How two Chasidic Jews created a trendy new bikini brand


Chasidic Jews and bikinis don’t normally end up in the same sentence together. The modesty rules that govern the Chasidic lifestyle typically forbid men from being around or even looking at scantily clad women.

So how did two Chasidic men start their own bikini company?

The story of Barry Glick and Saul Samet — the founders of the Beach Gal swimsuit company, as chronicled in Racked — is revealing in more ways than one.

About four years ago, Glick, a 30-year-old father of five who lives in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, was working at a store selling custom bekishes, or the long black coats worn by Chasidic men on holy days. He came up with Beach Gal’s signature idea — a bikini with a detachable fringe or string of sea shell beads — during his long commutes to the bekish store in New Jersey. He was fascinated by billboards for Pandora jewelry, which allows customers to choose their own charms.

“I don’t know how in the world I came to it but one day I thought, ‘maybe there could be a bikini that would work with such a concept,’” he told Racked.

Glick took his idea and teamed up with Samet, a Borough Park neighbor who provided the company’s initial investment. Samet had a connection to Cynthia Riccardi, the designer behind the popular Cyn & Luca swimsuit brand, who helped the duo finalize their designs and guided them to high quality fabric producers in South America.

Since then, according to Racked, Beach Gal has garnered positive reviews on Amazon and sold most of the 2,500 pieces from their initial production run. Their suits, which sell for around $150, feature detachable beads, sequins and ruffles. None falls under the category of modest clothing or swimwear (for proof, check out their look book).

So while the Chasidic pair is confident in their product, they are, unsurprisingly, nervous about how it might be perceived in the Orthodox community. They refused to have their pictures taken for the Racked article and said they aren’t “shouting it in the halls.” Samet said he hasn’t told his in-laws about the new company (but he noted that his wife is fully supportive of the project).

The other irony here, as Racked points out, is that Chasidic men aren’t exactly fashion mavens — they tend to exclusively stick to wearing black suits and white shirts.

However, for Glick at least, the inspiration could have been familial. His mother works at a clothing shop featuring modest attire and his grandmother has owned a fabric store for about 30 years. He says two of his three sisters are “quite fashionable.”

Member of prominent Chasidic family comes out as transgender


A 24-year-old Brooklyn descendant of one of Chasidic Judaism’s founders has come out as transgender.

Raised Charedi Orthodox in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Abby — originally Srully — Stein told the New York Post, and announced on a personal blog called The Second Transition that she recently began transitioning into a woman.

Stein is a descendant of Hasidic Judaism founder Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, and the grandchild of Rabbi Mordechai Stein. She said being a member of a prominent family in the Hasidic world made her early struggle with her transgender identity more challenging.

“My family had more restrictions than most families even in Williamsburg,” she told the Post. “Like men were expected to work only in Jewish scholarly jobs, not drive, and I was constantly told that we ought to be role models.”

In a blog post, Stein wrote that for as long as she could remember, she “wanted to wake up one day as a girl.”

“I was very far from the typical ‘masculine’ boy, even in a community where masculinity is not a discussion topic, so to speak. I was never interested in typical boy stuff, and I was always told that I act, and talk with the manners of a girl. … Yet, until I was 19, I did not know that there is even something like that — someone assigned boy at birth who is actually a girl, in mind and spirit.”

Stein said her father has not spoken to her since she shared the news.

“I think right now it’s shock more than anything,” she told The Post. “He doesn’t know what to do.”

Stein said she hopes the Orthodox community becomes more accepting of transgender people and that her story will inspire transgender Orthodox teens.

“My main goal is to get people to talk about it,” she said, adding, “Since I’ve gone public, 17 people have reached out to me who still live within the community and struggle with similar things. Most of them didn’t know there’s help.”

 

Before leaving the Charedi Orthodox community, Stein married a woman and had a son. Four years ago, she divorced and left the community. Now Stein is a student at Columbia University, where she is involved in campus Jewish life and a transgender support group.

Faigy Mayer’s suicide is a Jewish tragedy, not just an Orthodox one


In September 2013, I gathered with a group of friends to share feelings and reflections on the suicide death of one our friends, Deb Tambor, who had been struggling with a variety of issues related to leaving the insular Hasidic Jewish world. Next to me sat Faigy Mayer, a friend and fellow ex-Hasid.

Faigy and I talked for a bit, about Deb, and about our own lives. She told me she was doing well. I told her I was writing an essay about Deb’s death for an online magazine, and she offered me some helpful thoughts.

This week, nearly two years later, Faigy jumped to her own death from a 20-story building in Manhattan.

The news, when I heard it, shook me, as it did many in our community of ex-haredi Orthodox Jews. But it didn’t shock me. It’s almost as if we’ve come to expect another suicide in our ranks every so often.

Since leaving the Hasidic community in early 2008, I have lost at least half a dozen friends and acquaintances to death by their own hands, usually deliberate. There have been others too, friends of friends, members of our extended community, with waves of grief flowing outward far beyond those who knew the victims.

Still others I know have been on the verge, about to leap but pulled back by a friend, a counselor, a kind stranger.

Now, with Faigy’s death, those of us left grieving find ourselves wondering anew: What is it that drives so many in our community to despair? Who is next? And what can we do to stop it?

Faigy and I had been friends for about five years. Whenever I saw her, she appeared bright and optimistic and passionate about the work she was doing – she loved all things tech: coding and apps and gadgets of all kinds.

There were signs of trouble, though. She struggled with mental illness, and every so often I’d hear that she’d been hospitalized. But then she’d be out, back to her cheery self, talking about new friends and new projects.

The last time we met was several months ago, at a party to celebrate the release of my recent memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return.”

“Today is my five-year ex-Hasid anniversary,” she told me, grinning, her pride infectious.

Then came trouble again. On Facebook, which is where I kept up with her most, she shared as recently as last week her dismay at being mistreated by her family for leaving Orthodoxy. She’d asked her relatives for some mementoes – baby photos of herself and the like – but they refused to share them.

Even more recently, she fretted on Facebook about housing problems: She was facing eviction from her apartment and had nowhere to go. She dreaded homelessness, and she complained that there weren’t enough resources and supports available for ex-haredi Jews.

Her desperation for housing coupled with the lack of family support seemed to create a storm within her, then a wave too high to ride. After her death, came an outpouring of love on her Facebook page, arriving, of course, too late.

Her leap was an act of censure to anyone who might care: I needed you earlier, but you weren’t there.

Some were quick to blame the haredi Orthodox community, which shuns and ostracizes those who leave and wishes failure upon them. “All of us in the Orthodox world are somewhat complicit in her death,” wrote my friend Rabbi Ysoscher Katz in an article for the Forward, calling the community “sadly complacent.”

Others were quick to point to Faigy’s mental illness; she reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder.

Neither of these narratives offers much insight into how we, outside the haredi community, can assist the most vulnerable who seek greater choices for themselves. While surely complicit in the troubles of those who leave it, the haredi community is, for the most part, deaf to appeals for change.

And mental illness, while affecting some ex-haredim, needs management and treatment; it should certainly not be a death sentence.

In Faigy’s case, whatever mental illness she may have suffered from, the upheavals in her life – the lack of family support, the troubles finding work and shelter – are enough by themselves to explain her despair.

We must acknowledge that the journey away from ultra-Orthodoxy is so fraught that some simply don’t make it. There can no longer be any doubt: Members of our ex-haredi community are at an elevated risk for suicide.

Faigy dreaded homelessness. I have known many ex-Haredim like her, who over the years, as they tried to build their lives, felt in their isolation the ground beneath them shaking, felt the vertigo inherent in the transition from a restriction-filled life to one of self-determination.

“I don’t go home often,” a friend in her late 20s said to me about the small Texas town she’s from. Like many in our community, she doesn’t go home much, but nor does she have anywhere else to go.

Home is of course more than a place of residence. Home is the place to go back to, for the holidays, for a respite from everyday life, for when things don’t go as planned, for the faithful embrace of those who cheer and worry from afar and are ready to hold you close when you return.

It is also in this sense that ex-haredi Jews are homeless. We have chosen exile – temporarily, we hope, until we build our own foundations, our own supports, our own homes. But not all of us manage.

I think of the list of names, of friends and acquaintances now gone, with the latest one freshly tacked on: Alex Deutch. Ruchy Nove. Deb Tambor. Joey Diangelo. Jacob Ausch. Faigy Mayer. Gone by their own hands. Gone, too, are their demons, and their dreams.

How many others are in the shadows, with needs that aren’t being met? Needs that can be met, if we chose to meet them. If we look. If we understand.

This is to me the eeriest feeling in the aftermath of Faigy’s death: There will be another. And then another. Unless we do something.

Unless we start seeing this not as a problem for a small group, to be solved by the very few who care, but as a greater issue: of supporting freedom and choice for those who pursue it despite great costs. Unless this becomes not a haredi issue, or an ex-haredi issue, but a Jewish issue.

To be sure, the ex-haredi community has had many successes – in fact, we are bursting with them. Hundreds of former members of the Satmar and Belz and Chabad and other Hasidic sects are now thriving in their chosen pursuits and aspirations.

Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers support to ex-Haredim and where I serve as a board member, now has an annual budget of over $1 million, with programs ranging from college scholarships, to legal services for parents in family court, to social events that form the vital nucleus of a growing community.

Successes, however, do not make up for lost lives.

At present, Footsteps is the only organization in North America that offers a full range of support services to those of ultra-Orthodox backgrounds who seek freedom and choice in shaping their own lives. Its single largest individual donor is one of our own: a Footsteps member, a fellow ex-haredi Jew.

The cause might seem narrow, but it is a vital one. And it is time for the broader Jewish community to pay attention to this issue and begin to put resources into it.

We must extend a hand to the person on the ledge. We must offer a home to those who are homeless.


Shulem Deen is the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return.”

‘Bulletproof Stockings’: Chasidic women rock


They keep kosher. They’re Chasidic. And they rock. 

Perl Wolfe and Dalia Shusterman, two observant women from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, formed the alternative rock band Bulletproof Stockings in 2011 and are being featured Jan. 20 as part of a 9 p.m. episode from the Oxygen Network’s four-part TV series “Living Different.” 

The group — which only performs live before female audiences and whose name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the opaque stockings worn by some Chasidic sects — takes some inspiration from the Torah, while combining, according to some, the folk-pop sound of Aimee Mann with the mature, edgy vocals of Fiona Apple.

