Shtetl Briefs

Mar 19, 2024 12:15 PM

Credit: Txking/iStockPhoto

Matthew Karelefsky, 46, was sentenced to decades in prison by the Brooklyn Supreme Court after setting fire to the home of a Midwood rabbi, the Brooklyn District Attorney announced on Monday. Justice Donald Leo sentenced Karelefsky to 25 years to life.

In June 2019, Karelefsky set fire to the home of Rabbi Jonathan Max, a teacher at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, a Haredi boys’ school, according to media reports. The fire spread to other houses near Max’s home on East 17th St, injuring six people, including an infant, a firefighter, and two police officers.

According to the DA, Karelefsky has a tattoo on his arm that says “Never let go of the HATRED – KILL Rabbi Max YEMACH SHMO.” The last two words are Hebrew for “may his memory be erased,” traditionally used for those who’ve attempted to annihilate the Jewish people, such as the biblical Haman or Adolf Hitler.

At the time, Karelefsky alleged that the rabbi had sexually abused him in the school’s dormitory. He had reportedly been threatening to kill the rabbi for at least a decade. Max denied the abuse allegations to the New York Times in 2019. 

“He’s a very amiable fellow,” Max told the Times. “You talk to him, he’s the sweetest guy. There’s no anger in me toward him. He’s sick. How can you be angry at disease?”

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Mar 18, 2024 1:15 PM

Senator Chuck Schumer. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock

Agudath Israel of America, an organization that lobbies for Haredi interests in the U.S., issued a statement last week calling out Senator Chuck Schumer for his speech on the senate floor, in which he called for Israel to hold new elections and for voters to remove Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu from office.

After praising Schumer’s yearslong support for Israel, the statement went on to say, “We are saddened, though, that important aspects of Senator Schumer’s address crossed a line. Indeed, it was the wrong message at the wrong time.”

The statement added, “These intrusive assertions by Senator Schumer would be inappropriate, offensive, and counterproductive at any time. But leveling accusations and criticisms against a steadfast friend during a time of war will only further endanger Israel’s soldiers while they are fighting and dying in pursuit of eradicating the scourge of terrorism.”

Agudah’s statement stopped short of endorsing Israeli prime minister Netanyahu or his government’s policies, focusing instead on an implied threat in Schumer’s speech. As Agudah described it, Schumer threatened the Israeli public that unless they vote for a change in leadership to Schumer’s liking, “the United States ‘will have no choice’ but to leverage its aid to Israel in a manner that will exert pressure on Israel.”

Agudath Israel walks a fine line when it comes to Israel. They tend to express support for Israel and its citizens but avoid endorsing or supporting the Israeli government and its leadership. Leading Israeli government figures have often clashed with Haredim on issues like subsidies for Torah students and exemptions from the military draft.

In November, Agudath Israel was listed as a sponsor of the pro-Israel rally in Washington D.C., but immediately prior to and during the rally, several members of Agudah’s Council of Torah Sages, known as the “Moetzes,” expressed opposition to the rally.

Agudath Israel has a longstanding relationship with Senator Schumer. Last November, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel thanked Senator Schumer in a video statement for working to raise security funding for houses of worship from around $300 million to $1 billion dollars due to the rise in antisemitism in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks.

Schumer has also spoken at various Agudah functions over the years, including at a 2016 dinner in which he reportedly said he’d be upset if his daughter married a non-Jewish man.

Other Orthodox voices have also expressed outrage at Schumer’s remarks. Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said in a statement, “This is not the speech of a Shomer Yisrael.” Shomer Yisrael is a biblical term for “Guardian of Israel.” The comment appeared to allude to one part of Schumer’s statement: “My last name is Schumer, which derives from the Hebrew word Shomer, or ‘guardian.’”

On X, formerly Twitter, Haredi publication Ami Magazine, called Schumer a “self-hating Jew.” In a subsequent post, Ami Magazine appeared to have a more personal gripe with New York State’s Jewish senator: “@chuckschumer always declined to speak with Ami, which is the largest Jewish publication located in his hometown. Says something about his Jewishness.”

The reaction in the Haredi world is in line with a poll that found that the vast majority of Haredim support the war and many would like to see Israel take over the Gaza strip and permanently displace its current population.

The negative Haredi reaction to Schumer’s speech has come primarily from the non-Hasidic sector. Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic sects in the New York area, has explicitly banned Ami Magazine due its pro-Zionist stance, and Satmar leaders have long enjoyed a friendly relationship with Schumer, who is the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history.

