The Brooklyn shopkeeper was already home for the night when her phone rang: a man who said he was from a neighborhood “modesty committee” was concerned that the mannequins in her store’s window, used to display women’s clothing, might inadvertently arouse passing men and boys.I can't begin to describe how hilarious this part is. How can a bald piece of dull plastic or cellophane be sexually arousing, as the scoundrel who intimidated the woman claimed? It's as dumb a claim as it sounds.
“The man said, ‘Do the neighborhood a favor and take it out of the window,’ ” the store’s manager recalled. “ ‘We’re trying to safeguard our community.’ ”As I've come to realize, thanks to the research I've been doing, if God forbid an act of vandalism or assault took place because they didn't comply, they might not report it to the police because they're so afraid of being shunned for being "mosrim", as though being Jewish/Haredi gives one the full right to do as they please. Such notions, naturally, are shameful.
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 groups have long been a part of daily life in the ultra-Orthodox communities that dot Brooklyn and other corners of the Jewish world. But they sprang into public view with the trial of Nechemya Weberman, a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn, who last week was sentenced to 103 years in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing a young girl sent to him for counseling.That's the good part, of course, that now, "modesty squads" are something the non-Jewish public can learn more about, and how they've long been a thorn in the side of people in some of the most extreme Haredi communities, no matter what the color of character the people targeted is. And lest we forget, Weberman was a leader of one of these gangs.
The details were startling: a witness for Mr. Weberman’s defense, Baila Gluck, testified that masked men representing a modesty committee in the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., 50 miles northwest of New York City, broke into her bedroom about seven years ago and confiscated her cellphone.And yet she testified in his defense! One of the articles I read did quote someone commenting that she's still under his influence. Very sad.
The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, who prosecuted the Weberman case, has now received allegations that members of a modesty committee forced their way into a home in the borough, confiscating an iPad and computer equipment deemed inappropriate for Orthodox children, officials say. Allegations have also surfaced that a modesty committee threatened to publicly shame a married man who was having an affair unless he paid the members money for what they described as therapy.And it especially hurts God. If there's anything worse than a saint, it's someone who thinks he/she is, and acts in the name of the Lord to enforce beliefs upon people over trivial matters like how they dress, whether modestly or skimpily, a problem that's still prevalent in some Haredi neighborhoods around the country.
“They operate like the Mafia,” said Rabbi Allan Nadler, director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
Rabbi Nadler, who testified at Mr. Weberman’s trial, said that modesty committees did not have addresses, stationery or business cards, and that few people seemed to know where their authority originated, though it was doubtful, he said, that they could continue operating without the tacit blessings of rabbinical leaders.
“They walk into a store and say it would be a shame if your window was broken or you lost your clientele,” he said. “They might tell the father of a girl who wears a skirt that’s too short and he’s, say, a store owner: ‘If you ever want to sell a pair of shoes, speak to your daughter.’”
In Israel, there have been similar concerns. Though no modesty committee was overtly involved, there has been anger over ultra-Orthodox zealots who spit on and insulted an 8-year-old girl for walking to school through their neighborhood in a dress they considered immodest.
In Brooklyn, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has represented the heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park for 30 years, said that he had never met a modesty committee member, but that “there are a lot of independent operators that believe they are protecting God and have to do this kind of stuff, and that’s sickening and gives us all a black eye.”
“If you want to advocate modesty,” he added, “do your thing, but when you stuff it down my throat physically, that undermines us and hurts us.”
While many of the rules of conduct are announced on Yiddish broadsides posted on trees, lampposts and walls, residents of Hasidic neighborhoods say some store owners have received rough verbal warnings from a modesty committee to stop selling magazines that carry photographs considered too revealing, or articles that dispute the Satmar Hasidim’s belief that Israel should not have existed until the Messiah’s arrival.Another something to tell what kind of horrific beliefs the Satmar mindset has on Israel. I'm amazed the NYT was willing to acknowledge that. As impressive it is that they're willing to bring up cases like these, it's sad that they're not willing to do the same with Islamic communities, where the situation is still far worse for women and girls in particular.
Update: and in a related note, this followup on Salon has some vital info too:
...in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the issue of non-compliance with ultra-Orthodox modesty rules has crept into neighboring secular areas. In 2009, Hasidic South Williamsburg community members successfully rallied to block a bike lane that brought outside bicyclists — specifically, women wearing shorts — through the neighborhood.What a disgrace. Doing whatever they can to make life difficult for people outside their horrid belief system, a problem that also exists here too. A major example of how the Satmar are such pro-segregation/insular types.
“I have to admit, it’s a major issue, women passing through here in that dress code,” Simon Weisser, a member of Community Board 1 in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, told the New York Post.
“It bothers me, and it bothers a lot of people.”