Jewish Journal

The Hasidic Dynasties exchange, part 3: America’s impact on Hasidism

Members of the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, photo by REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of Erving Goffman. Professor Heilman is a winner of the National Jewish Book Award. He is also a recipient of fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Mellon Foundation.

This exchange focuses on Professor Heilman’s new book Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America (University of California Press, 2017). Part one can be found here and here.

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Dear Professor Heilman,

In the last round, I asked you about the attitudes of modern Hasidic Jews to the larger Jewish tribe. In this final round, I would like to focus on the relations of the members of American-based Hasidic courts to their country.

The type of culture that your book describes (especially in rigid courts like Satmar) cannot, of course, work without a serious level of insularity and distance from the larger general public and from standard secular education and culture.

My question: What type of effect has the encounter with American society — its ways and its norms — had on modern Hasidism? What role, if any, does America play in their lives and their identities?

We would like to thank you once again for the interesting book and for taking part in this exchange.

Yours,

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

There is no doubt that the host American culture and society have had an impact on Hasidism. The most obvious aspect of this is the fact that the United States has created an environment in which the freedom to live as one chooses is a given and, more recently, that it has embraced multiculturalism. That allows Hasidim to publicly celebrate and emphasize their difference as they embrace their distinctive practices and beliefs. In effect, the presence of Hasidim freely living their lives demonstrates in an iconic way that America is a society that allows all people to be what they choose. That is why American Hasidim, though a tiny and sometimes insular minority, can and do expect to live in safety and are unlikely to suffer the slaughter or pogrom that was once their lot in life in Europe. In America, where anti-Semitism is not state-sponsored, as it was in Europe, and has always been illegal, they need not hide who they are in order to survive.

America has also created a welfare state that provides assistance for the poor and for those who do not have all the resources necessary to maintain themselves on their own. Hasidim, with their large families and low per capita income (Hasidic villages like the Satmar Kiryas Joel or the Skvir New Square are among the poorest municipalities listed in the U.S. Census), have taken advantage of these benefits.  They make use of all the social services of the welfare state — from aid to families with dependent children, food stamps and the school lunch program, as well as the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program that is especially important to families like the Hasidic ones that are large. Together with the superior health care available in America, including Medicaid and Medicare (as well as the ACA), this has created an environment where Hasidism has grown demographically and institutionally beyond anything ever experienced in its history. Infant mortality is down, and that, of course, helps the large Hasidic family to grow.

Above all else, the fact that America is a democracy and allows all citizens above 18 to vote means that Hasidim have a voice in how they live, the laws of the state and society and can, even when they are a minority, become part of the governing structure. This has, for example, resulted in a Bobover Hasidic woman becoming an elected a civil court judge in New York’s King County or the voters in the village of Kiryas Joel (nearly all of whom are Satmar Hasidim) successfully passing a law that will allow them to create their own town that will effectively be governed by the rules of their rebbe, something never possible in Hasidism’s places of origin in Europe. Hasidim have used democracy to enhance their interests; they vote religiously and in high proportions. And as my description of how, for example, the Bobovers have dealt with the contest between two claimants to the throne demonstrates, they have also used the tools of democracy — voting or polling — to decide who will lead them and how to organize themselves.

Of course, the multiculturalism of America is offset by American encouragement of integration and assimilation — what was once called the “melting pot ideal.” For Hasidim who place great emphasis on maintaining their traditions and who have grown ever more socially and religiously conservative, this represents a threat too. In response to that, all the groups I have described – with the exception of ChaBaD – have grown more wary of their encounter with American society. They live primarily in their own enclaves and do not like to live with the Gentile or non-Orthodox Jewish other. ChaBaD, in contrast, has used all the market techniques of the American world to reach out to the public and try to sell their Hasidic ideas and their rebbe as a recipe for happiness. They seek to change the world, especially the Jewish one so that ChaBaD and Jewish will be synonymous. They even use some of the best-known mottos of modernity: Be part of it, or “we want…now” in their campaigns (yet another American marketing term).

My book focuses on Hasidic groups who have made their peace with America, but at the same time they also have a presence in Israel — even the intensively anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim have one. Yet Israel itself has been powerfully affected by the American model.  Both America and Israel are democratic states in which immigrants play a huge role in their development. Hasidism has embedded itself in both of these societies. But as my book demonstrates, those cultures have also impressed themselves upon the Hasidim.