Wolfe (lead vocals, piano) comes from a Chabad-Lubavitch family in Chicago and was classically trained in piano from the time she was 6. She said she has loved music in general all her life, including rock, even though most Chasidic families don’t allow secular music in their homes.

“In my home, it was a little different,” Wolfe said. “My parents both grew up secular, and my mother is a convert. My dad is a ba’al teshuvah — he became religious much later in life. And they’re both musical. Everyone in my family is musical, so I definitely was exposed to a lot more secular music than average.” 

Wolfe, 28, started writing songs after her second divorce. 

“I guess HaShem was just revealing to me through the songs that I have a mission here, and I have to figure out what it is,” she said. “It was a really awesome, cathartic and deep experience for me, because it helped me simultaneously get through a lot of the struggle I was going through with the divorce. And it also helped me figure out that I did want to be a Chasid, because at the time I was struggling religiously as well. 

“When I stopped to look at the music that I had written, it was clear through the lyrics that my heart and soul are absolutely right here in Torah and in Judaism, and that, ultimately, even though it was hard for me to do the action of it, to keep Shabbos and to keep kosher at the time, I knew that that’s where I would end up.”

She relocated to Crown Heights and told someone she met that she wanted to start a band and was looking for musicians. She was put in touch with Shusterman, a drummer with a much more secular background.

Shusterman, 41, was raised in a Modern Orthodox family, left home at 16, went hitchhiking, attended college, spent several years playing all kinds of music — from Brazilian to Afro-Cuban — and toured the world with the rock group Hopewell. Once back in New York, she was introduced to a Chasidic man, whom she married in 2003. They moved to L.A., where she had four boys, became steeped in Chasidic tradition, and had nothing to do with music for years.

“But my husband was amazing. He bought me a drum set for my birthday, because I had left everything on the East Coast,” Shusterman recalled. “[He said], ‘You need to be playing. You are a drummer — you need to be playing.’ And he was a musician also, so we started playing a little bit with his songs, and we were playing at Chabad houses here and there.

“People were always suggesting that I should start a women’s band,” she added, “but there were no women around who were playing the same kind of music, who were speaking anything close to the language I was speaking, musically. So it never really happened.”

After the death of Shusterman’s husband in 2011, she moved to Crown Heights, where she was brought together with Wolfe, and they started their band. Although they perform exclusively for women, Wolfe said it is not because of the law of kol isha, which holds that Jewish men should not listen to a woman singing.

“The reason that we’re performing for women only is because we realized that having a space for women is a really empowering and exciting thing for women,” she explained. “And it’s something that’s not done, not in the secular world, not in the society at large. In the Chasidic community that’s very much commonplace.”

She continued: “Whether you’re religious or secular, or totally unaffiliated, wouldn’t it be cool to have a party together where we just rock out as women? And it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is or what your background is if we’re just a bunch of women hanging out and connecting on our soul level through song. I think that’s something that’s really powerful.” 

Shusterman said their venues are places where women can be women in whatever way is meaningful to them. “There are no men putting them in a box. 

“It’s inspiring in a different way. You really get to access parts of you that we don’t necessarily tap into when we’re trying to put on whatever face we do out there in the world.”

The name of the band, Bulletproof Stockings, reflects a number of aspects at play, according to Wolfe.

“There’s the juxtaposition of the hard and the soft, and the dark and the light,” she said. “Bulletproof is super-strong and invincible, and stockings are sheer and feminine, but they’re also vulnerable. They tear very easily. And I think living as a Chasid is all about balance and trying to live a balanced life, and reveal the light and the joy and positivity within everything, even if it’s covered by darkness.”

Shusterman, the band’s drummer, helps write some of the lyrics for the songs they perform and helps with the arrangements, but said most of the melodies and lyrics are provided by Wolfe, who described them as being inspired by Torah and Chasidic teaching.

“I feel that’s a message that comes through in every song,” Wolf said. “Even if some of the music sounds like hard-core and edgy rock, in reality, if you listen to the lyrics or read the lyrics, there’s a positive message of hope or looking toward a brighter future in every song.” 

A better Orthodox reaction to the mikveh, East Ramapo scandals


Three groups of Orthodox Jews have made several prominent appearances in the media over the last few weeks: The East Ramapo Central School District was profiled on National Public Radio because Chasidic Jews living in the district have wrested control of a majority vote on the school board even though their children attend private schools. The New York Times Magazine profiled the cycle of poverty and charity in the non-Chasidic ultra-Orthodox (Yeshivish) enclave of Lakewood, N.J. And the news media is covering a scandal involving Barry Freundel, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., who was arrested for voyeurism and the shocking allegations that he was filming women in the equivalent of a locker room as they showered and prepared to dunk in a ritual bath.

These three stories expose the underbelly of the three major groups of Orthodox Jews in America: Chasidic, Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish. Stories are interesting when they contradict conventional wisdom, and it is unexpected that Orthodox Jews, who hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and conduct, would find their most sordid secrets splattered across the press.

The public feels betrayed. Innocent bystanders and victims within Orthodox Judaism feel betrayed. Orthodox Judaism just doesn’t feel as trustworthy as it should feel. Recent affairs have whittled that trust away. Trust is the foundation of every relationship, and without it, religion is doomed, whether it is fundamentalist or progressive.

Orthodox Judaism needs to earn back the trust of the public. The media and their audience need to continue to believe that it is interesting when Orthodox Jews behave badly. Orthodox Judaism needs to get its groove back. It’s not impossible to regain trust, but it requires intent and effort.

One of the greatest gifts of Judaism is teshuvah — literally translated as “return,” and the Jewish word for repentance. Failure is inevitable. We are humans, and humans are flawed creatures who make mistakes. Judaism provides an opportunity to turn our errors into acts of goodness through the process of teshuvah. When we repent, we are actually closer to God than we were before we sinned. It’s as if a ribbon connects us to God. Sin cuts the ribbon into two, disconnecting us from God. True repentance ties the two pieces of ribbon together, reconnecting us. But the process of repairing the ribbon makes the ribbon shorter and reduces the distance between the two ends of the ribbon. Teshuvah reattaches us to God and makes us closer than we were before we sinned.

In any good relationship there will be mistakes that disconnect the two parties. These are opportunities for teshuvah. Whenever a relationship needs to be repaired, if it’s done right, the two parties should be closer after the “return” than they were before the relationship was harmed.

Traditionally, there are three steps to teshuvah: Acknowledgement, regret and reform. These are the three elements necessary to repair any broken relationship or any breach of trust. The Orthodox Jewish community must take these three steps to earn back the trust of Orthodox Jews and the general public.

The first step is acknowledgement. For most people, this is the hardest part of the process. We read about uncomfortable tactics and consequences in the situation in Ramapo. Our natural instinct is to argue that the Orthodox there have every right to run the school board. This is true. But that does not acknowledge any of the mistakes made along the way, or the pain experienced by the rest of the community. Also, without any acknowledgement, the public sees us as tone deaf to the issues raised by the status quo. We need to acknowledge that controlling the board has not been without error, and that criticism may be valid and that people have been hurt and harmed along the way. Only then can we express regret over mistakes and commit to making things better.

It’s true that Lakewood is a paradigm of kindness and charity. But implicit in the immense need for charity to support Torah study is that there is an accountability issue inherent in the kollel system. It is a system that perpetuates poverty and discourages financial independence. We need to acknowledge the problems that the system creates and exacerbates. This is obvious to observers, Orthodox Jews and everyone else. Until we acknowledge it, sympathy is harder to muster. Meanwhile, derision and condemnation by critics is harder to rebut. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Then the process of fixing the systemic problems can be repaired along with the relationship between the kollel community and everyone else.

The mikveh scandal brings two major issues to the fore. Opportunities for women in positions of leadership and communal policy is a constant itch in the Modern Orthodox community. When men in positions of leadership harm women by breaching their privacy, the itch gets a lot worse. It’s hard to imagine that a woman with the kind of authority granted to Rabbi Freundel would have acted similarly. But this is not the first time a male religious authority figure acted inappropriately toward women in his religious role with regard to matters of intimacy. The scandal also challenges the status quo of conversion in Orthodox Judaism, especially when the convert is a woman. This is the second time a very prominent conversion rabbi has sexually exploited conversion candidates. These issues must be acknowledged by the community in order to begin the process of return. Slowly, trust can be earned back through the teshuvah process.

Generally, the pain inflicted by violence or abuse to an individual or a scandal that violates a group is not as damaging as the pain inflicted by the cover-up. The opposite of acknowledgement is the cover-up. Too often we have been doubly stricken by the pain of the act, and then our suffering is compounded by the cover-up.

Fortunately, the responses to the mikveh scandal by Kesher Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have been heartening. There is indeed acknowledgement of the pain they have allowed to occur under their noses. Kesher acted swiftly in removing the rabbi from his pulpit. The RCA already has charted a new path for conversions that includes women acting as ombudspersons as well as a commission of men and women to reform current policies. These are the second and third steps of teshuvah. Clearly, there is regret as well as a commitment to fixing the problems. This gives a reeling public a glimmer of hope that trust can be earned back.

Fred Rogers famously quoted his mother’s comforting words during times of tragedy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,  “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Look around. You’ll see good people trying to make things better. You’ll see Orthodox Jews who want to earn the trust of the public once again. There are Orthodox Jews who are helpers. Those people deserve your trust.

Hopefully, the “helpers” can replace the people who are harming individual people as well as Orthodox Judaism in general. They can tie that ribbon and bring us all closer to one another. It’s already happening. I can see it. Trust me.


Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the spiritual leader of Pacific Jewish Center.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi brought old world gravitas to New Age Judaism


Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was one of the world’s most innovative and influential Jewish spiritual leaders.

To his followers, he was their Chasidic rebbe. But what other rebbe had dropped acid with Timothy Leary and dialogued with the Dalai Lama?

Schachter-Shalomi, who died last week at 89, wasn’t the only rabbi who tinkered radically with Jewish tradition. No one else, however, did so with the sense of gravitas and authenticity that came with carrying a living memory of the richness of prewar Jewish Europe.

Though Jewish Renewal, the movement he helped midwife, remains marginal by the standards of the major Jewish denominations, many of the ritual innovations he fostered have long since gone mainstream — from the use of musical instrumentation during services to the incorporation of Eastern meditative practices.

Few Jewish spiritual leaders could match the scope of his erudition, steeped as he was not only in sacred texts and Jewish mysticism but contemporary psychology and Eastern spirituality. He was a Yiddish speaker proficient in the vernacular of modern science and computer technology, an academic capable of creating transformative religious experiences for his followers.

