I’m a gay socialist anarchist Jew raised in the Reform Movement. You won’t find anyone to the left of me on the political spectrum or prouder to be a gay man. And I have a message for my progressive Jewish friends: stop stereotyping Chasidim. If I of all people can see Chasidim as a diverse community of human beings with real value to offer the Jewish people, so can you!
I was raised in the Reform Movement and am proud to say so. I founded and led teen services at my synagogue, served on youth group boards, helped re-write the movement’s sex-ed curriculum, did service work in Argentina with Reform Jews, led the Reform Chavurah on my college campus, and currently help craft young professionals programming at my Reform shul.
One of the values I was taught as a Reform Jew was to respect and honor other cultures and communities. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism does a tremendous job of advocating for social justice for African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, the disabled, LGBT people, and other minorities. This is in our blood and our neshama and we rightfully view tikkun olam as essential to our Judaism.
Yet I’ve heard, from Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews many comments that caused me to think of Chasidic and “ultra-Orthodox” Jews (we’ll come back to why I hate that term- I prefer Chareidi) as monolithic, hateful, and bigoted. Against Reform Jews, women, gay people, you name it. I was taught about the Reform Kindergarten in Israel burned down by extremists, I read in the press about Orthodox men stabbing people at pride parades, and I was told that Chasidim are overly hierarchical and chauvinistic.
While some of these stories are true and in every stereotype there may be a bit of reality, I wonder why we don’t afford our Chasidic brothers and sisters the same understanding we offer other minorities. For example, African Americans tend to be more socially conservative than Reform Jews, with 76% of Jews supporting same-sex marriage, but only 42% of African Americans. And yet, progressive Jews’ support for African American civil rights is a matter of our faith and values, not whether they have the same values (though a growing number certainly do- they are a diverse community like all others). My support for African American civil rights is not conditioned on them supporting my civil rights, though I certainly welcome it.
If we can show beautiful solidarity and support for African Americans, why are we so reluctant to engage with our Chasidic brothers and sisters from our own faith? First of all, without realizing it, many progressive Jews have a double standard. Bigotry in other minority communities is correctly diagnosed as only one perspective among a diverse group of people. And yet, we don’t offer that same generosity of spirit to Chasidim. We say they are all chauvinistic, they are all homophobic, they are all violent extremists. To this, I say “sha!”.
I recently read an interesting poll from the Pew Center. It said that 70% of Chareidi Jews (both Chasidic and Litvish) think homosexuality should be discouraged. There are two ways to read the poll, one pessimistic and the other quintessentially Jewish. The pessimist (who already may view Chasidim with suspicion) would say: “wow what a bunch of bigots!”. To which I say, “I never would’ve possibly imagined that a full third of this community would not want to discourage homosexuality”. How beautiful it is to find this nugget of truth- that among “ultra-Orthodox” Jews there are a lot of people who don’t want to make their Judaism about ignorance and hate. It gives me hope.
Speaking of diversity, for example, we acknowledge diversity within Latino communities (national origin, age, geography, language, etc.). That is fantastic and very important in figuring out how to reach out and understand another group of people. But Reform Jews (and I think progressive Jews in general), have done precious little to understand “ultra-Orthodox” Jews. And let’s dissect that term for a moment. I find it deeply prejudiced. Ultra implies excess, fanaticism, too much, overwhelming, and out of control. Since “ultra-Orthodox” Jews don’t call themselves that, let’s use “Chareidi” to talk about the Litvish and Chasidic Jews that term compromises. Furthermore, the term “ultra-Orthodox” lumps almost a million people into one group. Besides the fact that Litvish and Chasidic Jews have had ideological differences for centuries (which were quite passionate back in Eastern Europe), even within Chasidic Judaism you have different ideologies. You’ve got the “outward looking” Chabad movement that seeks to bring non-Chasidic Jews into their community. And you have the other Chasidic sects like the Satmars, Bobovers, Skeverers, and others who are more focused on preserving what they see as the essence of Judaism internally.
Non-Chabad Chasidim, because they are more focused on preserving their learning and culture rather than recruiting new members, place a strong emphasis on Yiddish. For these Chasidim (and to a degree Chabadniks), language, kashrus, and clothing are what help keep their community distinct from the goyish world they’re surrounded by. One of the things I appreciate about this, besides the fact that they’re sustaining the Yiddish language more than any other Jewish movement in the world, is that they don’t want to assimilate. While the Reform Movement today has a healthier balance of innovation and tradition, in its early days it was formed as a way for Jews to assimilate into Protestant culture (at the time, in Germany and the U.S.). Services reflected Protestant norms so Jews could “fit in” with their neighbors. While I certainly understand the impulse for Jews to want to fit in after 2,000 years of persecution, I think assimilation is the wrong solution. Why do the persecutors’ work for them? We should embrace all that is different, “weird”, and unique about Judaism rather than aiming to pleasure the majority. I love this radical rebelliousness on the part of Chasidim and I think there is great value to progressive communities in learning about it as we craft our own practices.
Which brings us to an interesting point. So many progressive Jews (and non-Jews) decry the poverty rate of Chasidic Jews and their high unemployment. If some of the words progressive Jews used to describe Chasidim were applied to other lower-income minorities, they’d be seen as prejudiced. Rather than bemoan the fact that Chasidim “study all day” (something we wish our own kids would do!), why can’t we appreciate the good Chasidim are doing for the Jewish people?
