influenced by Hasidic block voting for years.

The highly localized, hermetically sealed nature of Hasidic life helps explain why the theocratic rot in Borough Park has persisted, even as America more generally has been simultaneously engaged in a full-on culture war against the purveyors of shariah.

Because we are engaged in a global conflict with Islamists who seek to impose Muslim theocracy on the whole planet, every hint of shariah seems threatening. But ultra-orthodox Judaism, including its Hasidic strain, isn’t a prosletyzing, universalist faith. They don’t strap bombs to their chests or speak of waging “resistance” against “infidels.” In their highly concentrated communities in Brooklyn, London, Montreal, Belgium and Israel, the Hasidim pretty much just want to be left alone, free of outside cultural pollutants.

And for the most part, we give them what they want — until something horrible happens, like child sex abuse, that causes us to take notice. At that point, there must be, as McGuinty put it a decade ago, “one law for all.” Imposing that single law starts with whistleblowing, investigation and fearless reporting. In that regard, Sam Kellner and Rachel Aviv are both true heroes of Borough Park.

Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post.