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Mar 15, 2024 11:40 AM

Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand at a 2020 rally against antisemitism. Photo: Lev Radin/Shutterstock

A federal funding package will include significant funding for critical projects affecting various Haredi communities, according to press releases from New York senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The funding, part of nearly $80 million earmarked for projects across New York State, is also supported by congressman Mike Lawler, whose Rockland County district includes one of the largest Haredi populations in New York State. Lawler’s district is set to receive the largest share of the total $80 million package, according to Lohud. Congressman Pat Ryan, whose district includes the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel, has also secured funding for his Haredi constituents.

The earmarks include $2 million for Kiryas Joel’s water pipeline, which is meant to solve a pressing water shortage within the Hasidic village by tapping into the New York City aqueduct. New York legislators previously allocated a separate $1.5 million for the pipeline in 2023, and the project also got a $3 million grant from the state, according to the Times Herald-Record.

Another $1 million will go toward a public transportation system in New Square, which would include improving bus shelters and purchasing three buses.

$1.5 million will go to the Vizhnitz village of Kaser, within Monsey, for widening the section of Route 306 between Maple Avenue and Rita Lane, as well as constructing turning lanes and improving traffic and crossing signals. Also in Rockland, the Haredi-run social services organization Community Outreach Center, which Gillibrand has visited, will get $1.6 million to improve its facilities.  

Another $1 million will go toward constructing new buildings at Camp HASC, a summer program that serves Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jewish children with disabilities. Schumer has visited both the HASC center and its summer camp.

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Mar 11, 2024 4:00 PM

Lev Tahor brothers Yakov (left) and Yoil Weingarten, on trial for kidnapping. Photo: Government Exhibit, US v. Weingarten

A key witness testified last week in the trial of Shmiel, Yoil, and Yakov Weingarten, brothers from the Lev Tahor sect who were among nine people involved in a 2018 kidnapping scheme, Lohud reported.

Shimon Malka, a 24-year-old former Lev Tahor member, testified in federal court that he assisted in the 2018 kidnapping of two children from their mother, Sara Helbrans, the daughter of the sect’s founder, Shlomo Helbrans, and sister of current Lev Tahor leader Nachman Helbrans.

Current leader of Lev Tahor, Nachman Helbrans. Photo: Government Exhibit, US v. Weingarten

Weeks earlier, Sara had fled the sect, which was based in Mexico at the time, after her 14-year-old daughter was forced into marriage, of which she disapproved. She brought several of her children to live in a more mainstream Haredi community in upstate New York, and had been granted full custody of her children.

Malka assisted in the kidnapping despite having left Lev Tahor two months earlier, hoping it would help him regain contact with his wife, who had remained with the sect. But prosecutors offered not to charge him in return for his cooperation as a government witness. His testimony in previous cases helped the government convict others involved in the kidnapping.

During his testimony, Malka described the harsh measures Lev Tahor members were subject to if they disobeyed the “hanhala,” the group’s leadership. Marriages were forced on girls as young as 12, and punishments included beatings and burning children’s hands.

Women and children of the Lev Tahor group at their compound in Guatemala. Photo: Government Exhibit, US v. Weingarten

The Lev Tahor group was founded in Israel by Shlomo Helbrans, who moved with his followers to the U.S. in 1990. The group has been involved in several kidnapping schemes over the years, with Shlomo Helbrans serving prison time in the U.S. back in the ‘90s for kidnapping a 13-year-old boy from his secular mother. 

The group later moved to Canada, then Mexico, and are today based in Guatemala. Shlomo Helbrans died in 2017, after which his son Nachman resumed leadership of the group.

Many within the Haredi community disapprove of the sect, although some do support them. In 2014, the Haredi Ami magazine profiled the group positively, and described what they called “the unjust persecution of a group of pious Jews,” after the group encountered trouble with Quebecois authorities, who accused them of child abuse and neglect.

A number of former Lev Tahor members have fled the sect over the years, and they have consistently described the group’s practices as unusually harsh and oppressive.

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Mar 10, 2024 2:20 PM

Rabbi Zalmen Leib Teitelbaum, grand rabbi of the main Satmar faction in Williamsburg. Photo: Yossi718/Wikimedia Commons

In a video posted to YouTube, Rabbi Zalmen Leib Teitelbaum, leader of Williamsburg’s main Satmar faction, is seen dancing with the groom at the wedding of notorious sex abuser Nechemya Weberman’s daughter.