“He was a whole world,” said Rabbi David Ingber, spiritual leader of the Manhattan congregation Romemu and a leading figure among the younger generation of Renewal rabbis. “There was no one like him when he was alive, and now that he’s gone, there will never be anyone like him.”

Born in Poland in 1924 into an Orthodox family with Belzer Chasidic roots, Schachter-Shalomi was raised in Vienna and arrived in the United States in 1941. He was ordained as a Chabad rabbi but strayed far from his Orthodox roots, eventually helping to found a movement that fused the ancient and postmodern into a kind of liberal Chasidism.

Like the Chasidic masters of Europe, Schachter-Shalomi encouraged his followers to seek a direct experience of the divine through practices inspired by the Jewish mystical tradition. He embraced a decidedly liberal ethos, championing equal roles for men and women in religious life, welcoming gays and lesbians, and promoting doctrines like eco-kashrut that integrated contemporary concerns into Jewish practice.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, which for a time was joined with ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, recalled a moment in 1971 when Schachter-Shalomi was leading a service in Washington and asked permission to separate the men and women.

Mindful of the feminist critique then gaining currency in progressive circles, Waskow objected. Schachter-Shalomi explained he was seeking to create a polarity between masculine and feminine energies and asked if it would be acceptable to keep the genders physically together but separate their voices. Waskow agreed.

“He was clearly a great and knowledgeable teacher — and he listened when a newbie said ‘No!’” Waskow wrote last week in a remembrance. “That made him a real teacher.”

Schachter-Shalomi pioneered ritual innovations that were groundbreaking at the time, including meditation, ecstatic dance and drums and other musical instruments in religious services. He led prayers in the vernacular, reading Torah from a scroll but translating it into English on the fly while maintaining the traditional cantillation — a feat he could carry off with seeming aplomb well into his ninth decade.

Though he lost family members to the Nazis, Schachter-Shalomi believed it was a mistake to attempt a restoration of the Jewish world destroyed by the Holocaust. Instead, he felt that Jewish traditions needed to be renewed, harmonized with new ways of viewing reality that emerged in the 20th century, much in the way theology had to be reordered following Galileo’s demonstration that the earth was not the center of the universe.

Schachter-Shalomi spoke often of a paradigm shift made necessary by worldview-busting events — the moonwalk, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were favored examples — that were so earth-shattering they rendered traditional Jewish modalities irrelevant. He wanted Jews to get over what he called their “triumphalist” sense that they had a monopoly on religious truth in favor of an “organismic” model that saw Judaism as one of many tributaries of the divine river.

He was a believer in a radical ecumenism, fascinated by the ways other traditions “get it on with God.” During the historic Jewish dialogue with the Dalai Lama in 1990, Schachter-Shalomi captivated the Tibetan leader with a a lengthy presentation on kabbalistic cosmology.

Along with the legendary composer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Schachter-Shalomi was among the earliest emissaries dispatched by the Lubavitcher rebbe to do outreach on college campuses. But he drifted from the strictures of Orthodoxy, exploring other mystical traditions and immersing himself deeply in the counterculture. His LSD experience, Schachter-Shalomi said later, had confirmed certain “intimations” he had previously about the nature of the spiritual world.

He was a leading figure in the growth of the Havurah movement, the small prayer groups that emerged in the 1960s and rejected institutionalized synagogue Judaism in favor of home-based worship, presaging the rise of today’s independent minyans.

Schachter-Shalomi married four times and fathered 11 children, including one through a sperm donation to a lesbian rabbi.

An inveterate boundary crosser, he declined to choose between the social justice imperatives and progressive politics of Reform Judaism, the spiritual rigor and devotion of traditional Orthodoxy and the mystical impulses of Chasidism. He wanted all of them.

The other Jewish streams “all had their own truths and languages, but they were partial, and Reb Zalman didn’t want a partial expression of religious life,” Ingber said. “He wanted a holistic expression of religious life.”

In the 1990s, Schachter-Shalomi left Philadelphia, where he had held a teaching post at Temple University, to assume the World Wisdom chair at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo. There ensconced as the “Boulder rebbe,” Zalman received scores of visitors in his basement study, many of them seeking inspiration and solace on their own journeys away from Orthodoxy.

In his later years, as Schachter-Shalomi began to relinquish many of the leadership responsibilities of the Renewal movement, he came to focus his declining energies on preparing himself and his followers to face his inevitable death. Schachter-Shalomi was driven by a belief that the existing Jewish toolbox was lacking the instruments to navigate the later stages of life — what he came to call the December years.

In 1997, he co-authored “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” an attempt to recast the golden years as something other than a period of decline. And in March, journalist Sara Davidson published the book “The December Project,” the product of nearly two years of weekly meetings the two conducted in Boulder.

“The whole teaching that he wanted to impart to people was that you will come to the end at some point, and at that point the work is letting go — letting go of your ties, letting go of your loved ones, letting go of everything,” Davidson said.

Despite his failing health, Schachter-Shalomi continued to teach until the very end. One month before his death, he led a retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwestern Connecticut for Shavuot. His appearance there had been an annual event, though he had missed the year before because he was too unwell to travel.

After the holiday, Schachter-Shalomi fell ill with pneumonia and spent a week in a hospital in Hartford, Conn., before being flown back to Boulder, where he died in his sleep on the morning of July 3.

Matisyahu on music, religion and life in L.A.


Less than 24 hours after performing with the Moshav Band at the Jewlicious Festival in Long Beach late on March 1, musical artist Matisyahu (aka Matthew Miller) was sitting in the bleachers of the frigid L.A. Kings Valley Ice Center in Panorama City, watching two of his sons, Laivy and Shalom, skate around the rink with 10 other young children as members of a new Los Angeles Jewish youth hockey league.

This spring, the reggae/hip-hop/dub musician will release his new album, “Akedah,” on the independent label Caroline Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. After being dropped by Epic Records, a Sony-owned label, not long after the release of his 2009 album, “Light,” he established his own label, Fallen Sparks.

Since his emergence in 2004, three of Matisyahu’s studio albums have hit the Billboard charts, and all three reached the top of the reggae chart — many of his singles, extended plays and live albums have made it big, as well.

Just before his sons hit the ice, Matisyahu spoke briefly with the Journal about his work and his ever-evolving Jewish identity. 

[READ ABOUT MATISYAHU'S PERFORMANCE AT JEWLICIOUS]


Jewish Journal: You moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles more than two years ago. Are you enjoying life here?

Matisyahu: It’s more laid back. The weather is better. I wouldn’t say I like it more — it’s just different.

JJ: You’re no longer on a major label, instead working under your own label, Fallen Sparks, and releasing “Akedah” on Caroline Records. What’s it like going the independent route?

M: Being on an indie label, your bank isn’t as big, and your marketing powers aren’t as big, but you have more control over what you do and what amount of money is spent. When you’re on a major label, they could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on things that you might not feel are important.

JJ: Why did you pick “Akedah,” the title of the story of the binding of Isaac, for your upcoming album?

M: It’s a concept that I started becoming interested in several years ago. I went to the grave of the Baal Shem Tov [founder of Chasidic Judaism] in Ukraine. I sat and studied for a while, and the story of the akedah was one of the major themes that we started discussing. There’s a lot of depth in that story.

JJ: And will that depth come out in the album?

M: The theme of akedah runs through the record and it’s a narrative. … It has obvious themes and it has deeper themes. The difference is that it all comes back and is very personal. No longer is it just abstract ideas. Any idea that I take, whether it be akedah or it be any biblical reference I have in the Torah, I bring it back to me personally — how it represents me in a very personal way.

JJ: Is your music today as religiously themed as it was when you identified as Chasidic?

M: This record is filled with Jewish themes. My last record [“Spark Seeker”] was, as well. I was trying to understand when people would say, “Oh it’s not Jewish anymore”; I realized what it is. What people want is blatant, obvious Jewish references so that they don’t have to think, versus a record filled with all kinds of the depths of Judaism, Chassidus and kaballah but requires someone to go just a little bit beyond the surface. 

JJ: Do you feel comfortable today labeling your Jewish identity in any way?

M: All the terms and labels and things like religious or Chasidic or Orthodox don’t really apply to me. … Being Chasidic, to me, is not about the way you look. It’s not about necessarily the rules you follow, but it’s more about a certain main idea. 

JJ: Can you elaborate?

M: [A Chasid] could be anybody. It could be someone who’s not even Jewish. Sometimes I see someone, I’ll be, like, “That’s a Chasid — that guy.” To me what a Chasid means is very different than what it means to the rest of the world. That’s why it becomes very difficult for me to say I’m this or I’m that.

In the face of strangers: Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)


This week’s Torah portion begins: “YHVH appeared to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent … looking up, he saw: behold, three men standing opposite him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and bowing down to the ground he said: ‘Adonai, if I have found favor in your sight, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under that tree.’ ” 

This verse is the proof text for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Abraham — still recovering from his circumcision surgery! — gets up, welcomes these guests, makes them comfortable and feeds them. We learn in the Talmud that hachnasat orchim is one of the activities that benefit us not only in this world but also in the World to Come. However one might understand the idea of the World to Come, there seems to be the suggestion that a big tent is a kind of heaven.

Later, we discover that these guests are angels who have come to tell Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child. But Abraham doesn’t seem to know they are angels. To him, they are just three strangers. He calls them Adonai (My Lords, Sirs). Rashi offers a different interpretation of why Abraham calls them Adonai. Rashi imagines that Abraham was in the middle of praying when he noticed the strangers. So Abraham says: “Adonai, God, excuse me for a moment while I tend to these strangers.” In other words, the moment the strangers appeared, he interrupts his prayer to welcome these strangers and to take care of their needs. 

Paying attention to strangers, welcoming guests and caring for their needs appears to be even more important than talking to God!

Abraham is the living embodiment of his tent. The Midrash tells us Abraham designed his tent intentionally to be open on all four sides — open to every stranger passing by from any direction in the desert. Abraham has an open heart and an open hand. He is not content to wait for guests, but rather seeks them out, runs to greet them, brings them inside and takes care of them. 

The first blessing of the Amidah ends with the words: “Baruch Ata Adonai, Magen Avraham — Holy One of Blessing, the Shield of Abraham.” Traditional commentary interprets this first blessing as our presenting our credentials before God. “Hello, God,” we are saying, “you might not know me very well but you remember my parents, don’t you? I am the child of Abraham and Sarah. Remember them? Remember all that they did? Remember all you did for them? You are the One who helped Sarah and protected Abraham. You were the shield of Abraham, remember? For their sake, could you do the same for me?” 

