Category Archives: News

Grayer But No Wiser

Isaac and Yechiel Bitton in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY 1991.

A kind person might characterize the New York Times’ seemingly insatiable interest in Orthodox Jews as a simple, even laudable, recognition of the community’s importance. 

The less benevolent would characterize it as an obsession – and not a healthy one, either for the obsessed or the object of their obsession.

Much well-deserved criticism has been offered – most recently in a masterful essay in the October issue of Commentary by Yeshiva University Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education Professor Moshe Krakowski – of the Gray Lady’s hissy fit several weeks ago over chassidishe yeshivos’ curricula. 

More recently, though, the Times scored another fix for its addiction to things Orthodox. This one was less incendiary, but still objectionable in several ways. 

Titled “How the Hasidic Jewish Community Became a Political Force in New York,” the 2300-plus-word piece seeks to explain, well, just that. And it does a decent job of describing the evolution of Orthodox political activism.

The article’s subheader, though, only reiterates the paper’s longstanding, and apparently incurable, Orthodoxophobia.

“Elected officials,” it reads, “rarely embrace positions that could antagonize Hasidic leaders, who typically encourage their community to vote as a unified bloc.”

The subtle picture thereby painted by the Times for its readers is of craven politicians kissing the rings of sinister bearded Jews who direct their minions (and, thereafter, the politicians) to do their bidding. A less fevered image, one that would have truly been fit to print, would be, simply, politically engaged citizens voting in accord with their self-interest. A phenomenon usually known as democracy.

Leaders of other groups – be they progressives, Hispanics, Asians or communities of color – also encourage their constituents to vote for candidates of their choosing. Somehow, though, they are spared the slander of being characterized in the paper of record as “unified blocs” that inspire fear in candidates. Which is why you may have often read about, say, the “black vote” but never about the “black bloc” (despite the phrase’s mellifluousness).

What’s more, it was particularly reckless that the Times published its recent article at a time when Jews (once again) have been accused by unstable cultural figures (each with tens of millions of fans) of controlling the world.

But what really stuck in my craw was the piece’s description of the “pivotal moment” in the emergence of Orthodox activism in New York in 1991: the “Crown Heights riots [that] shook the city.”

When, in the article’s words, “Brooklyn streets had turned into combat zones, pitting groups of Hasidic Jews against mostly Black men” [emphasis mine].

Makes it sound like a showdown between rival urban gangs, not a vicious, hate-fueled attack by one ethnic group against another, whose members sought only to repel the onslaught and defend itself.

Although the article musters the sympathy to acknowledge that “Hasidic leaders in Brooklyn pleaded with city officials for more police intervention and protection, but the help did not come until days later,” the description of the pogrom itself is odiously misleading.

And, as it happened, it echoed the paper’s description in 2012 of the 1991 events as having been “riots that exploded between blacks and Hasidic Jews” [ditto about the emphasis] – as if marauding gangs of Jews and blacks had spent four days attacking one another, when, in fact, the besieged Jewish residents of Crown Heights cowered and prayed as their non-Jewish neighbors attacked them and their property. (Has war “exploded between” Russia and Ukraine?)

And if, back in 2012, the description of events smelled not only rancid but familiar, that’s because a full decade earlier, in a report about the reversal of the federal civil rights conviction of Yankel Rosenbaum’s murderer, the Times called the riots “violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews” [yes, ditto again].

After that description appeared in 2002, I called the reporter whose byline appeared on the report, and asked him whether he felt that his wording really reflected what had happened on those horrific days in 1991.

To his credit, he admitted that his choice of phrase had “not been the wisest.” I responded that I appreciated his honesty and trusted that a more accurate description of the pogrom would be used in future Times reports.

Well, the Gray Lady is 20 years grayer now, but, frustratingly, no wiser.

© 2022 Ami Magazine

Parshas Noach – Strongmen

The closest word for “hero” in Hebrew is gibor, often translated as “a strong man.”  And its true definition is provided in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos: “Who is a gibor? He who conquers his natural inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Mishlei 16:32).”

True strength in Judaism is evident not in action but in restraint, not in outrage but in calm.

In parshas Noach, we meet a very different kind of gibor, a gibor tzayid, a “strongman hunter” (Beraishis 10:9). His name is Nimrod, his goal was power and, as Rashi notes, based on the Targum Yerushalmi and midrashim, what he hunted was human followers, attracting them with braggadocio and bluster. 

