Up in Ramapo, the immigrant community and the growing population of Hasidim had eyed each other with increasing wariness. Then the Orthodox took over the public schools and proceeded to gut them.
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells Published Apr 21, 2013
One morning in June 2005, a team of real-estate agents left Manhattan and drove an hour north to the western part of Rockland County to repossess a house. The home, in a village called New Square, had long since fallen into delinquency, and the bank had sold the property. The new owners, investors, had offered a cash settlement to the occupants as an enticement to leave before the formal eviction, but that offer had been refused. The agents had been told that New Square was a Hasidic village, but they had not given that fact much thought. Arriving, accompanied by the police, one of the agents noticed that the village had a gate and that the gate was attended.
In retrospect, that gate seems like a portal. Inside, young men and boys seemed to be everywhere, dressed alike. One of the agents was a woman in business clothes, her hair uncovered, and as the group passed through the village, her colleagues noticed a Hasidic woman covering a young boy’s eyes. At the house, the owner answered the door and the eviction began. The agents took a look at the place—a yellow house divided into four units, a small structure in the yard, no great prize.
The phrase “all hell broke loose” conjures an ancient kind of chaos. Perhaps it applies. Dozens of Hasidim arrived, forming a crowd, some just curious but some very upset. Villagers took photos of the police, of the agents, of the license plates on the agents’ cars, of the possessions being piled on the lawn. One Hasid stuck a microphone in the lead agent’s face and yelled questions at him, as if he were a corrupt politician. A group of workmen had been hired to help with the physical eviction; they had rocks thrown at them.
Things seemed unstable enough that afternoon that the police decided to patrol the property overnight. By the second night, there was no police protection. Soon after, someone fixed cables to the house’s pillars, tied the other end to a car, then revved the vehicle into drive. The pillars gave way and the house’s deck collapsed. The local paper, the Journal News, reached one of the agents, a man named Alain Fattal. He was outraged. “This is no longer about a real-estate deal,” Fattal told the reporter. “This is about my constitutional right to own property. I will not be intimidated.” The police could not figure out who was responsible for demolishing the deck. They tried to interview neighbors and got nowhere. But to the agents the case was clear: The villagers had destroyed the property rather than let outsiders move in.
Every community is formed by the stories it tells. In a few villages within the town of Ramapo—Monsey, Spring Valley, New Square—the Hasidic population, the dominant subset of the long-standing Orthodox community there, had been growing very rapidly since about 1990. For years, these Hasidic enclaves had been seen by their neighbors as strange but benign, and as part of the same larger community. But when the story of the collapsing deck appeared in the local papers, it revealed a more basic difference—what was a dispassionate matter of law outside the villages seemed a violent transgression to those within—and signaled that the growing Hasidic neighborhoods could be capable of unified, even defiant action. It started becoming more common to hear secular residents talking about the Hasidim in the binary terms of opposition: Us and Them.
But this was all still prologue. A few months later, as schools opened, an Orthodox Jewish majority, having been elected on the strength of the Hasidic vote, took control of the board of the East Ramapo School District. Which is when the conflicts really began.
Meria Petit-Bois registered for classes at Ramapo High School in April 2010, one of a hundred new arrivals from Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of the great Haitian earthquake. Petit-Bois’s family had been well off in Haiti, and in their neighborhood the disaster had arrived with a distant, fragmentary surreality: She thought the earthquake was just her brothers playing upstairs until she opened the door and saw crowds running through the streets. Afterward, as hastily buried corpses began to rot, the family would wear masks outside or carry wedges of lemon to ward off the stench. The days were stagnant, convalescent. Her private school reopened, but in tents. Petit-Bois was 16 years old, and had always been expected to leave Haiti for university. When her father told her he was sending her to live with her aunt in Rockland County, to attend the public schools there and prepare for college, it seemed a rebuke to the disruptions of the earthquake—as if possibilities, despite everything, were opening up.
Petit-Bois says she is a shy person, and the new environment was disorienting. But she was also focused. “My only goal was graduate at 18, go to a great school, get scholarships,” she told me. “I was programmed.” She seemed fortunate in where she had landed: The previous year, Newsweek had named Spring Valley High School one of the 500 best in the country. She placed out of the refugee-transition program, and soon transferred to Spring Valley, enrolled in six AP classes, and finished two years’ worth of credits at once. But outside of the classroom, things were less stable. There were too many kids in the halls and lingering after school. Classes had been moved to the gym.
