Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has gained notoriety in recent years as ground zero for urban hipsterism in the United States. But the neighborhood has always been a diverse one, encompassing a large Latino population and a still-significant Eastern European demographic.
It is also home to a big and growing group of Hasidic Jews, as many as 60,000, by some estimates. Most of these are members of the Satmar sect, and the group has become increasingly vocal and powerful in city politics, influencing zoning decisions and elections.
The Hasidic community in Williamsburg has also made a foray into what might loosely be termed culture wars, fighting the installation of bike lanes in the neighborhood (and succeeding in having a portion of one such lane removed). At least some of the Hasidic aversion to people on bicycles – women on bicycles, to be specific -- was because of the way they dress. Last summer, a Williamsburg pharmacy made headlines for posting a dress code informing patrons that no low-cut necklines, sleeveless shirts, or shorts were permitted in the store.
Despite these examples, for non-Hasidim the group’s dress and behavior codes usually remain a cultural curiosity. Your average New Yorker can’t even read the numerous Yiddish signs proclaiming standards from lampposts in the neighborhood. Wearing a tank top on certain Williamsburg streets might earn you some dirty looks, but not much more.
Within the community, the reality is very different. On Wednesday, The New York Times posted an article digging deeper into the existence of so-called “modesty committees,” unofficial and mostly unacknowledged groups of men who enforce compliance with Hasidic codes of dress and behavior. For those who don’t conform, the reality is chilling.
The piece, by Joseph Berger, opens with a business owner who received a late-night phone call warning her to take the mannequins out of her store’s windows because they might “arouse” the men and boys passing by:
In many neighborhoods, a store owner might shrug off such a call. But on Lee Avenue, the commercial spine of Hasidic Williamsburg, the warning carried an implied threat — comply with community standards or be shunned. It is a potent threat in a neighborhood where shadowy, sometimes self-appointed modesty squads use social and economic leverage to enforce conformity.
The owner wrestled with the request for a day or two, but decided to follow it. “We can sell it without mannequins, so we might as well do what the public wants,” the owner told the manager, who asked not to be identified because of fear of reprisals for talking.
The story goes on to cite allegations of modesty committees breaking in to homes to confiscate cell phones and iPads, and of threatening to disrupt the businesses of people whose daughters wear their skirts too short.
These reports came to light during the trial of Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed Satmar “therapist” who was recently convicted of sexually abusing a young girl who was sent to him for counseling after being called a “heretic” by administrators at her ultra-Orthodox school. The modesty committees were a prime source of referrals for Weberman’s practice. His conviction was seen as an important milestone for advocates of sexual abuse victims in the Hasidic community, who have often charged that prosecutors are reluctant to go after members of the politically powerful sects.
The vigorous prosecution of Weberman’s case sends a positive signal that the rule of law applies to everyone in this city, regardless of religious beliefs or affiliations. At the same time, the revelations of how the committees permeate the street and family life of the neighborhoods where they operate should be a real cause for concern.
New York’s enduring greatness as a city comes in part from its ability to encompass culturally distinctive communities – from Satmars to drag queens and everything in between. A person in New York can walk down the street wearing whatever he or she likes, from a niqab to a the fur hat known as a shtreimel to a miniskirt and stiletto heels. Regardless of what people wear, they remain citizens of the civil society around them. Self-organized groups of religious enforcers – compared to the Mafia by one Jewish scholar – should not feel free to intimidate community members into silence. In New York, we all have to play by the same rules.
Top image: Marathon runners make their way through the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn during the New York City Marathon, November 7, 2010. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton