Hasidic Jews and their neighbors: Strangers in the same land

I haven’t been blogging religiously of late because I simply haven’t had the time.

I do have a few minutes right now, though, to note the incredible public interest in the New Square arson case.

Everywhere I’ve gone in recent days, people have pulled me aside to talk about New Square. Who are those people? Why do they choose to live like that? They all just follow the Grand Rebbe blindly? They actually ganged up on that poor family because one man attended the wrong synagogue?

And on and on.

There has always been a tremendous fascination with Hasidic Jews — people who choose to live completely separate lives within mainstream, modern communities. It’s no surprise. Most people are borderline obsessed with modernity — having the latest and the most advanced and the best of everything, from igadgets to healthcare.

And here are entire communities of people who want nothing to do with modernity, who sacrifice their individuality, at least to some degree, so their community can have a monolithic, almost parallel existence.

I happened to visit the Bronx Zoo with my family during Passover. The place was mobbed. The traffic was obscene. And probably 20 to 25 percent of the people there were Hasidic Jews. Men in long black coats and an assortment of black hats. Woman in floor-length skirts, pushing strollers for multiple kids. Large families all around.

The non-Hasids at the zoo that day stared at the Hasids. I doubt that many of the non-Hasids were prejudiced in an way, but fascinated by a way of life they simply could not comprehend. The Hasids went about their business, eating matzoh on the grass or lining up to the see the big rhino, knowing they were being watched. They’re used to it.

Strangers in the same land.

The ongoing New Square arson case, which promises to be ongoing for some time, has really captured everyone’s attention. More information has come out than we are used to about how Hasids live and how their community-first attitude squeezes out many of the individual freedoms that most Americans prize.

We’re talking about large communities of people who are self-censored and self-segregated, who to choose to live in an 18th century-style schetl, who prefer old-world Poland or Ukraine to modern-day Piermont.

Several people have remarked to me about New Square’s median age being 14. I was happy to hear this because it meant that people read deep into my Sunday story about the Grand Rebbe’s authority.

People are fascinated by New Square’s youth. The youngest median age of a non-Hasidic NYS community is 23! How fast can the community grow?

Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews have often charged that others are prejudiced against their religious ways, particularly when people have opposed building or expansion plans. But, more often than not, non-Hasids are simply — here’s that word again — fascinated by Hasidic Jews.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.