But Chasidic commentary reads the prayer differently. It suggests that when we call God Magen Avraham, we are asking God to shield the “Abraham” inside of us — to protect the dimension of us willing to see God’s face in the faces of strangers. We are asking God’s help to protect the part of us that wants to have an open heart and to be an open tent. That part of us needs protection because it is so very fragile and perhaps not instinctive.

It is hard to see God’s face in the face of strangers. It is even hard for us in our synagogues to look up from our own prayer books and notice newcomers; to stop what we’re doing and make them feel welcome. How much harder is it to invite them to sit with us at the Kiddush, or to invite them home for Shabbat dinner? Ron Wolfson argues that the first step in creating sacred communities is establishing a “welcoming ambience” for newcomers and spiritual seekers. Imagine what a synagogue would be like if it were really a place of “radical hospitality,” a genuine Abraham’s tent!

And as hard as this might be, it is easy compared to seeing God’s face in the faces of those who do not come to our synagogues — all those people who really are strangers, people we don’t usually interact with, or people who serve us, but remain largely invisible: undocumented immigrants, people from different backgrounds or of a different economic status.

Those biblical strangers turned out to be angels. But Abraham only discovered this truth by welcoming them in and taking care of them. Imagine the angels we could meet if we could shield the Abraham in each of us. 


Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).

Shoulders, knees and no’s: NYC sues Satmar businesses over modesty signs


Good news for Brooklynites who like to shop while scantily clad: New York City’s Commission on Human Rights is suing seven businesses run by the Satmar Chasidic sect located on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The case, which has been brewing for months, will go to trial in January, city officials announced this week.

The occasion for the suit? Nearly identical signs  hung in the shop windows, which specify modesty requirements for entering the businesses: “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low cut neckline allowed in this store.”

The Commission on Human Rights claims that this practice is discriminatory against women, whom the signs disproportionately target. Representatives of the businesses disagree, although presumably most of the male shoppers at Friedman’s Depot, the Tiv-Tov hardware store, Sander’s Bakery and other local businesses generally shop with their shoes on (and their collarbones covered).

Marc Stern, a counsel for the American Jewish Committee, contends that other businesses, such as upscale restaurants and private clubs, can enforce a dress code.

Of course, the comparison might invite the curious, sleeveless hordes to see just what’s so exclusive and exciting about the hardware stores and bakeries of Lee Avenue.

Schools caution on alcohol during Simchat Torah


Dozens of men sit around a few tables, humming a soft Chasidic niggun (tune), swaying slowly back and forth, noshing on cold cuts, salads and light snacks. Some are sipping on small cups of vodka. Most wear white dress shirts, black dress pants and a long black coat. 

This is a Chabad-Lubavitch farbrengen, and save for the brand-name foods and Styrofoam plates, it’s a scene that has been re-created countless times for centuries around the world. Yiddish for “joyous gathering,” this particular farbrengen took place after Shabbat morning services earlier this summer at Congregation Levi Yitzchok in Hancock Park.

“Think of it as a Kiddush, a sit-down Kiddush,” albeit one with its own unique Chasidic twist, said Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, a regular at Levi Yitzchok.

Farbrengens, conducted thousands of times per year at Chabad houses across the world, are one of the movement’s favorite methods for transmitting wisdom — through Chasidic stories, personal experiences and teachings from previous leaders (rebbes) of the Chabad movement. Every element of the celebration is meant to encourage one thing, according to Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, a Levi Yitzchok attendee: “to inspire one in the service of HaShem.”

Alcohol appears in moderation, he said, to assist attendees find inspiration that may help them improve their connection to God and Judaism.

“Alcohol is not the driving factor of the farbrengen. You can have a wonderful farbrengen without any alcohol,” Greenbaum said. “At times the function of a little bit of alcohol will help them rise past their certain inhibitions or challenges or be able to help them in the process.” 

In Shusterman’s words, alcohol can help people be more “receptive” to the ideas being discussed.

A normal farbrengen, part of holidays and lifecycle celebrations, is low-key, with drinking ranging from none to at most a few l’chaims and quiet tunes sung with everyone seated. Come Simchat Torah, though, that all changes. 

At Levi Yitzchok and dozens of other congregations across Los Angeles, the alcohol will be flowing, food will be piled high, feet will be sore from dancing, and most, if not all, the tunes will be sung loudly. In fact, the partying at Levi Yitzchok will begin the night before Simchat Torah, on the evening of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, when the congregation will perform hakafot (reading prayers while carrying a Torah around the bimah) and eat a festive meal under the sukkah

Save for sleeping, eating and some occasional traditional praying, the beginning of Shemini Atzeret until the end of Simchat Torah is, according to Greenbaum, an “ongoing farbrengen for 48 hours.”

As a preemptive caution for parents heading into the holiday, heads of school from four local Orthodox high schools (YULA Boys, YULA Girls, Shalhevet and Valley Torah) wrote an e-mail to parents to look after their children on Simchat Torah. 

In a phone conversation with the Journal, the head of school of Shalhevet, Rabbi Ari Segal, said that while its nice “when a shul can have alcoholic beverages served in a responsible way,” he hopes that parents and community members model “normal alcoholic consumption” for area youths.

“We are not waiting until someone ends up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning,” Segal said. “They [minors] are kind of trying to imitate the adult behavior I see, but without the level of responsibility and care.”

Rabbi Dov Emerson, the head of school of YULA Boys, wrote to the Journal in an e-mail that the high school plans to host about 150 students, parents, rabbis and relatives for hakafot and a holiday meal on Simchat Torah evening that he said would be safe and uplifting.

At Levi Yitzchok, Greenbaum said that a few hundred men will gather on Sept. 27 at the close of Simchat Torah to sing melodies that have passed down through Chabad over hundreds of years. With a packed house and an intensely celebratory holiday winding down, it won’t resemble in style Levi Yitzchok’s typical, laid back Shabbat farbrengen. But its purpose — to help people overcome their spiritual and religious challenges by bringing together Jews to eat and sing — will be exactly the same.

“It’s easier to battle the yetzer hara [evil inclination] when you have a few yetzer tovs [good inclinations] working together,” Greenbaum said.

Chasidim on plane to Uman arrested for unrest


Several Chasidim heading to Ukraine to spend Rosh Hashanah at the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov were arrested at Ben Gurion Airport for rioting after their flight was delayed.

The flight was on the tarmac early Tuesday morning in Israel when airport operations were suspended for about an hour after two Palestinian men in a stolen struck ran a security barrier.

The passengers caused damage to the plane, including to its emergency oxygen systems, according to reports.

Some 25,000 pilgrims, many of them from the Breslov Chasidic movement, converge in Uman each year ahead of the Jewish New Year to pray near Nachman’s grave. The rabbi died in 1810.

Also Tuesday morning, some 50 people traveling to Uman were arrested. Among them were fugitives from justice, passport forgers and people wanted for questioning, according to The Times of Israel. The paper reported that it was unclear if those arrested are actually Chasidim or if they were trying to capitalize on the large number of similarly attired people in order to escape the country.

Meanwhile, rabbis and organizers from the Breslov movement met Monday in Uman with top Ukrainian government officials to work on security for the pilgrimage and facilitate cooperation between the World Breslov Center and the local police, Israel National News reported.

Among the subjects discussed was the building of a statue with a Christian cross in recent weeks on the banks of a lake near the grave, which the Chasidic leaders say will prevent the annual Tashlich ceremony from taking place. The Chasidic leaders agreed to use a different body of water for the ceremony, in which participants cast their sins on the water.

Which of these American Apparel models is not like the other?


American Apparel, the clothing company best known for ads featuring scantily clad young women, may be taking things in a new direction.

Yoel Weisshaus, a 32-year-old student at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College who was raised in Brooklyn as a Satmar Chasid, was featured this week American Apparel’s tumblr page with peyos (earlocks), a flowing beard, and traditional Chasidic fur hat.

The garments were supplied by American Apparel itself, not a typical source of Chasidic garb. Weisshaus explained that he just wore whatever fit on the day of the photo shoot. But he brought the shtreimel himself.

There is no evidence that American Apparel plans to produce a line of shtreimels, although they would certainly make a striking accompaniment to a gold lame bodysuit. (It would also go well with their signature shade of black nail polish, which is called Chassid.)

The photo shoot is not Weisshaus’s first brush with the media: He’s been featured in the New York Post and CBS News for his determined campaign to sue the Port Authority over bus fare increases. Which might explain why American Apparel described him as a “peasant with chutzpah.”

“Me having chutzpah, that is a quote from the Port Authority itself,” he told JTA. “I am a peasant because we are all peasants, here in Amerikeh. Here, we work harder than we live!”

Weisshaus said that his Satmar family, which still resides in Williamsburg, had no problem with him appearing as a model. “If they had a problem,” he said, “it’s with the other models, not me.”

Driver in accident that killed Chasidic couple charged with manslaughter


Julio Acevedo, the driver of car in an accident that killed a young Chasidic couple in Brooklyn, was charged with manslaughter.

Brooklyn prosecutors announced a second-degree manslaughter charge against Acevedo, 44, on Tuesday. If convicted, he faces life imprisonment.

Acevedo earlier had been indicted on charges of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

Prosecutors say Acevedo was speeding through the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at nearly 70 miles per hour when the BMW he was driving plowed into a livery cab that was transporting Nachman and Raizy Glauber, both 21, to the hospital early on March 3.

Raizy Glauber was pregnant with the couple's first child, which briefly survived an emergency C-section. The Glaubers were killed instantly.

Acevedo fled the scene of the accident and was apprehended several days later in Pennsylvania.

According to reports, Acevedo was imprisoned for a decade for first-degree manslaughter, robbery and drug possesion. In February he was arrested for drunk driving, but a judge did not suspend his license.

Matisyahu talks about his new religious outlook and appearance [Q & A]


Cigarette in one hand and cup of tea in the other, Matisyahu sat down with JTA in his closet-sized dressing room during his European tour to talk about his life, his music, how he's raising his kids, and the recent changes in his religious outlook and physical appearance.

The beatboxing reggae star once known for his signature beard and hasidic garb has left his yarmulke by the wayside, dyed his hair blond and moved to Los Angeles from the hasidic stronghold of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Matisyahu (aka Matthew Miller) says he felt locked in by the hasidic life and at some point thought his look no longer represented who he was. Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on the truth in life, Matisyahu says; each person must discover his own truth. The 33-year-old singer, now dressed in a blue zip-up hoodie, says he still looks to the Torah and Judaism for inspiration, but his view of Jewish law — halachah — has changed.