The wedding took place last week, and the video was posted by an account named “Hasidim Worldwide.” Despite Weberman’s conviction in 2012 for repeatedly raping an adolescent girl who was sent to him for counseling, many Satmar Hasidim still believe he was wrongly convicted.

Weberman, who was and remains a respected member of the Satmar Hasidic community, worked as an unlicensed therapist, and was frequently referred to by Satmar schools for counseling troubled students, particularly those caught violating school or community rules, such as using the internet or girls who were texting with boys.

While his conviction rested on charges brought by only one of his victims, who had left the Satmar community as an adult, Weberman is believed to have raped or otherwise sexually abused many others who came to him for counseling. In 2013, Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison. 

At the time of Weberman’s trial, many Satmar community members helped raise money for his legal defense and tried to pressure his victim to withdraw her claim. In 2022, Teitelbaum stirred controversy when he visited Weberman in prison.

Weberman currently writes a regular column called “Tales from the prison walls” for the Kiryas Joel newspaper Vochenshrift, which is affiliated with Zalmen’s faction. In the header above Weberman’s column, the newspaper routinely refers to Weberman with honorifics reserved for rabbis and distinguished Torah scholars, calling him “pious and esteemed, and a friend to all the House of Israel.”

In his March 1 column, Weberman, 65, wrote that he was overcome with emotion surrounding his daughter’s wedding.

Weberman is an inmate at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in upstate New York, and a New York State database lists his earliest possible release date as October 16, 2055. 

The United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, an organization affiliated with Zalmen’s faction of Satmar, did not immediately respond to Shtetl’s request for comment on Friday afternoon.

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Mar 6, 2024 12:00 PM

Entrance to the village of Airmont. Photo: Village of Airmont/Facebook

Residents of the Village of Airmont, near Monsey, are accusing local officials of failing to respond to several complaints about a rabbi they say is defying zoning laws by operating a yeshiva and dormitory out of a cluster of single-family houses, multiple news outlets reported.

The yeshiva, which is led by Sephardic rabbi Arash Nissan Hakakian, is said to be occupying a number of houses on Airmont’s Fosse Court. The yeshiva caters specifically to Sephardic students, according to a promotional video featuring Hakakian.

Unusually for a case like this, the complaints have been coming from both Haredi and non-Haredi neighbors. Critics told Lohud and NBC News that they have been harassed by Hakakian’s followers.

“This man is trying to take over a whole neighborhood,” an anonymous source told NBC News. “If we speak out, he sends some of his men to intimidate us, to bully.”

The local advocacy organization CUPON, or Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods, has also criticized the village for failing to enforce zoning codes. CUPON has chapters in many areas that have Haredi communities, and seeks to protect against overdevelopment and other areas of environmental impact, although some Haredi leaders have accused the organization of antisemitism in the past. 

The local building inspector, Louis Zummo, told NBC News that the village zoning enforcement staff has been gutted by Airmont’s board of trustees.

On Monday, Fosse Court neighbor Sharon Stern filed a lawsuit against the yeshiva and village officials, naming Hakakian, Zummo, Airmont Mayor Nathan Bubel, and the village’s board of trustees.

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Mar 4, 2024 7:55 PM

UTA of Kiryas Joel boys school. Credit: Mo Gelber/Shtetl

The New York State Department of Health issued a $300,000 fine for UTA of Kiryas Joel, a yeshiva serving the Aaronite Satmar faction, after the school allowed 121 children to attend school for more than 100 days without having received the vaccinations required by the state. The school was previously told that it could be made to pay up to $61 million for the violations. 

As part of an agreement school leaders made with the DOH, the school agreed to review all students’ immunization records, tell DOH how many of them are out of compliance, and exclude those students from attending class. The school must also develop a plan to review immunization records on a regular basis.

The school will have to pay $150,000 within 30 days of Feb. 21, the effective date of the agreement. As for the other half of the penalty, if the school achieves and maintains full compliance with school vaccination laws through the 2027-2028 school year, the DOH will not require it to be paid.

According to New York State law, “No principal, teacher, owner or person in charge of a school shall permit any child to be admitted to such school, or to attend such school, in excess of fourteen days” without evidence that the child has received the vaccinations that are required in order to attend school.

