Crown Heights

Chabad women push leaders for a vote in Sunday’s Crown Heights JCC election

“All women should be enfranchised in this election,” says activist Miriam Levy-Haim.

Credit: Mo Gelber/Shtetl

May 30, 2024 2:40 PM


This Sunday, for the first time in 14 years, Chabad-Lubavitch community members will vote for a board of directors to oversee the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and serve as advocates for the community at large.

But women are not eligible to vote. 

So, while electing leaders is a democratic process rarely seen in other Haredi communities, it still excludes half the population — despite objections raised by both men and women within the community last time around. Now, a petition organized by two Chabad women urging the leadership to change the policy is making the rounds, and one of the organizers even filed a complaint with the New York Attorney General.

The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council is a social services organization that gets funding from the city, state, and federal governments to provide a food bank and connect residents to government benefits such as food stamps and housing subsidies. According to its most recent 990 form, the organization got $2,675,859 in government grants in the 2023 fiscal year. 

In establishing the CHJCC, its founders gave it a unique structure, whereby the board is elected by the community at large, in an election organized by “n’tzigim,” or delegates of each shul in Crown Heights. The catch: only men are allowed to vote, leaving women, especially those who are single, without a voice.

Though it is not a government organization, since the CHJCC is publicly funded, it may be legally obliged not to discriminate on the basis of gender. During the last election, Crown Heights resident Eliyahu Federman publicly argued that its eligibility requirements were unconstitutional. When asked about Federman’s assertion, Marc D. Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s Chief Legal Officer, told The New York Times “They are in a constitutional gray area” due to the CHJCC’s government funding.

The CHJCC’s all-male board of directors, also called the vaad hakohol, or the community committee, consists of volunteers who oversee the functioning of the organization. They advocate for what they view as the community’s interests, such as engaging political leaders, securing affordable housing, and combating antisemitism.

The men’s votes are meant to represent the views of their respective households, but Crown Heights activists Miriam Levy-Haim and Esther Gopin say it’s time to change that. They are circulating a petition that calls on the current board of directors and the election council to change the policy and give women a vote. The petition got 115 signatures within a few hours, Levy-Haim told Sholom Ber Nemanow, host of the Crown Heights Insider podcast

“All women should be enfranchised in this election,” Levy-Haim wrote in a document accompanying the petition. “However, it is particularly ironic that single mothers, as female heads of household, who are often vulnerable and depend on services that should be provided by the community, are the ones left out without any representation.”

According to the organization’s bylaws, elections for the council’s board of directors must take place every two years, but discord in the community has prevented any elections from taking place since 2010, according to Avi Lesches, a community leader. The different synagogues would not agree to send delegates, or n’tzigim, to form a de facto executive board for the CHJCC, so they could not run elections. Lesches said bad publicity over tunnels discovered near the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, which made the lack of unity and communal dysfunction public, caused the community to unite again. 

But, since it’s already been 14 years since the previous election, some community leaders say that it’s not worth delaying it any further in order to include women.

Haredi women are encouraged to vote in public elections, and do so without mishap or religious censure. Lesches told the podcast that he didn’t know why women aren’t allowed to vote for the CHJCC, but said there is a “very large” internal discussion about whether to let women vote and how to do so without running afoul of community norms on modesty and gender segregation. 

“The question is, how to do it, and if to do it, and if to do it right,” Lesches said. “One example is maybe creating a separate polling site run by women. It’s something that’s definitely not being taken off the table.” 

Nemanow said he also spoke to an anonymous source involved in the election process. “There simply has not been enough time to launch a full process to change the bylaws that govern Crown Heights elections,” Nemanow said, citing the anonymous source. “We can bring this issue back up once the election is over.”

Rabbi Yaakov Goldstein, a candidate in this year’s election, said he was sympathetic to women wanting to vote, but couldn’t say what he would do if elected to make it happen. “My wife’s sister is a widow, and I have a niece that’s divorced, so I think it leaves them in a dark spot, or an unfair spot,” Goldstein told Shtetl. “Let’s cross the path of this election, then we’ll worry about the next one.”

Because of past events, however, some activists are distrustful of what community leaders say will happen after the election.

In 2011, when community leadership caught flak for not letting women vote, Isaac “Zaki” Tamir, a lawyer and the chairman of the board, told the New York Times he was confident that women would be able to vote in the next election.

But that hasn’t happened, and Levy-Haim says she’s done enough waiting. “In another 14 years, I'll be 50,” Levy-Haim wrote. “Somehow, it is never the right moment to work on this issue.”

Levy-Haim, who filed a civil rights complaint with the New York State Attorney General’s office,encouraged others to do the same. She said she took that step after consulting lawyers who believed that because the council receives government funding, it is illegal for it not to let women vote.

Gopin, the other voice behind the petition, has chosen not to appeal to secular authorities for now.

“I do not want to jeopardize the upcoming election as I believe that these new candidates are willing and able to make a healthy change and include women in community affairs,” Gopin wrote in the document accompanying the petition. “I have also spoken with them about the issue of women voting, as well as about establishing a women’s committee at the CHJCC, which they plan to do.”

Devorah Halberstam, an activist from the Crown Heights Hasidic community who rose to prominence after her son was killed in a terrorist attack in 1993, said she had not seen the petition. She told Shtetl that while she’d leave the specifics up to the rabbis, she believes it’s important for women’s voices to be heard.

“I absolutely feel that women are an integral part of this community, as mothers, as leaders,” Halberstam said. “I think that somehow, somewhere, they could make this work, and they should make it work. People should not feel left out.”