Nimrod was the first “hero” to harness power in order to, in Rav Shamson Raphael Hirsch’s words, “trap men for [his] own egoistic purposes.” He sought to “subjugate the less strong and clear-sighted, to keep them under his yoke until he would need them…”

As such, Nimrod exemplifies, continues Rav Hirsch, “the evil of tyranny which [has] continued so perniciously through the history of nations.” 

And which remains as true today as ever.

And Nimrod was a gibor tzayid lif’nei Hashem, a strongman hunter before Hashem. Explains Rav Hirsch: “[Nimrod] misuse[d] the name of God, cloak[ed] his domination under the show of its being pleasing to God… to demand[ing] recognition of his power in the name of God.”

Indeed, today, too, we daily witness the scowls of scoundrels and liars bent on amassing personal power invoking divine “values” as a means of attracting religious followers who mindlessly regard the  speechifying would-be dictators as “heroes.”

May we be spared such gibborei tzayid.  And merit to see – and be – true gibborim, those described in Avos.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Jews’ Jews

We’re so used to the phrase, we don’t think about what it means.

I speak of “Ultra Orthodox,” the common description of Jews who, like Jews since Sinai, consider Torah divine, halachah sacrosanct and the Jewish mission imperative.

What does “ultra” bring to mind in, say, politics? Does “ultra-conservative” conjure an image of a judicious, reasonable Mike Pence or of a racist, antisemitic Pat Buchanan? Would you invest money into an “ultra-risky” venture? What does it mean when a racing competition is called an “ultra-marathon”? 

In all those cases, “ultra” implies something extreme, something abnormal. No, world, we’re not freaks. We’re observant Jews, Orthodox Jews. If distinguishing adjectives are indicated, invent them to describe other Jews.

It’s widely and properly accepted in our country that racial, ethnic and religious groups have the right to determine how they wish others to refer to them. “Negro” has been replaced with “African-American”; “Oriental,” with “Asian-Americans.” But “ultra” seems to stick to journalistic and public discourse like mud. And, unlike “Negro” and “Oriental,” the term is inherently pejorative. 

Examples abound of subtle disdain for traditional Orthodox Jews. Like how, when we dare to buy homes in new neighborhoods, we are portrayed as invaders. Neighborhoods change. That’s life. And are we bringing crime, drugs and gangs with us – or increasing the worth of current homeowners’ properties?

Then there’s how we vote in “blocs.” Creepy word, that, redolent of things like “Communist bloc” or “Arab bloc.”

Other identifiable groups’ members also tend to vote in tandem. There’s the “black vote” and the “Hispanic vote.” Why are only we “ultras” a “bloc”? 

Astoundingly, the New York Times, in its recent hit piece on chassidishe yeshivos, sees nefariousness even in yeshivos encouraging parents to vote. The promotion of a civic duty is somehow suspect? That there are candidates favored by yeshiva communities is unethical? Doesn’t the Times regularly offer lists of its own endorsements to its “talmidim,” the readers who respect it as much as, lihavdil, a Satmar chasid respects his Rebbe? 

We make no apologies for taking our civic responsibility and legitimate self-interests seriously. Or for voting in higher-than-average proportions. We embrace certain values and goals, and seek to promote them at the ballot box. Pardon, but isn’t that how the American democratic process is supposed to work?

And why is focus placed upon us almost exclusively when a member of our community has done something wrong (or even been accused of such)? Where is coverage in the general Jewish media and non-Jewish media of our community’s abundant and incredibly positive endeavors and accomplishments? 

And then there are the stories that gleefully manufacture guilt out of idealism.

Like the aforementioned New York Times’ recent hit piece, which spent part of the paper’s front page and four additional full ones disparaging the chassidishe community, cherry-picking data and haphazardly generalizing. The journalistic jeremiad’s headline, implying financial chicanery, read: “Failing Schools, Public Funds.” 

The largest, most striking, of the accompanying photographs shows a  chassidishe boy with a look of fear on his face. The intent may have been to imply that he fears his hopeless future or an abusive teacher. More likely, it was the result of the photographer’s sticking a large camera in the boy’s face.

The incredibly negative piece accused yeshivos of – shudder – “censoring” texts. As if a private school, in line with parents’ expectations, has no right to edit material that Times reporters may find innocent but might be seen differently by actual students’ parents.