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Mar 4, 2024 4:00 PM

Councilman Kalman Yeger (left), Assemblymember Helene Weinstein (center), and Shea Rubenstein, co-founder of JCC Marine Park

New York City Councilman Kalman Yeger, who represents Borough Park and parts of Midwood, both of which have sizable Haredi populations, told Hamodia on Monday that he will seek election to the state Assembly to represent the 41st district. His announcement came immediately after Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, who currently represents the district, announced that she would retire at the end of this term. According to Hamodia, Weinstein immediately endorsed Yeger as her replacement.

Yeger is a conservative Democrat, in line with most Haredim in New York, who lean conservative in their views but often vote for Democratic candidates. In a statement to Hamodia, Yeger said, “With Senator Simcha Felder and Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein already leading the fight for our community in Albany, I look forward to the opportunity to join them and to make the case to my neighbors for the opportunity to represent all of us in Albany.”

Yeger was previously an aide to Councilman David Greenfield, before succeeding him after Greenfield was term-limited. Greenfield is now CEO at Met Council for Jewish Poverty, and has already endorsed Yeger for the Assembly race. “Nobody understands New York City and New York State government like Kalman Yeger does,” Greenfield told Hamodia.

Weinstein represented the district for 44 years, and has forged close ties with Haredi leaders. She served for many years as the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, a powerful committee that has significant control over which bills make it to the Assembly floor.

Chaskel Bennett, a board member at Agudath Israel, offered Weinstein congratulations on an “extraordinary career,” writing on X, formerly Twitter: “Few, if any, have served their constituents with more respect, effectiveness, and sensitivity. Helene is known far and wide as someone of deep integrity, and we have all been extremely well served by her and her dedicated staff.”

Hamodia is already reporting on the likely candidates to succeed Yeger, which include Senator Simcha Felder, who would return to the Council after being term-limited there before getting elected to the State Senate. Other potential candidates include Pinny Ringel, who is the Jewish Liaison for Mayor Eric Adams and was elected district leader with Adams’s help, pushing out candidate David Schwartz, who was reported to have earned Adams’s wrath for backing Andrew Yang in the mayoral race.

There’s little overlap between Yeger’s Council district and the Assembly district he’ll be running for, but both serve large Orthodox populations. Yeger’s residence is on one of the few blocks located within the small overlap between districts.

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Feb 28, 2024 4:00 PM

A trailer in Crown Heights with an image of the late rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. Credit: Mo Gelber/Shtetl

A Chabad-organized event attracted thousands of teenagers to Times Square on Saturday night to “celebrate their Jewish Pride,” according to a post by Chabad.org on X, formerly Twitter. 

The event, “A Solidarity of Teens,” was organized by CTeen, or Chabad Teen Network, which bills itself as “the fastest growing network of Jewish teens,” and is geared to Jewish teenagers worldwide.

The event featured a concert by popular Israeli singer Gad Elbaz, and drew teens from a diverse spectrum of Jewish backgrounds, including both Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. The teens sang and danced to popular Jewish songs expressing unity and solidarity with all Jews. 

“Jewish pride is everything,” one teenaged boy said in a video taken at the event. “It’s our roots, our families, our friends, we are all united.” Others, too, spoke about feelings of belonging and connectedness, and valuing their Jewish heritage and identity. The video was posted on Instagram by Miriam Ezagui, an Orthodox Jewish influencer with nearly two million followers on TikTok.

A havdalah ceremony, a ritual event marking the end of Shabbos, was dedicated to the hostages taken by Hamas during the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, and to IDF soldiers currently fighting against Hamas in Gaza. Three Israeli teenagers from the Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon and from kibbutz Be’eri, all of which had come under attack on Oct. 7, held havdalah candles meant to symbolize “carrying the light of the Jewish people.” 

Since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, Jewish teenagers in the U.S. have reported feelings of isolation and fear as antisemitic incidents in the U.S. have surged, and Jewish college students find their own peers posting antisemitic comments online.

According to its website, C-Teen has 730 chapters in 58 countries, and was created in order to fuse “fun, friendship, humanitarian outreach, mitzvah observance, and engaging Torah study.”

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Feb 23, 2024 2:40 PM

Article in ‘Der Blatt’ containing the fake letter

An article published this week in the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Blatt cited a letter it claimed was from the New York State Police issuing what it called a “sharp warning against civilian use” of sirens and flashing emergency lights.

