Dec 31, 2023 10:30 AM
At the beginning of this year, we set out with a bold new mission: to publish independent coverage of the Haredi world, with the intimate familiarity of insiders, but free from the top-down oversight that characterizes other Haredi media. And while the broader Haredi media landscape is indeed rich and varied, one thing has been lacking: real journalism.
And without real journalism, critical issues cannot come to light. We set out to change that.
Many said this was not doable — or if it was, we weren’t the right people to do it. We did it anyway.
In March, Shtetl was launched, and during the ten months that followed, we gave our readers a taste of what’s possible. Our stories covered the width and breadth of the Haredi community across the NYC Metro region — from the Catskills in Upstate New York to Lakewood in Central New Jersey. Through it all, we offered sensitive, nuanced, and balanced reporting while providing a platform for a diverse range of voices. We translated documents, speeches, interviews, and articles from Yiddish and Hebrew at a volume and pace virtually unprecedented in modern-day coverage of the Haredi world.
And we are just getting started.
Here are some of the major topics we covered throughout 2023:
The battle over secular education in Hasidic yeshivas
In March, we reported on Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, grand rebbe of one of the major Satmar factions, bragging about getting a yeshiva-related bill passed in the state assembly under the noses of clueless legislators, praising Haredi assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein for the legislative sleight of hand. The speech was given in Yiddish, peppered with racial pejoratives, and certainly not meant for an outside audience. But we were listening.
Subsequently, we provided ongoing coverage of the various attempts by government officials to introduce new regulations and oversight mechanisms for improved secular education in Hasidic yeshivas, and the Haredi community’s push back against them — including Teitelbaum’s repeated calls to Haredi schools to defy government demands, and allegations of a double standard by state education officials.
In related news, we reported on Agudath Israel’s efforts to keep the New York Times from winning a Pulitzer and blaming it for rising incidents of antisemitism — all for its series of in-depth articles about yeshivas.
The Oct. 7 attacks in Israel and their aftermath
Like all Jewish communities around the world, the Haredi community of New York was profoundly impacted by the killing of 1,200 Israelis at the hands of Hamas terrorists on the holiday of Simchas Torah. While many focused their attention on developments in Israel, Shtetl examined how New York’s Haredi population learned about the attacks without access to technology, the response by Haredi leaders, Haredi media’s focus on the victims’ religiosity — or lack thereof — and what local communities were doing about increased safety concerns.
Haredim showed an outpouring of solidarity with Israel by showing up to pro-Israel rallies in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, though a rift was exposed among some Haredi leaders when some rabbis withdrew their support from the D.C. rally over its overtly Zionist and secular orientation.
Strident calls against rising pro-Zionist sentiment among Haredim were issued by rabbis and newspaper columnists from both major Satmar factions — and we were right there to report on the heated rhetoric being issued in Yiddish and Hebrew.
We were also there to report on Hasidic musicians and entertainers whose performances were deemed sympathetic to Zionism and who faced cancellations for it — and the one maverick entertainer, Lipa Schmeltzer, who responded with a combination of defiance and a PR stunt. At the same time, we reported on the formerly Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, who toyed with the idea of regrowing his beard and payes to reaffirm his Jewish identity.
We also reported on pushback against a U.S. House resolution equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, with congressman Jerry Nadler invoking Haredi anti-Zionism on the House floor, saying, “Satmar Hasidic Jews are certainly not antisemitic.” Several weeks later, popular Chabad rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson suggested the anti-Israel Neturei Karta members were “probably not Jewish” and were agents of Iran.
In response to rising antisemitism, social media personality Shloime Zionce kicked up a rather predictable antisemitic storm on X, formerly Twitter, by posting a photo of himself looking “as Jewish as possible.”
Elections and bloc votes
2023 was supposed to be a quiet election year. But it’s never a quiet election year in the Shtetl. Weeks before the primary, Haredi leaders in Rockland County launched a massive campaign to elect a family court judge who, they implied, gave them assurances that he’d rule in their favor on issues important to them, including custody battles involving a non-religious parent and on child abuse cases. The candidate, Chris Exias, won the primary and faced no opponent in the general. He is now the elected judge, with his seat secured for the next ten years.
Another elected official, Rockland District Attorney Thomas Walsh, benefited from a last-minute campaign by Haredi leaders to head off a challenge from a write-in candidate, Lisa DiFalco, after many Rockland residents accused Walsh of giving the Haredi community special treatment. This came just months after Walsh agreed to a lenient sentence to father and son rabbis who were found guilty of causing the deadly fire at a nursing home that killed a firefighter and a resident. Shtetl was the only outlet to report on this campaign, with access to Yiddish language magazines and hotline interviews and a keen understanding of the players involved.