An entire language would be dead by now if it weren’t for the Chasidic community’s diligence. After World War II, American Jews rapidly assimilated and part of the compact they made in exchange for social advancement was to leave “weird” Jewish stuff behind, like Yiddish. At one time spoken by millions of American Jews, it rapidly declined over the subsequent decades. The few secular or progressive Jews trying to keep the flame alive (I’m one of them- I recently started studying the language) get little or no support from Jewish funders or institutions. While there is somewhat of a renaissance of people (especially my generation) learning the language thanks to groups like the Workmen’s Circle, YIVO, and Yugntruf, most American Jews are uninvolved. Their parents and grandparents didn’t pass on the language.
Yet recently, something curious happened. While up to 2000, the number of Yiddish speakers in New York was declining, it jumped from 113,515 speakers to 121,917 in 2010. This might sound small, but that’s a 7.4% increase in 10 years, at a time when other immigrant languages from the 20th century like Italian and Greek are rapidly declining. They don’t have a core of passionate, dedicated speakers like Yiddish does, and we are blessed to have them preserving 2,000 years of Jewish history every day.
Due to high Chasidic fertility, you can expect those numbers to go up rapidly over the next 10, 20, 30 years and beyond. Rather than criticizing Chasidim for having large families, I frankly think we should thank them. Not only are they pulling off a tremendous feat, bring a child into the world (and on a low budget), they are nourishing that child with Torah, with Chesed, with love. Would that we had the kind of energy for 7 children! It’s truly astonishing and while we might not choose it for our own families (progressive women, breathe a sigh of relief), we can acknowledge and appreciate the tremendous sacrifice these families are making. And they are strengthening the Jewish people at the same time.
If progressive Jewish leaders were creative, they’d see this burgeoning Yiddish resurgence as an opportunity. Rather than telling Chasidim to learn English or take “modern” jobs (though contrary to stereotypes, many do work), let’s think about some ways in which this could benefit our own Judaism. For example, often for ideological reasons, some Chasidism choose to leave the community. Estranged from their background but in search of something new, they are forced to leave Yiddish in the home, since our capitalist economy has decided it’s not a valuable “work skill”. Putting aside the speciousness of the idea that speaking such a rich language is not a valuable skill, let’s acknowledge that many ex-Chasidim have trouble in the job market. How about this for an idea. While some ex-Chasidim, although fluent in Yiddish, may not want to work as teachers, some may. What if we pooled our resources to train those interested in teaching the mameloshn and created a corps of teachers who could revive Yiddish teaching in progressive Judaism? While obviously this is a proposal for Ashkenazi Jews (though certainly anyone could learn it!), it could be inspiration for similar programs for Ladino or other Jewish languages. Let’s give deserving people new job opportunities while creating Jewish richness for our own community.
All of which is to say, Chasidim are people. Just as we would never assume that the unelected heads of the hierarchy of the Reform Movement or Conservative Movement speak for all members of those movements, we should apply similar scrutiny to statements from Chasidic rabbis. Yes, Chasidim often revere their rabbis, but there are also plenty of schisms in communities, competing rabbis, and more importantly, grassroots Chasidim who may have different opinions, voiced or not. Like we’d approach any sociological setting, let’s not assume that one person talking on behalf of thousands speaks for them all.
In the end, Chasidim are diverse. They have real problems, ranging from chauvinism to sexual abuse. Real problems that our communities have experienced too. Let’s not be afraid to point out those problems to address them, but let’s not forget our shared humanity and fallibility. Chasidim come in all shapes and sizes, just like us. I challenge my progressive Jewish friends- Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Yiddishist, atheist, secular, Humanist, and Renewal- to join me in committing to learn more about the fascinating Chasidic community. Read a book, visit a website, learn Yiddish, go to Chasidic neighborhoods, go to the source. The more stuff you engage with actually written by or produced by Chasidim, the more authentic your knowledge of them will be.
When I visited New York in March, I wore jeans and a sweater (with a teal streak in my hair), and headed to Williamsburg, a Chasidic neighborhood. I went to a bakery and found the man very quiet. But once I started speaking in Yiddish and said I was visiting from Washington, D.C., his eyes lit up as he grabbed me some babka. I spent hours perusing a Judaica store as well, filled with the latest in Yiddish illustrated books for children. These books were gorgeous and creative and engaging. If they were translated with pretty covers and called “graphic novels”, you might be curious enough to buy them for three times the price at an independent bookstore. The shop owner was generous and kind and welcoming, even though I clearly wasn’t a member of the community. I bought a black velvet yarmulke, to fit in a little and as a keepsake, but my teal streak still strong enough to make clear I was a bit of an outsider too.
That is my hope for your engagement with Chasidim. There’s no need to lose your “teal streak”, that progressive bent which makes your Judaism unique and powerful. Instead, come with your authentic voice, show respect for the local community like you would with a Muslim community, and engage. Chasidic people may never write this kind of blog encouraging their community to engage with progressive Jews (though that’d be awesome). But in the end, I don’t care. I’m not doing it for them so much as I’m doing it for my own Jewish values, taught to me by the Reform Movement. Ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. Your Latino neighbor, your black neighbor, your disabled neighbor, and yes, your Chasidic ones too.
It’s time to step outside our comfort zone and get to know our fellow Jews, our fellow human beings.
-Matt Adler (פסח מיכאל)