Matisyahu talked about his ongoing evolution with JTA shortly before a performance at Le Bataclan in Paris.

JTA: A year ago you released the single “Sunshine,” probably one of your happiest songs. In what context did you write it?

Matisyahu: I was in California with my son, who has blond hair. It was “golden sunshine.” There was a really good feeling. Part of that is because of the connection between me and the producer and the way we approached the music — dealing with real topics, but in a positive light. I made certain changes in my life. I feel more open, more free. It’s like springtime coming out of a hibernation.

JTA: Let’s talk about these changes. A lot of your fans were shocked when you decided in December 2011 to shave your beard. Not long afterward, you posted pictures of yourself online without a yarmulke. Now you have dyed your hair blond. Can you explain the different steps leading to these changes?

Matisyahu: When I was in my early 20s, I became interested in Jewish identity and history. I went to Israel and had a strong feeling about being Jewish. I started to think about how to incorporate my spiritual search into reggae music. And I decided to make the leap to express myself as a Jew. I started to wear a yarmulke, grew a beard and changed my clothes. It was very much like the blending of the old mystical tradition and spirituality with who I am in America as a 21-year-old musician. Then I decided that I would go the next level with it all and that I would take on the ideology of Orthodox Judaism, even though I didn’t necessarily understand it logically. I figured that I was going to submit myself to it. And I accepted it. It became a part of my worldview. At the same time, I was traveling a lot, meeting different hasidim, and I really got a good understanding of what it means to be Jewish. But at some point I felt locked in to that vision of the world. I needed to go back to my choices and make decisions about my life. I still believe there is a lot of truth in Orthodox Judaism, but not the whole truth. Each person has his truth that he has to discover. You don’t necessarily have to mold yourself to another idea of who you are.

JTA: So you feel more authentic now that you have shaved your beard?

Matisyahu: When I had my beard and my suit, that was very true for me. In that moment that’s what I wanted. But I did feel that it no longer was representing who I was.

JTA: Were you affected by some of the negative reactions among your fans after you changed your look?

Matisyahu: Obviously it made me a little sad because I’m not really interested in making people upset. But at the same time, I’m not representative for anyone. Some Orthodox Jews felt that I betrayed them. There’s no betrayal; every person has to do what is right for him in his life. Then, separate from religion, there is the image issue. Some artists are bound to an image: Bob Marley has dreadlocks, Matisyahu has a beard. But that’s a reminder that the whole thing is not about style. It’s about music.

JTA: Still, you were, maybe unintentionally, a symbol for many Jews around the world that it was possible to reconcile tradition and modernity.

Matisyahu: I think I’m still doing that! I’m looking very much towards the Torah and Judaism as a source of inspiration. Maybe it’s not as obvious for people on the surface, but anyone who really listens to my record will find depth. And that’s a good way to weed out who is a real fan and who cannot go with you. When you are in a relationship with an artist, if his music is a part of your life, you have to choose whether or not to follow him through his transformation and evolution. You know, it’s like the story of the golden calf. When Moses comes down from the mountain, the first thing he does is burn it and it goes back to its original form. Sometimes a calf comes to us like an idol and we become stuck in an image. But to go back to the truth, we need to get rid of the image and get back to the base core. That’s kind of what I did.

JTA: Has your observance of Judaism evolved, too?

Matisyahu: I’m taking every day as it comes. For example, if I’m on the road with my chef or if I’m home, it’s very easy to keep kosher. But what is it to keep kosher? Is it eating kosher potato chips? Kosher is a bigger idea. I think it’s about being healthy. But according to some people, it’s about not eating this food because it’s forbidden by the Jewish law. My view of the halachah changed a little bit. The laws are there hopefully to be a tool. When they’re acting in that way, I’m following them. But if not, I’m not just doing random things because that’s what you are supposed to do.

JTA: How did the people around you react to your changes?

Matisyahu: The people that I’m around are my band. That’s who I’m spending most of my time with on the road. They’re not religious, they’re not Jewish and they’re very understanding. Also, I don’t live anymore in the neighborhood where I used to live. As for my family, they are very accepting of my changes. My kids are learning very different perspectives. I felt that was something very important to teach them all along: bringing them out, getting them out of the shtetl, seeing the whole world, meeting people from different cultures, stressing the humanity of mankind. They’re also growing up with a strong Jewish identity because it’s a big part of our lives — with Shabbat, holidays and even school. I’m teaching them real Jewish values: not to judge people, believe in unity and oneness, and also to know who they are.

JTA: Will we see a new Matisyahu a couple of years from now?

Matisyahu: In life, you’re never going to escape yourself, you’re never going to become something else. Hopefully, if you’re having this interview in two or three years, you will meet a more evolved Matisyahu. It’s important to keep growing.

JTA: Your latest album, “Spark Seeker,” has just been released in Europe. Critics describe it as more pop and less reggae than the previous albums. Do you agree?

Matisyahu: I don’t really consider it less reggae because reggae means a lot of different things to different people. There’s no such objective definition of the term when you’re talking about genres and styles in music. In the pure sense, it’s not so much reggae, but in some ways, this is more my delivery of vocals, a lot of them in a strong reggae patois. … The record was a sort of nice breath of fresh air: having a good time, writing feel-good songs. It’s more of a digitally produced record, more hip hop in the sense that drums and synthesizers are at the forefront of the music. But when my team and I went to Israel, we recorded a lot of live instruments, mostly Middle Eastern style. So in the end, we combined this Middle Eastern organic flavor with more modern fresh pop.

Chasidic counseler Nechemya Weberman sentenced to 103 years for abuse


Chasidic counselor Nechemya Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison for sexual abuse of a teenage female patient over several years.

Weberman, 54, a member of the Satmar Chasidic community in Brooklyn, did not speak during the Jan. 22 sentencing in New York State Supreme Court. He had been sent to Rikers Island prison without bail immediately after his conviction in December.

He was found guilty on 59 counts of sexual abuse. The encounters started in 2007, when his victim was 12, and lasted until she was 15. She is now 18.

Weberman had faced up to 117 years in prison.

The girl's parents sent her for sessions to Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, at the recommendation of the child's school. The girl was referred for not meeting her sect's strict modesty guidelines regarding women's dress and asking questions about the existence of God.

The victim reportedly gave a tearful statement in court.

“I clearly remember how I would look in the mirror. I saw a girl who didn't want to live in her own skin, a girl whose innocence was shattered, a girl who couldn't sleep at night because of the gruesome invasion that had been done to her body,” she is reported as saying.

The New York Daily News reported Jan. 19 that a new investigation conducted by the paper showed that Weberman had violated at least 10 other female patients.

At Weberman's trial, prosecutors said they were aware of six additional victims — four married women and two underage girls. The newspaper reported that it identified four additional women, who do not want to come forward out of fear of being ostracized by the community.

Weberman victims, according to the new investigation, include four married women, three of whom he counseled, and six unmarried women, all of whom were Weberman clients.

According to the paper, sources close to the women abused by Weberman said he used patterns of grooming and nurturing to lure them. He showered outcast teenagers with attention, taking them on road trips and buying them lingerie, they said. The unlicensed counselor also cited kabbalah when forcing his victims to have sex with him to convince them his acts were allowed, once telling a victim, “I learned kabbalah and we were a couple in another incarnation.”

“The intimate acts he was performing were intended as a form of repentance for sins committed in their previous lifetimes,” Rabbi Yakov Horowitz from Monsey, N.Y., in whom other victims had confided, told the Daily News.

Five others told the New York daily that they were aware of Weberman’s misconduct with clients years before he was accused of sexual abuse, and sources said the anonymous victim who put him on trial came forward after friends told her Weberman “was a known pervert.”

Brooklyn man indicted for throwing bleach in rabbi’s face


A Brooklyn fishmonger was indicted for allegedly throwing a cup of bleach in the face of a Chasidic rabbi who had accused the man's father of being a sexual predator.

Meilech Schnitzler, 36, of Williamsburg, a member of the Satmar Chasidic sect, was charged Wednesday on two counts of attempted assault, two counts of assault and criminal possession of a weapon. He could face up to 15 years in prison.

Schnitzler on Dec. 11 allegedly threw a cup of bleach in the face of Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who advocates for victims of sexual abuse in the haredi Orthodox community.

Rosenberg, 62, also of the Williamsburg neighborhood, was treated for burns on his face, around his eyes and in his left eye. The rabbi runs a website and blog for sex-abuse victims, as well as a telephone hot line, and made the accusations against Schnitzler's father on the blog.

Rosenberg reportedly had recognized his assailant.

The incident came a day after Nechemya Weberman, a Satmar leader, was convicted on 59 counts of sexual abuse of a now-18-year-old woman when she was between the ages of 12 and 15 and went to Weberman for counseling. Rosenberg supported and assisted the victim throughout the judicial process.

Nechemya Weberman convicted on 59 counts of sexual abuse


Nechemya Weberman, a member of the Satmar Chasidic community in Brooklyn who practiced therapy without a license, was found guilty on 59 counts of sexual abuse.

Weberman, 54, was convicted Monday by a New York State Supreme Court jury for encounters he had with a female patient when she was between the ages of 12 and 15. He was charged initially on 88 counts, but the number was consolidated by Justice John Ingram, who presided over the case.

No physical evidence was presented during the trial, effectively leaving the prosecution to make the case based on the credibility of the accuser's testimony.

The encounters started in 2007; the accuser turned 18 last week.

The girl's parents sent her for sessions to Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, at the recommendation of the child's school. According to the New York Daily News, the girl was referred for not meeting her sect's strict modesty guidelines regarding women's dress and asking questions about the existence of God.

The trial drew attention for a couple of unusual developments over the last several months.

In June, four men from the Satmar community were arrested for allegedly offering the accuser $500,000 in an attempt to silence her. And on Nov. 30, four spectators at the trial were arrested for taking photos of the accuser during her testimony, including a man by the name of Lemon Juice.

For Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who came under fire in June for his handling of prosecuting sex offenders in the haredi Orthodox community, it was his second high-profile conviction in a week.

On Dec. 3, Emanuel Yegutkin, the ex-principal of the Brooklyn-based Elite High School, was convicted on all charges of sexual abuse stemming from his relationship with three boys between 1996 and 2005, including one who was 7 at the time.

