V eteran and now-retired New York Times reporter Joe Berger wrote a piece last week about our community, entitled “Uneasy Welcome as Ultra-Orthodox Jews Extend Beyond New York.” Although in the past I’ve leveled critiques of his writing, this latest offering is an admirably balanced effort.

He writes about the phenomenon of young Orthodox families that, faced with skyrocketing real estate prices in established Orthodox areas, have been settling in significant numbers in places like Staten Island, Bloomingburg, and the towns around Lakewood. Seeking to explore the tensions such an influx can create with longtime residents of these areas, the piece focuses mostly on Jersey City, where dozens of chassidic families have bought old wood-frame homes in a heavily black neighborhood called Greenville.

In an effort to keep the article fair-minded, for every complaint lodged against the Orthodox, a countervailing view is provided. After citing accusations of aggressive real estate solicitation, Mr. Berger notes that the newcomers have primarily bought vacant homes and that they support the city’s no-solicitation law, with outside investors being responsible for the unseemly tactics. He quotes a complaint about establishment of a shul in violation of zoning laws, but also the fact that it is only one of several houses of worship in that area.

Orthodox individuals are given a voice in the report, alongside those of their accusers. And the writer is willing to entertain the possibility that there’s more to communal opposition than concern with pesky real estate agents, writing that “underlying the objections of many municipalities is an often unspoken worry that ultra-Orthodox Jews will transform the character of their communities. The ultra-Orthodox may not explicitly raise the specter of anti-Semitism, but they do see a bias against their unconventional lifestyle, modest dress, and customs.”

The writer doesn’t include, as media reporting on our community sometimes does, a laundry list of all sorts of conflicts between Orthodox Jews and their neighbors in contexts that have no bearing on the topic at hand. This is an article about frum Jews moving into new areas, not about conflicts between existing Orthodox communities and their neighbors in places like East Ramapo and Lakewood; the relevant issues are solicitation and zoning, not control of school boards. Mr. Berger doesn’t see the need to pile on unrelated foibles and controversies.

In the end, Berger’s conclusion is a sympathetic one. He quotes a chassidic woman new to Jersey City who speaks well of her non-Jewish neighbors, and a young black cook, Eddie Sumpter, who was able to buy a bigger house nearby by selling his previous one to a chassidic family, and who welcomes the newcomers, saying, “We live among Chinese. We live among Spanish. It don’t matter. People is people. If you’re good people, you’re good people.”

It’s a fair and balanced article, not because the Orthodox emerge looking whistle-clean in every way; they don’t. Still, an Orthodox reader comes away from it feeling his community was given a fair shake.

Would that the same, however, could be said for the comments section in the Times following the article. Unlike Joseph Berger, many among the hundreds of commenters were not at all interested in Jersey City, but used his piece as a springboard for a broad-brush calumny of Lakewood, Monsey, or Orthodoxy as a whole; a lively give-and-take developed with many others who wrote to defend the Orthodox.

It’s fascinating to see how a fairly written article, by its mere mention of the Orthodox community, unleashes such venom. “Monica of Long Island” put it well:

So once again, for what seems like the hundredth time in the past few years, the NY Times publishes an article about Hasidic Jews, which is quickly followed by hundreds of comments about what terrible, horrible, vile people the Hasidim are. And once again, this is nothing more than pure anti-Semitism, and it is chilling. 

To the NY Times editors and moderators: Would you allow this sort of hatred against any other communities, Hispanic, Asian, Afro-American, Muslim… etc.? Of course not. Yet this hatred against Hasidic Jews is allowed, and even encouraged by the NY Times over and over again.

Many of the negative comments referenced East Ramapo, as in “go and google East Ramapo, New York. You will see how they lie, cheat, and steal from the community.” Several of them recommended listening to a 2014 National Public Radio podcast about the lawsuit against the East Ramapo school board, for an education on the ongoing Orthodox takeover there.

Unfortunately, they’ve exposed for all to see how out-of-date and factually ignorant they are. They’d do well to read the Tablet piece authored in May by the school board’s attorneys after the litigation ended. An excerpt:

The Montesa case is over now because the plaintiffs and their lawyers, after forcing the district to bear the costs of years of discovery, motions practice, and appeals, have finally given up. To be clear: the case did not settle. Rather, notwithstanding their relentless bravado, finger pointing, and demonization of the Board and its Orthodox leadership, the case was abandoned because the plaintiffs at last admitted that there was no possibility they could prove any of their claims. Even after nearly four years of litigation, they had absolutely no evidence to support their headline-grabbing accusations, and recognized they were never going to find any.

While the filing of the Montesa lawsuit and the outrageous accusations that were made against the School Board members (who are all volunteers) was breathlessly covered in the local and national media with great detail and fanfare, the story of the litigation’s ignominious end and the vindication of the school board is not being told….

Despite the unmistakable influence of negative and unfair media attention, the federal trial court rejected nine out of ten of the plaintiffs’ claims at the outset. Finally, the federal Second Circuit court of appeals rejected the basic premise of the plaintiffs’ case, holding that their dissatisfaction resulted from “being enmeshed in an underfunded school system,” not from any discrimination or improper religious motivations of the school board. Even the plaintiffs now accept what we have maintained from the very beginning: their accusations against the school board were wrong.

And yet, I don’t want to end this column on a self-congratulatory note by making this story exclusively one of anti-Orthodox or anti-Semitic sentiment. That’s too easy, and wrong, too, because it promotes a binary narrative in which if one side is rife with bigotry, the other one must necessarily be pure as the driven snow. And that’s simply not the case.

This is a complex topic, and the issues and communal dynamics vary with the places and populations, both incoming and indigenous, involved; Jersey City is not Bloomingburg, which is not Toms River, which is not Staten Island; none of them are Monsey or Lakewood, nor do even those two present identical dilemmas.

But in general, the conflicts exist on two planes: There are issues of fact, such as aggressive solicitation, dubious religious tax exemptions, zoning law and building code noncompliance, and weakening of local public education to benefit Orthodox private education. Questions about these things have answers: Are they happening? And if so, how widespread are they? No amount of slinging anti-Orthodox epithets will change the objective answers.

But then there are the more intangible issues. Is an influx of Orthodox Jews changing a town’s character from rustic to urban, is communal quality-of-life being affected, and as to both, to what extent? And if they are, should we simply say, “That’s the American, democratic way,” or should we care, because not everything one has a right to do, should one do? Do the Orthodox newcomers make bad neighbors, or are they friendly, law-abiding neighbors who simply keep to themselves, with their own self-contained communal and social life?

It would seem that on these latter issues we need to go beyond the demonstrable, and truly execrable, animus on display in many of the comments to the Berger article, because by focusing only on that, we conveniently block out these questions. But the more we ponder them, the more likely we are to do what the Torah requires of us, and the greater the possibility of a more amicable dialogue with at least some in the surrounding society. 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 672. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com