Haredi growth and concerned neighbors
For many years, Haredi communities have been embroiled in zoning and legal battles with surrounding communities who have resisted efforts by the community to expand. One such case is the Catskills resort village of Fleischmanns, which has been ravaged by disputes between Hasidic and non-Hasidic residents.
Also in the Catskills, the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect has been trying to incorporate its own village, Ateres, which received some pushback from non-Hasidic locals as well as town officials — though the effort seems on its way to going through.
Finally, this month, two new bills were signed by Governor Hochul that makes it harder to form new villages — effectively striking down the efforts for Seven Springs, but sparing Vizhnitz’s Ateres with a special exception. The new bills would raise the population requirement for a new village from 500 to 1,500.
Arrests, lawsuits, and legislation
A former Bobov yeshiva student sued his former school in Borough Park, alleging they had not only failed to address incidents of sexual abuse but that he’d been punished for reporting it.
Also in Borough Park, several women filed a lawsuit against a local doctor, alleging he had been sexually assaulting women for years. The doctor, Robert Goodman, had been practicing as a physician for roughly three decades, and had been associated with Maimonides hospital, which is also named in the suit.
A Rockland citizens’ advocacy group that had been sued for alleged discrimination against a Haredi girls’ school by opposing the sale of a church property to the school, lost the case on appeal. However, the group, CUPON-Nanuet, which had been sued together with the town of Clarkstown, responded with outrage after local news outlet Lohud suggested the court ruling found the group to be antisemitic, and the group threatened a libel lawsuit.
A fatal car crash involving the Skverer rebbe, Rabbi David Twerski, ended with criminal charges dropped against the Hasidic driver, which led to finger-pointing between police and prosecutors. A subsequent judge reinstated the charges, and the case was ultimately settled with the driver taking a plea deal.
A new law requires New York State prisons to provide kosher food in commissaries and vending machines. In addition, inmates can request kosher food in the commissary at the particular standard of kosher that they observe.
Finally, prominent Lakewood philanthropist Moshe Tress was arrested for shooting an AR-15 assault rifle near a busy road and hitting a nearby mailbox.
Local news from Haredi enclaves
For decades, members of the Haredi community relied on municipal fire departments to protect their families and their homes. Along came Monsey rabbi Yecheskel Weiss, who — in a yearslong campaign of speeches, articles, and Yiddish leaflets distributed in Monsey synagogues — mobilized a large group of Rockland rabbis to demand that the Monsey fire department come under their oversight.
When that effort failed, Weiss went on to form his own “fully kosher” firefighting organization. The problem: veteran firefighters are concerned that many of the organization’s volunteers are not properly trained or equipped to handle real emergencies.
A grassroots campaign for price transparency in kosher supermarkets got its own Yiddish hashtag, “#ווייז_די_פרייז” — show the price — led mostly by users of the Yiddish-language iVelt forum.
A Kiryas Joel health center faced a crippling cyberattack and was forced to pay a ransom.
A piece we published just last week has blown up into one of Shtetl’s most popular stories of the year: the tale of Satchel Bloyd, a convert to Judaism who joined the Satmar community for a time, learned fluent Yiddish and gained renown as a scholar — until he abandoned Jewish practice and returned to his former life in Washington state, where he’d been raised as a Protestant. What was most notable were the wild rumors that followed, including allegations that Bloyd had infiltrated the community as an imposter in order to perform black magic.
In the humor dept., one piece that was a big hit with our readers: “The yeshivish satire of ‘Rabbi Greenspan’.” The piece reported on an enigmatic but bitingly funny online persona who gets the absurdities in Haredi life just right, but without denigrating the religious lifestyle as a whole.
In the culture section: a Hasidic man in London released a Yiddish-language rap song, “Loy Niskabel,” about boys who aren’t accepted at their yeshivas for lacking good pedigree or social status, which struck a chord and became a runaway hit in Hasidic messaging groups.
In a review by our very own Lauren Hakimi, we tell you about the new short film, “The Shidduch Crisis,” by director Chaya Gurkov, which addresses the pressures facing Haredi women to find a mate and settle into married life.
New rules and other odd news
Hasidic yeshivas appear to be grappling with a new dilemma: modesty issues for boys. New trends in Hasidic boyswear had some rabbis concerned, warning that some types of boys clothing attract predators. New rules have gone into effect for at least one Yeshiva, and a campaign was underway to pressure stores to sell a line of clothing with a kosher stamp of approval.
In Williamsburg, anonymous broadsheets called for removing non-Jewish female cashiers from local retail stores. A popular Yiddish-language women’s magazine found a racist joke funny. In Kiryas Joel, special housing opportunities were offered for those who accord themselves with proper Hasidic behavior.
In not-so-funny comedy news, Chabad member and comedian Mendy Pellin launched a new podcast, “No Joke,” and his first episode featured an interview with a convicted sex offender. No joke.
In a news category all its own: the late Satmar rebbe’s white stockings sold on eBay for 12,000 dollars.