For Jewish Deadheads, the music plays on


As a gentle snow fell on the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center last Friday evening, some 85 people gathered inside a wooden lodge to welcome Shabbat — half in a meditation circle in which Grateful Dead lyrics served as a kind of mantra, the other in a more “traditional” service where the Lecha Dodi prayer was sung to the tune of the Dead classic “Ripple.”

It was the second installment of Blues for Challah, a weekend retreat that attracts dozens of Jewish Deadheads — or “grown-up hippies retracing their past,” as one participant described the scene — to this placid corner of the Connecticut countryside to bask in their collective love and reverence for the Grateful Dead.

Over the course of two days, a colorful sea of devotees — clad, unsurprisingly, in tie-dye, hemp and oversized knit yarmulkes — munched on organic food, swapped stories of their days following the Dead and tripping on acid, and of course, jammed.

“The Dead was a traveling band, they were always picking up and moving,” Yoseph Needelman, a Deadhead from Jerusalem and the author of a book about the use of marijuana by Chasidic rabbis, told JTA. “Their songs always talk about a road, a path, or driving to get back on a journey. That directly relates to a Jewish journey of traveling to find the right path, and the Chasidic concept of this world being a passageway. Jews and the Dead relate in that we both wander.”

A product of the 1960s San Francisco counterculture, the Grateful Dead inspired a fanatical loyalty from fans drawn as much by their music as the traveling carnival of seekers and misfits that followed them from venue to venue and obsessively trafficked in bootlegged recordings of their performances.

Though it's been nearly 20 years since the death of Jerry Garcia, the band's frontman and creative force, the Dead continues to be a cultural and commercial force — especially for the disproportionately large number of Deadheads who happen to be Jews.

“As Jews, we're always searching for a sense of community and acceptance, and being in the Grateful Dead scene was a way to be yourself with no judgments, since the crowd is so diverse,” said Arthur Kurzweil, the author, Jewish educator, magician and Deadhead who was the weekend's keynote speaker. “That old balding guy dancing next to you whose big belly is covered with a tie-dye shirt will go back to his job tomorrow as a banker. But at a Dead show, it doesn't matter what he does.”

Kurzweil isn't the only one who has wondered about those burly Deadheads. In “Perspectives of the Dead,” a collection of scholarly essays about the band published in 1999, Douglas Gertner noted how many Garcia lookalikes attended shows — “big men with thick dark curly hair and beards.” Only later does Gertner realize that these bearded men are, like him, members of an “extended community” of Jewish Deadheads.

Understanding the intense loyalty inspired by the Dead is a plaguing existential question that echoes through every Jewish Deadhead's mind at some point or another. Since its earliest days, Jews have been important figures in the scene that grew up around the band.

The legendary music promoter Bill Graham, an early champion of the Dead, was a German-born Jewish refugee from the Nazis. Mandolinist David Grisman was a longtime collaborator, contributing the signature mandolin part on the studio version of “Ripple.” Les Kippel was an early pioneer in the trading of live recordings and the founder of Relix magazine, a newsletter for traders.

“Going to a show is kind of like going to a family simcha,” said the 65-year-old Kippel, who now works for an auction house in Florda. “You knew everyone there and you felt like you belonged. It made me feel like I needed to connect with everyone around me and get everyone involved who wasn't there.”

Kippel spent some 15 years taping Dead shows and created the First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange in 1973 to help circulate the recordings among fans. He would organize people to bring recording equipment, both to split the costs and confuse security guards — “sort of the same way a kibbutz operates,” he said.

“It went from a simple act of wanting to preserve the experience to collecting it, which reminded me a lot of how we preserve Judaism,” Kippel said. “Our ancestors cherish our past and we try to preserve it, which is why Jewish Deadheads are obsessed with preserving the shows. We were a family gathering.”

Only one member of the band, Mickey Hart, is Jewish. And unlike Phish, the jam band that most closely followed in the Dead's endlessly touring, live tape-trading ways, the Dead never worked Hebrew classics like “Avinu Malkeinu” into its concert repertoire. But for many Jews, attending shows was akin to a religious experience and the band's lyrics contain powerful spiritual messages.

“The Baal Shem Tov taught that the way you look at things throughout your day can be an expression in the way you relate to God,” Yosef Langer said. “I was blown away when I found that exact concept in the Dead's 'Scarlet Begonias' song when they sing, 'Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.' “

Langer, who has worked as a Chabad emissary in the San Francisco Bay Area since the 1970s, got help from Graham to place a 25-foot mahogany menorah in the middle of the city for Chanukah in 1974, a ritual that persists to this day. In the 1980s, Langer spearheaded a “Grateful Yid” movement in which he set up a table at shows beneath a giant sign that read “POT.”

“They later learned our sign meant Put On Tefillin,” Langer said.

Deadheads, Jewish and non, bring a Talmudist's eye to the band's lyrics, most of them the work of lyricist Robert Hunter.

“Eyes of the World,” from the band's 1973 album “Wake of the Flood,” contains messages “about how my behavior in this world is reflected onto others, and how I can reflect divinity,” said Leah Chava Reiner, a 52-year-old from Massachusetts whose embrace of her Jewish roots initially manifested through listening to the Dead.

“He's come to take his children home,” a line from one of the band's best-known songs, “Uncle John's Band,” is a reference to the ingathering of the tribes, according to Moshe Shur, one of the leaders of the retreat weekend.

“There's something about the music that is so beautiful, it's religious,” said Shur, an Orthodox rabbi who got close to the band while living on a California commune in the 1970s.

“It's funny to see the way Jews also exchange bits and information about Dead shows and songs like an encyclopedia, the way they do about Talmud, but it makes sense,” said David Freelund, one of a number of rabbis who attended the retreat. “As a people, we have an intimate relationship with texts. We are the originals who study and critique text, so of course Jewish Deadheads will dissect lyrics.”

But the Dead community is more than a bunch of graying hippies obsessing over musical curios and obscure lyrical references. For most attendees at the retreat, the draw is the same as the band itself. Meeting a fellow Jewish Deadhead ignites an instant bond, a feeling of family.

“The whole thing was very tribal for me,” said Jonathan Siger, a rabbi from Spring, Texas. “The parking lot, where fans would surround the band and set up shop, reminds me of the way the Jews operated with the Tabernacle and the Temple. Culturally, we've set up camp for spiritual experiences.”

Orthodox Jewish woman who claims abuse ostracized by own community


Orthodox counselor to Hasidic community in Nechemya Weberman, is in trial for a sexual abuse case in which the accuser has been ostracized and threatened by her Brooklyn community, according to ” title=”HuffingtonPost.com” target=”_blank”>HuffingtonPost.com.

House committee to hold hearing on Chasidic Jew held in Bolivia


The House Foreign Affairs human rights subcommittee will hold a hearing about the plight of a Chasidic Jew from Brooklyn being held in a Bolivian jail.

New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher has been on a hunger strike for nearly two months until he is either put on trial to defend himself against money laundering charges or released on bail.

Ostreicher’s wife and daughter, and a retired FBI official, will speak before the panel on Wednesday, according to The Hill website.

Ostreicher, a father of five from the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, belonged to a group of investors led by Andre Zolty of the Swiss firm Lexinter that sunk $25 million into growing rice in lush eastern Bolivia. He was arrested a year ago by Bolivian police. During his arraignment, the judge alleged that Ostreicher did business with “people wanted in their countries because of links with drug trafficking and money laundering.”

The judge also determined that Ostreicher should not be allowed to post bail because “being free, the accused could destroy [or] change evidence that could lead the attorney general to discover the truth.”

U.S. lawmakers and Ostreicher’s family believe that the U.S. State Department has not provided an adequate response to Ostreicher’s detention.

Report: N.Y. mohel apparently tested postive for herpes


A New York mohel tied to the death from herpes of one newborn and to three others who contracted the disease, apparently tested positive for herpes, The Jewish Week reported.

Yitzchok Fischer, who was ordered in 2007 to stop the circumcision ritual of metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel orally suctions blood from the circumcision wound, refused, however, to submit to a DNA test to determine if he is a match to the viruses found in the babies.

The Jewish Week reported April 6 that a copy of the 2007 New York State Health Department order obtained by the newspaper through a Freedom of Information Law request said that he tested positive for an infection that he was “capable of communicating to others.”

The order was redacted by the department to protect Fischer’s privacy, as required by law, and does not specifically mention herpes. But, according to reporter Hella Winston, “both the context of the order and the facts surrounding Fischer’s case strongly suggest that the infection for which, according to the order, he tested positive is herpes.”

The order also describes the investigation carried out by the city Health Department in the wake of three infections linked to Fischer in 2003 and 2004, The Jewish Week reported.

Several weeks ago, The Jewish Week obtained a tape recording indicating that Fischer may have continued to perform metzitzah b’peh after the order to desist was issued, according to the newspaper. When asked several weeks ago whether the state department of health would investigate Fischer in connection with a possible violation of the 2007 order, Mike Moran, a spokesman for the department, would not comment.

The New York City Health Department has issued a warning against the practice. Haredi leaders condemned the warning as an unnecessary and unwelcome government intrusion into their community’s religious practices.

Woody Allen to play pimp who irks Chasidic neighbors


Woody Allen will play a pimp who irks his Chasidic neighbors in a movie directed by John Turturro.

Allen is set to co-star in the “Fading Gigolo” along with Turturro and Sharon Stone, Variety reported Tuesday.

Turturro and Allen will play friends who spark the suspicions of their Chasidic neighbors when they launch a gigolo business. In the film, Allen serves as Turturro’s pimp.

Allen, who recently won an Academy Award for screenwriting for “Midnight in Paris,” rarely appears in other directors’ movies. According to Variety, he last appeared in another filmmaker’s movie in 2000 with a role in the comedy ““Picking Up the Pieces” and an uncredited cameo in “Company Man.”

Attorney for Levi Aron: ‘Inbreeding’ was a factor in Leiby’s murder


A lawyer for the man accused of killing 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky said his client has a mental deficiency due to inbreeding in the Chasidic community.

Attorney Howard Greenberg continued to pursue an insanity defense for Levi Aron during a hearing Wednesday in a Brooklyn Supreme Court. Levi was shown in court via a live video feed from Rikers Island prison. He did not speak or look at the camera, according to reports.

“Look, everybody knows when blood relations have offspring, there can be genetic defects,” Greenberg said during the hearing, according to the New York Post. “It’s something that needs to be investigated down to the ground.”