Turns out, that was completely fake news. 

The fraudulent document, which first circulated on WhatsApp and other social media, had the New York State Police emblem on it and was addressed to residents of Orange County. The fake letter claimed that “unauthorized” lights and sirens were causing “serious risks to public safety.” 

According to Trooper Steven Nevel, public information officer for the branch of the state police that covers Orange County, the document was fake.

“This letter did not come from the New York State Police,” Nevel wrote in an email to Shtetl.

The fake letter as posted on X by KolHaolam

Der Blatt, a major Hasidic newspaper affiliated with the Aaronite Satmar faction, said the letter “issued a sharp warning against civilian use of blaring sirens and red or blue flashing lights.” Der Blatt did not immediately respond to Shtetl’s request for comment.

The letter appears to have been first published on X, formerly Twitter, by KolHaolam, an account that posts regular but unattributed news items with a particular focus on the Orthodox Jewish world. The post said, “The New York State Police is cracking down on illegal use of red and blue emergency lights in personal vehicles.” KolHaolam did not immediately respond to Shtetl’s request for comment, but the original post with the fake letter was deleted immediately after Shtetl reached out. It is not clear who created the fake letter or why.

Lights and sirens are often used by private Orthodox volunteer organizations, such as Hatzalah, an emergency medical services provider. They are also used in the motorcades of major rabbinic figures, such as the grand rabbis of larger Hasidic sects.

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Feb 22, 2024 4:40 PM

Inspector Ritchie Taylor. Credit: Lauren Hakimi/Shtetl

NYPD inspector Richie Taylor, a fixture in the Orthodox and Haredi political scene and who is himself Orthodox, is being promoted to deputy chief of the NYPD, Hamodia reported.

While his family was not strictly Orthodox when he was growing up, Taylor asked his parents to switch him from public school to a yeshiva during his elementary school years. He then attended Yeshiva of Manhattan Beach, according to an interview he did with Living L'chaim.

Taylor served as a Hatzalah member for years, and was among the first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. He joined the NYPD in 2005, and has been rising steadily in the ranks. These days, he speaks highly of Mayor Eric Adams and says he has a close relationship with the mayor’s Haredi senior advisor, Joel Eisdorfer.

In comments to Hamodia regarding his promotion, Taylor said, “Thank you, Hashem!”

Several Haredi leaders and elected officials offered warm praise for Taylor’s promotion, including Chabad leader Chanina Sperlin, Satmar activist and close mayoral ally Rabbi Abe Friedman, and Councilman Kalman Yeger.

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Feb 22, 2024 1:40 PM

The federal courthouse in Trenton, N.J., where Weinstein appeared last year on initial charges. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Three years after Haredi leaders successfully lobbied then-president Donald Trump to commute the sentence of twice-convicted Lakewood fraudster Eliyahu Weinstein, Weinstein was indicted on Tuesday for allegedly running another Ponzi scheme, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of New Jersey.

Federal law enforcement officials say that Weinstein and his business associate, Aryeh Bromberg, who is also of Lakewood, solicited investors for ostensibly investing in a healthcare product distributor through an investment firm named Optimus. The recent indictment charges Weinstein and Bromberg with conspiracy to commit securities fraud, securities fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, four counts of wire fraud, and conspiracy to obstruct justice. 

Weinstein’s first conviction came a decade ago. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to multiple fraud-related charges in a real estate Ponzi scheme that caused $200 million in losses, in which many of the victims were fellow members of Lakewood’s Haredi community. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison. While he was on pretrial release in 2014, he was sentenced to an additional two years in prison after he pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering charges.

Trump commuted Weinstein’s sentence on the last day of his term in office after multiple Haredi leaders implored him to do so. “He has displayed deep remorse and broken-heartedly vows never to repeat his past mistakes,” wrote Rabbi Nochum Dov Brayer of the Boyaner Hasidic sect. Moshe Margaretten of the Tzedek Association, who is from the Skver Hasidic sect, and leading Haredi rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who passed away in 2022, also petitioned Trump to release Weinstein.

Law enforcement officials say that in Weinstein’s latest scheme, he used the alias “Mike Konig” to obscure his identity, along with his criminal past, from investors. When some purported deals turned out to be unprofitable, prosecutors claim, Weinstein and his associates began using funds from new investors to pay earlier investors, claiming the funds were investment returns.

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