By Michael Powell (New York Times)
May 28, 2014
Tests of courage are found in unexpected places.
On Tuesday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio attended a gala for Agudath Israel of America, a premier event for the black-hat leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Jews of New York. The mayor is a gregarious fellow, and as my colleague Sharon Otterman reported, he chatted and joked on the dais with numerous rabbis, some of whom endorsed his mayoral campaign.
Let’s assume the best. Perhaps the mayor was enjoying himself too much to listen as Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, a top rabbi with Agudath Israel, delivered keynote remarks laced with Yiddish and Hebrew words.
Rabbi Perlow offered a shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews, who he said were among those who “subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people.” These movements, he said, “have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation.”
“They will be relegated,” he added, “to the dustbins of Jewish history.”
This was a striking statement because a majority of the Jews in this city identify as non-Orthodox. The mayor himself proudly celebrates his own mixed-race marriage.
When Mr. de Blasio stood to speak a minute later, he offered no whisper of demurral. (In the audience, the organization said, sat congressional representatives and a representative for Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller; they did not pipe up, either.) The mayor praised the growth of the ultra-Orthodox “community” and said he had crafted his universal prekindergarten program so that yeshivas would receive taxpayer dollars. “Our pre-k program is going to have a strong yeshivot element, and I am proud of that fact,” he noted.
Mr. de Blasio offered warm words for Agudath — “it gets better every year.” Its executive vice president, David Zwiebel, he said, is “someone I deeply respect and listen carefully to.”
New York City is a ship sailing in a cacophonous sea, and mayors must navigate communal shoals. Mr. de Blasio is fond of emphasizing his respect for communities. Which sounds excellent, except sometimes leadership demands more chutzpah.
Mr. Zwiebel was a key figure in the last decade as hundreds of child sex abuse cases were reported in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community. Mr. Zwiebel told the authorities that his ultra-Orthodox leaders were offering this advice to their followers:
If a rabbi tells a follower not to go to the authorities, under religious law, that follower must follow that ruling.
The lack of moral clarity was striking, and time did not enrich Mr. Zwiebel’s perspective. Two years ago, he talked of the ultra-Orthodox dissidents who spoke up on sexual abuse. This, he said, is “it’s rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman.” This means malicious gossip, evil tongue and waste of time, all prohibited by the Torah.
As a councilman and public advocate, Mr. de Blasio expended few words on the Orthodox sexual abuse scandals.
He did, however, prove an able point man in pushing for day care vouchers tailored for Orthodox families. Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had ended this program, but Mr. de Blasio has pledged to restore it.
Mr. Bloomberg also regulated the practice of metzitzah b’peh, in which a Jewish practitioner, after circumcising a baby, sucks the blood from the wound to clean it. The city’s health department found that since 2000, 12 babies circumcised in this fashion had contracted herpes and two had died.
At a mayoral forum in Brooklyn last year, Orthodox residents asked if candidates would overturn this policy. Mr. de Blasio offered a mumble. The city, he said, should talk with “community leaders.”
Which brings us back to the mayor’s too crabbed definition of community.
In crafting his prekindergarten program, the mayor allowed tax dollars to go to yeshivas, madrassas and church-based programs, if instruction was secular and religious imagery removed.
A de Blasio aide acknowledged on Wednesday that yeshivas likely would “draw on kids from their community.” And these schools will not be forced to hire teachers of different religions.
A mayoral spokesman noted that Mr. de Blasio may not agree with every word of every speech. But as Mr. de Blasio told Agudath on Tuesday: “I appreciate the theme of stand up and speak up. It means stand up for what is right for the community.”
You wonder how the larger community of New York City fits in this conception.