Aron is charged with murdering Leiby near his Brooklyn home in July. He said he picked up the haredi Orthodox boy in his car when the boy became lost while walking home from camp for the first time and asking for directions. Aron said he panicked after the boy was reported missing.

Parts of Leiby’s dismembered body were found in Aron’s freezer.

A psychological exam has found Aron competent to stand trial, although he has admitted to hearing voices. Aron has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and kidnapping.

New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) told the Post that Greenberg’s comments on inbreeding show that he is a “sick, self-hating Jew who’s making a mockery of this case.”

Apres le beard: Matisyahu takes the stage in Boulder


When Matisyahu, the 32-year-old Chasidic reggae superstar, appeared onstage for the first time since shaving his trademark beard, no one in the audience at the Boulder Theater seemed surprised.

The news of his shaving had been widely discussed since the star tweeted a photo of himself, along with a brief explanation for his cosmetic and philosophical changes. Though he was now missing the aesthetic hallmarks of Chasidic Jewry, he still wore a yarmulke—a large, black-knitted version—and his tzitzit hung out from under his plain white T-shirt. He also wore baggy khaki pants that sagged off of his slim, vegan-fed frame, a long black jacket and dark sunglasses.

Without the camouflage of his beard and peyes, his face was noticeably angular, gaunt even. His features looked delicate and feminine under the multicolor stage lighting. 

The sold-out crowd didn’t seem to care, roaring with approval as he stood in front of the mike.

Yet some concert-goers expressed concern before the start of the show as to the viability of Matisyahu’s career without his signature look.

“I think it’s the beginning of the end of Matisyahu,” said Donny Basch, who was attending the Dec. 15 show with his wife. “If you’re going to see KISS and Gene Simmons comes out without makeup, I’d be really pissed.”

Others were more interested to see if any changes would result from his altered appearance.

“I’m curious to see how his concert today compares to the show in Philly,” said one woman, referring to a show she had attended several years prior that had a mix of Modern Orthodox and secular folks in the audience. “I thought it was a fun show, but mostly due to the mystique of a Chasid rapping and doing reggae.”

“I’m very interested in him and what his shift is philosophically,” Deborah Skovrom, a middle-aged woman, said of the singer’s new look and the deeper changes it might signify. “It’s a major shift in how he wants to be perceived.”

Yet she expected no changes in what perhaps matters most to fans—his music.

“His music and message is still right on,” Skovrom said.

Story continues after the jump.

Calvin Carter spoke even more emphatically in defense of Matisyahu’s choice to shave off his beard.

“He’s got the right to do that without people saying he gave up his faith,” Carter said. To him, the music is the point—“as long as the brother is spreading good cheer and good music.”

Carter was one of several stereotypical reggae fans in attendance—guys with long dreads and colorful knit Rasta hats. Most of the crowd, however, ranged in age from high schoolers to baby boomers and were white. Many seemed to have stepped off the pages of a J. Crew catalog.

Newly shorn and wearing his Gap-esque clothing, Matisyahu looked more like his fans than he ever has before. He danced jerkily across the stage. Many in the audience followed suit, yet few reached down to pick up their fallen yarmulkes as the singer did several times throughout the night.

Addressing the audience briefly after a few songs, Matisyahu spoke in unaccented American English without any hint of the patois he adopts when he busts into reggae and dancehall, and none of the “oys” and Ashkenazi pronunciations he sprinkles throughout his songs—especially those that are extra heavy on Jewish and messianic themes. In those brief moments he was simply Matt Miller.

And some people seem to like it that way.

“I think it’s kind of sexy,” said one Jewish woman of Matisyahu’s new look. “With the beard he looks like every other Chasidic Jew.”

It’s an interesting observation—to Jews, looking like a Chasid makes you look like every other Orthodox Jew. It makes you seem like you’re part of a black-and-white-clad monolith. But on the stage of popular music, the beard—not the neatly shorn scruff favored by Brooklynites but a long, full beard—makes one stand out. Some may even argue that it helped launched Matisyahu’s career.

He covered many of his most popular songs—“Jerusalem” and the seasonally appropriate “Miracle”—yet the evening’s highlight was the final song (before the encore set), “One Day.” The song had been used as the official anthem of the 2010 Winter Olympics due to its utopian message.

During his performance, Matisyahu was joined on stage by more than two dozen teens from the audience. A couple of the girls embraced him, clearly unaware of—or undeterred by—Orthodox Judaism’s prohibition against touching between the sexes. Though he did not brush them off, he seemed to momentarily stiffen. His beard may be gone but his fidelity toward Jewish law remains.

“I’ve seen him several times and this is the best I’ve ever seen him,” said Jonathan Lev, the executive director of the Boulder JCC.

Whether his performance quality had anything to do with his new look is hard to say (especially since this reporter had never seen him live). In the blog post he had penned to accompany the photos, he said, “Sorry folks, all you get is me … no alias.”

For the fans who lined up outside the theater, crowded around the stage and sang along with him, that seemed to be more than enough.

Bigger than the beard, Matisyahu move marks ongoing spiritual journey


The world’s most famous Chasidic Jew has shaved his beard.

With a declaration Tuesday morning that he was “reclaiming” himself, Jewish music star Matisyahu—a.k.a. Matthew Miller—shaved his signature beard and wrote, “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.”

The musician posted two photos of his newly beardless face to the social networking site Twitter and added an explanation on his website a few hours later.

“When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process,” he wrote. “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself.”
Matisyahu’s religious journey has long been an object of speculation and media fascination. Raised in a Reconstructionist family in White Plains, N.Y., he became affiliated with the Chabad movement only in 2000, after studying at one of its institutions in Israel.

Four years later, after his debut album “Shake Off the Dust… Arise” was released by JDub Records, Matisyahu began a rise that ultimately would find him performing on national television as well as at Jewish events.

Here was a beat-boxing Chasid borrowing lyrics from Jewish liturgy on television while wearing the black fedora and long black coat typical of members of the Chabad sect. Matisyahu represented a major step forward in the visibility of traditional Judaism in the mainstream media.

Chasidic Judaism was always central his public persona. While on tour, promoters made special arrangements to accommodate Matisyahu’s Sabbath observance.

As recently as last weekend, Matisyahu’s status as a Chasidic cultural icon was on full display. An episode of the Bravo channel’s “Chef Roble & Co.” focused on a kosher Thai Vegan party held at the musician’s home. The episode explored the intricacies of rules governing the preparation of kosher meals.

But Matisyahu’s spiritual exploration didn’t end with his rise to public attention. In 2007, he distanced himself the Chabad movement, a move that sparked another round of news stories.

“My initial ties were through the Lubavitch sect… At this point, I don’t necessarily identify with it any more,” Matisyahu told the Miami New Times in 2007. “I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews, I don’t want to exclude myself.”

“Matisyahu was never a part of the movement’s conventional line,” a senior Chabad official told Haaretz later that year. “It’s possible that he felt that his membership in Chabad caused him to be scrutinized.”

Matisyahu went on to explore other schools of Chasidism—including Karlin-Stoliners, a Chasidic group known for praying at full volume. It wasn’t a matter of rejecting Chabad, the singer told JTA in 2008, but rather “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”

The singer’s latest statement isn’t definitive. It doesn’t rule out belonging to Judaism or even a Chasidic movement. At most, the statement seems to indicate another stage of spiritual exploration.

“Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth,” Matisyahu says in his statement. “And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry … you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”

Ukrainians protest Chasidic pilgrimage to Uman


Dozens of Ukrainian nationalists protested the annual pilgrimage of Jews to the grave of a Chasidic rabbi in Uman.

Sunday’s protest, organized by the nationalist Svoboda Party, demanded increased legal controls on the thousands of pilgrims who annually visit the grave of Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the founder and spiritual leader of the Bratslav Chasidic movement, to celebrate the Jewish New Year. The protest said the pilgrimage presents a security and health risk, and that the pilgrims treat Uman residents disrespectfully.

Protesters shouted slogans such as “Ukraine for Ukrainians,” according to The Associated Press.

Some 25,000 Jews from around the world flock to the central Ukrainian city each year to visit the grave of Reb Nachman, who was born in the city of Medzhybizh in 1772 and died in 1810 in Uman. Since then, Uman has become a mecca for Bratslaver Chasidim, particularly on Rosh Hashanah.

New York shtetl where arson attack occurred, the rebbe’s word is law


For years, this leafy Chasidic village about an hour north of New York City has been a shtetl-like haven where residents could live their strictly Orthodox lifestyle far from the temptations and bustle of the nation’s largest city.

Out of view of all but very few, life in this community of some 7,000 Skverer Chasidim has revolved around its spiritual leader, the Skverer rebbe, Rabbi David Twersky.

In the wake of a recent arson attack that left a dissident New Square resident in the hospital with third-degree burns over more than half his body—and thrust this community into the harsh glare of media and police investigators—the question is whether the centrality of the rebbe to community life has created an atmosphere of dangerous coercion.

“We cannot encourage theocratic rule,” said Michael Sussman, the civil rights attorney representing the burn victim, Aron Rottenberg. “Yet by tolerating these communities, we’re doing that.”

The incident that has thrust New Square into the spotlight came in the wee hours of May 22, when police say that Rottenberg approached a man carrying a rag soaked with flammable liquid behind his family’s house. In the ensuing altercation, which took place at approximately 4 a.m., Rottenberg and his alleged assailant—Shaul Spitzer, 18—were badly burned. Both remain hospitalized.

The incident appears to be the culmination of a dispute about enforcing the will of the rebbe—something akin to the rule of law in New Square.

The rebbe likes his followers in New Square to pray at his synagogue. But since the fall, Rottenberg and a small group have been making the milelong trek to Friedwald Center, a nursing home in the adjacent village of New Hempstead, for a minyan. That instantly marked Rottenberg, a 43-year-old plumber, as persona non grata in the community.

The campaign of intimidation began soon after.

Rottenberg had stones thrown through his car and home windows, received threatening phone calls late at night and found his children expelled from the village’s religious schools, according to Sussman.

Then came the arson incident involving Spitzer, who had been serving as Twersky’s live-in butler for about a year.

In a letter sent to state and federal judicial officials, Sussman said the campaign of intimidation occurred “under Twersky’s authority” and asked for the arson attack to be classified as a hate crime.

The FBI reportedly has joined forces with the Ramapo Police Department to investigate the attack, according to The New York Times.

Most New Square residents defend Twersky as innocent, according to Yossi Gestetner, a Chasidic journalist and public relations consultant.