There are larger issues here. Like parental autonomy over children’s education. And the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion; we consider intensive Jewish education, after all, to be nothing less than a religious requirement.

But a diatribe in the guise of journalism constitutes a singular ugliness. And fits the pernicious pattern.

The writers of the recent Times offering, by their surnames, are likely Jews. And the paper’s publisher has Jewish roots. None of them can be accused of antipathy toward Jews.

As a whole, that is.

But there is clear disparagement here, aimed, as in so many instances, by some Jews against some other Jews. 


Monitoring media and public discourse has been part of my job at the Agudah for nearly 30 years. I long ago came to realize that haredi Jews have become “the Jews’ Jews.”

© 2022 Ami Magazine

Repulsive Raid Reaction

Think you’re smart? Well, let’s see. Can you spot the pattern in these quotes from public servants and other personalities about the FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and the seizing of government documents therefrom? 

Here goes:

Florida Senator Rick Scott: “The way our federal government has gone, it’s like what we have thought about the Gestapo…”

Arizona Representative Paul Gosar: “I will support a complete dismantling and elimination of the Democrat brown shirts known as the FBI.”

Florida Congressional candidate Lavern Spicer: “Biden’s FBI is no better than Hitler’s Gestapo…” 

California Representative Mike Garcia: “This is literally tyranny of a majority right now that is acting more like a Third Reich than they are the United States…”

Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert: “Gestapo [expletive deleted].”

Former deputy assistant to the former president Sebastian Gorka: “A hatchet job that is Gestapo Stasi tactics.”

Former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon: “[The FBI], the jackbooted American Gestapo, essentially kicked down the doors at Mar-a-Lago.”

Newsmax TV host and columnist Benny Johnson: “We live under a morally repugnant Gestapo regime.” 

Member of the former president’s legal team Rudy Giuliani: “Big stormtroopers coming in and breaking down his apartment and breaking down his office.” 

You did it! Congratulations! (Well, Mr. Gorka at least added the communist “Stasi” to his Nazi reference.)

Whatever one might feel about the FBI raid on Mr. Trump’s club and residence, though, whether one feels it was a responsible and necessary enforcement of the law or an unwarranted persecution of a reviled enemy, one thing it wasn’t was the equivalent on any level of the Nazis’ brutal treatment and terrorization of Jews and others before and during the Second World War. 

There can be no denying that Mr. Trump is deeply disliked by Democrats, or that he has been subject to an inordinate number of investigations, including two impeachments. And no denying that insinuations that he intended to sell state secrets to highest-bidder foreign entities are wild and pernicious speculations.

But no denying, either, that, after a judge weighed evidence and issued a search warrant, 33 boxes of documents belonging to the government, including some 100 highly classified ones, were found in the former president’s Florida home. Even after Mr. Trump’s lawyers claimed that all such material had been returned to the National Archives.

And no denying that no one tortured or beat Mr. Trump (at least not literally) and no one seized him and sent him to a concentration camp. And that Mar-a-Lago isn’t quite the Frank family secret annex.

As one social media commentator, Tim Byers, responding on Twitter to Ms. Spicer, put it: “Yep. Retrieving stolen classified documents is exactly like executing millions of Jews. Congratulations, you nailed the comparison.”

Invoking Nazi nomenclature isn’t even limited to supporters of the former president. The man who bested him in the 2020 election, President Biden, recently decried the “extreme MAGA philosophy” to a group of donors, and went on, gingerly but strikingly, to say: “It’s not just Trump. It’s the entire philosophy… It’s like semi-fascism.”

Okay, not all fascists are Nazis, and the Nazis weren’t exactly “semi” anything. But still.

There may actually be something positive to note – at least for the incurably starry-eyed among us – about all the Third Reich comparisons. Namely, that those seeking to utterly vilify their opponents, grasping for the very worst insult they can find, end up choosing Third Reich-flavored slurs. 

But the bottom line, for the sake of history if nothing else, has to be that such overheated rhetoric insults the memory of those who suffered things immeasurably worse than a legally justified pursuit of evidence in the investigation of a crime – or a politically motivated attempt to harass a loathed enemy – whatever your preferred description.

With fewer human links than ever to the events of 1933-1945 in Europe and increasing attempts by true enemies of truth to deny essential facts about those years, it is especially urgent these days to not cheapen words and phrases like “Gestapo,” “storm troopers” and “fascism.” 

Because they all have meanings, all-too-real ones.