“Few people in New Square think that the New Square grand rabbi or anyone in leadership actually ordered or at all wanted this arson attempt to take place,” said Gestetner, who is based in the nearby village of Spring Valley, N.Y. “However, many people living in New Square think that leadership owes responsibility—in a moral, not legal sense—for not coming out strongly against the low-level violence in the past.”

The haredi Orthodox AMI magazine published an interview with Twersky last week in which he condemned “in the strongest possible terms any violence or coercion under any circumstances.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the magazine’s publisher and editor in chief, said it is unfair to blame Twersky for the actions of one member of his community.

“It’s racism to attack an entire community based upon a lost soul or criminal minds who perpetrate crime against others,” he said. “When we have an attack like that, we don’t go ahead and attack an entire community, and we don’t attack the rebbe, who has never been accused of a crime.”

In communities like New Square, however, where Chasidic leaders influence not just residents’ spiritual lives but their financial and political endeavors as well, little happens without the rebbe’s say-so, says Shmarya Rosenberg, author of Failedmessiah.com, a watchdog blog about the haredi Orthodox community.

“There’s no concept of democracy. There’s no concept of any kind of a civil society at all,” Rosenberg said. “Every institution in the community is completely under the rebbe’s thumb.”

If a New Square resident crosses the rebbe or breaks one of the village’s many unwritten rules, one New Square resident told JTA, his neighbors will treat him “like a goy”—not saying hello in the morning, not answering his questions or acknowledging his presence. The man, who asked to be identified only as Weiss, agreed to talk only if the interview were conducted outside New Square.

Weiss said a dissident faces even more harassment: His house windows might be broken, his car’s tires slashed and his kids expelled from school.

“Everyone’s fighting because they think the rebbe is God,” he said. “I’m not going to fight, even for God. They make sick people because of the rebbe.”

Shulem Deen, a former New Square resident whose ex-wife and five children still live in the village, said dissent is not tolerated and leaving is extremely difficult. Deen himself faced harsh resistance from the village’s rabbinic court before he eventually left the village about six years ago.

“New Square is not an organization, it’s not a private club where you join, pay dues and then you can cancel your membership,” he said. “Their entire life is in that community.”

Deen recalled an incident about seven or eight years ago when a family chose to circumcise their son in Brooklyn rather than New Square. Their tires were slashed and their house was vandalized, he said.

“This is definitely a sea change,” Deen said of the arson attack. “This is not new, but it’s never been anything quite like this.”

Nomi Stolzenberg, a University of Southern California Law School professor and an expert on haredi Orthodox Jewish communities, says internal divisions often arise in the successor generations following the death of the Chasidic rebbe who founded the community.

In New Square, Twersky, 70, took over in 1968 after the death of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twesky, who founded the community in 1954. Twersky lives in a mansion and is treated like royalty by community members—as are most Chasidic rebbes by their followers.

“Competing factions arise,” said Stolzenberg, also the co-author of the forthcoming book “American Shtetl.” “Even if there hadn’t been an outside world looking on, it’s inevitable that schisms and factions and divisions within the community were going to develop.”

Still, most Skverer Chasidim remain loyal to Twersky and believe the incident is being unfairly magnified by secular authorities, Deen said.

“I think they primarily see it as a public relations issue. I would be very surprised if there are discussions going on there that are about actual change,” said Deen, who runs Unpious.com, a blog about the haredi Orthodox world. “Most of the discussion there is now is how do we respond to the world as opposed to how do we be reflective about what we’ve been doing wrong.”

New Square resident Meyer Knoloch said the Rottenberg story has been blown out of proportion by outsiders and anti-Semites.

“Most of the population living here is very satisfied with the village—just a few people not so satisfied who make the trouble,” Knoloch said. “People live here peacefully. There’s no fighting, no drugs, no weapons. There’s no break-ins in houses. But there are rules.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a public relations consultant hired shortly after the attack by “a group of concerned citizens,” says New Square’s peaceful and philanthropic past should prompt outsiders to think twice before lambasting the village.

“Nonsense, untrue, inaccurate,” Sheinkopf said of the rumors of a campaign of intimidation against Rottenberg. “The rebbe’s been very clear about this.”

Still, there are certain rules that come with living in a 0.4-square-mile modern-day shtetl, and Sheinkopf said residents know what they’ve signed up for.

“They know what community they live in,” he said. “There’s a rebbe, there’s a way of life, it’s worked for 60 years and it will go forward.”

Chasidic religious dissident burned by attacker in N.Y.


A member of a dissident congregation in the Chasidic village of New Square, N.Y., suffered severe burns after confronting a suspected arsonist outside his home.

The Journal News reported that Aaron Rottenberg, 43, suffered third-degree burns on 50 percent of his body after he confronted a man carrying a rag soaked in flammable liquid outside his home early Sunday morning. During the confrontation, Rottenberg’s clothes caught on fire.

Ramapo police later arrested Shaul Spitzer, 18, on assault and attempted arson charges. Spitzer had burns on his hands and arms.

Rottenberg’s family and other members of the dissident congregation reportedly have faced violence and harassment in the homogenous town dominated by the Skverer Chasidic sect. Spitzer, one television station reported, is said to be a live-in butler for the sect’s rebbe.

The attack took place during the holiday of Lag b’Omer, which is observed by lighting bonfires.

Chasidic man beaten in New York


A Chasidic man wearing traditional clothing was beaten in New York in what appears to be a hate crime.

Joel “Joseph” Weinberger, 26, was returning home in the evening on Thanksgiving from his place of employment at a Brooklyn yeshiva in the Williamsburg neighborhood when he reportedly was attacked by three men.

Weinberger reportedly offered the men his wallet, but they beat him severely and ripped apart his religious articles.

The police have not been able to categorize the attack as a hate crime since they have not yet been able to interview Weinberger at length, WCBS-TV in New York reported.
Weinberger reportedly did not get a good look at his attackers.

Center Provides Chasidut for All


As the High Holy Days approach, some Jews might dread sitting for hours on end in shul, crowning God as their King while their minds inevitably wander off to their missed calls, their mortgage payment or their next meal. Davening, the Yiddish term for prayer, may feel like a constant battle.

And that’s how it should be, according to Rabbi Reuven Wolf, director of Maayon Yisroel, a Chasidic community center on La Brea Boulevard that he founded one year ago with his longtime student Chaki Abehsera.

At his recent shiur (study) on the weekly Torah portion, Wolf deftly interwove biblical commentary with kabbalistic thought to interpret God’s biblical battle cry to the army of Israel as a reference to prayer — the “bloodiest” battleground between the Jewish neshama (spiritual soul) and the animal soul.

“We shouldn’t get disheartened if, in the middle of davening, we experience distractions and we think of other things,” he told an audience of about 50, the majority of whom were observant women. “It’s a sign of good davening — good davening will be interrupted. Like wrestling, the animal soul is fighting back.”

Reconciling the yearning for divine light and worldly survival is a theme that permeates Wolf’s teachings at Maayon Yisroel. A father of six, Wolf quit his full-time job as a teacher at Toras Emes, the Orthodox day school located a few blocks away, to dedicate his time to infusing L.A. Jewry with spiritual applications of Jewish practice and texts.

“We had a vision: Why can’t we create a place that is a warm, inspiring place where we learn about the more mystical elements of the Torah?” Wolf, 37, said.

But the animal soul doesn’t seek only the material luxuries abound in Los Angeles, he explained. The practice of religion, too, can succumb to the animal soul, which seeks to reduce religious observance to mere outer practices bereft of a deeper, spiritual motivation.

“Not to say that the performance of ritual mitzvot is coming from an animal soul or furthers animal interests — but the animal soul wants to stop with that, doesn’t want to take it further,” Wolf said.

Wolf had hoped to open his center on Pico Boulevard, the Jewish thoroughfare that serves as a local mecca for the young Jewish searcher. Centers for Chasidic and kabbalistic thought — Chabad, Breslev, and, of course, the Kabbalah Centre — have all set up shop near the Pico-Robertson intersection. But when contracts kept falling through to open on Pico, Wolf took it as a sign to open the center in his own neighborhood of Hancock Park, considered the local stronghold of Litvak Jewry.

With its roots in Lithuania, Litvak Judaism is Chasidut’s centuries-old rival, placing talmudic scholarship as the prime gateway to God. The Chasidic teachings of the Baal Shem Tov (aka Reb Yisroel ben Eliezer) in the 18th century — the inspiration for Maayon’s approach — rivaled the Litvak philosophy with its emphasis on prayer, faith, kindness and the mystical dimensions of the Torah.

Wolf leased the former offices of a fashion designer, which sit above the kosher Pizza Mayven, off First Street, to share Chasidic teachings that may be as foreign to a Litvak Jew as an unaffiliated Jew.

“Spirituality always requires a person to get out of his comfort zone,” he said. “At least to break free from where you are.”

Wolf’s lifelong spiritual and intellectual journey make him an ideal candidate to merge the Litvak and Chasidic worlds. He grew up in Borough Park, a Chasidic community he found Chasidic more in body than in soul. 

“The same thing that has happened to Judaism as a whole has happened to Chasidic circles. Even Chasidic communities which are supposed to be about light and energy have become mechanical and superficial,” he said.

Later, as a bochur (student) at acclaimed Litvak yeshivas — Slabodka in Bnei Brak and the Mir in Jerusalem — Wolf kept his deep interest in Chasidut undercover. “I’ve come a long way from that world,” he said.

His emphasis on inner spirituality doesn’t translate into compromises of halachah (Jewish law). Take the mechitza (divider) in the main study hall, for example. It’s high enough to completely block the line of sight between the women and men.

Co-founder Abehsera, 34, who works as a graphic designer by day, is the unofficial welcoming committee for newcomers to Maayon. And he doesn’t want the mechitza to serve as a barrier for the non-observant.

“If you’re sitting down in a class and a beautiful woman comes and sits down, who would you look at first, her or God?” Abehsera often explains to the men.

While kiruv (Jewish outreach) is not Maayon’s goal (women are welcome to come wearing pants), they hope the spiritual teachings will naturally draw Jews to spiritually grounded observance.

The challenge for Maayon is to enhance the physical encasement for its spiritual teachings — its animal soul, if you will. The classrooms are designed in modern tones, but few books line the shelves and they have yet to put up a sign outside the building. Maayon collects just enough money through donations and sponsorships to make it through the month. For now, they’re living on a prayer — and faith.

“But we’re here,” Wolf said. “We know it’s going to explode soon.”

For more information about Maayon Yisroel, call (323) 747-5228 or visit www.maayonyisroel.com.