It had been five years since the Orthodox majority had won control of the school board. They had done so not as public-school parents (virtually all Orthodox children in the district attend private yeshivas), but as taxpayers. The new majority on the board cut taxes and budgets, angering the public-school community. Some of the decisions they made—to lease two public-school buildings to yeshivas, and then put them up for sale; to clean out the district’s reserve fund during a deepening recession—provoked such outrage that even Petit-Bois, a newcomer buried in her books, noticed it. At her aunt’s church, adults would urge one another to vote in school-board elections. “ ‘Parents,’ they’d always say, ‘Let’s go vote for the district, we’re voting against the Jews ’cause they want to cut this and this and this,’ ” Petit-Bois says. “Little by little I understood it.”
Midway through her junior year, something seemed to give way. The school’s deans, who had handled discipline, had been laid off, and many students started arriving at school very late or skipping it entirely. The security staff was also cut, and so fights became more frequent, and students often stayed shut in their classrooms until the halls cleared. Clubs were eliminated, as well as sports teams and the drama program, until the communal life of the schools disappeared and it seemed to Olivia Castor, another Spring Valley High School student, that the school board’s vision of education consisted of little more than “reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
Then those were cut, too. Last year, the kindergarten school day was reduced by half. AP classes and ESL programs fell by the wayside. In the high schools, so many teachers have been laid off that students can’t fill their schedules: Some have five lunch periods and study halls in an eight-period day. This year, the district floated a proposal to eliminate kindergarten altogether and shorten the school day for everyone else. Jean Fields, the principal of Ramapo High School, told me that if that measure were adopted, not a single student would qualify for the Advanced Regent’s Diploma, considered essential for getting into competitive colleges. Almost half of her 1,400 students would no longer be able to graduate in four years, because they simply will not be able to amass enough credits in time. Last week, the district pulled the most draconian cuts off the table, and suggested firing 50 additional teachers and staff members instead. Even this will mean more students who can’t fill their schedules with classes. “It’s not that we don’t care about graduating,” says Castor. “It’s that the tools for us to graduate are being taken away. We don’t have the classes that can give you a chance to compete.”
The simple act of arriving in America from a stressed place puts you in a vivid, complicated relationship with privilege. There are the lottery-ticket odds of landing here but also, often, the vivid comedown from elite status in the old country to a fringe position in the new one. This part of Rockland County has been declining for years, and the middle-class community that once inhabited it has been largely replaced by the Orthodox and by immigrants. There are now only a handful of white students in the public schools, and more than half the children there receive reduced-fee lunches. “A lot of them are from immigrant families, and they’re looking for that better life,” says Fields. “And I don’t know if it’s going to happen.” Many of the refugees are lingering on five- and six-year paths to graduation.
There is a concept in political science called the Curley Effect, named for James Michael Curley, who was the intermittent Irish-American mayor of Boston over an astonishingly long period of time, first elected in 1913 and last elected in 1946. Curley had a special disgust for Boston’s Brahmin Establishment—“a strange and stupid race,” he once called the Wasps—and when in office, he did what he could to compel them to leave. He lavished funds on Irish neighborhoods and systematically neglected Anglo-American ones; he arranged his tax policies to redistribute wealth from the Wasp community to his own; and he kept up a rhetorical war on the Brahmins: “The Anglo-Saxon is a joke.” By his last term, the Yankee flight to the suburbs was complete. The strategy—to use politics to starve a place of resources so that one ethnic group will leave, abandoning it to another—is so strange that the only contemporary example that scholars offer took place in Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe regime seized the land of the last remaining white farmers. Some of the public-school parents have come to see the situation in East Ramapo through a lens similar to this. When the new majority arrived, says former board member Mimi Calhoun, “they stopped seeing the schools just as a burden and started seeing them as a resource to plunder.”
By last spring, the atmosphere at school board meetings had become angry and bombastic. One activist parent had compared board members to Pontius Pilate; behind closed doors, one board member called another a “moral degenerate.” The chairman, an Orthodox family attorney named Daniel Schwartz, decided to escalate the fight by giving a speech denouncing anti-Semitism in the district. Elementary-school children, he said, were telling their teachers that they hated the Jews; high-school students were appearing before the board and questioning its moral authority. He cited St. Augustine’s instruction that Jews could be tolerated but not accepted, a sentiment that he said was alive in Auschwitz and “the crematoria of Treblinka” and that was alive in Ramapo today. The district’s demographics, he said, weren’t changing; the Hasidim could not be wished away. “You don’t like it?” Schwartz told the audience. “Find another place to live.”
This past winter, my wife and I flew to Miami for the long weekend with our infant daughter. Shortly after we got on the plane, a family in Hasidic dress boarded—a mother, a father, and nine children. Just a generation ago, secular Jews like my mother tended to regard the Hasidim as peculiar but unimportant, a discarded evolutionary branch. To be Jewish now, though, is to exist in some relation to the ultra-Orthodox. The Hasidic family filed into their seats, occupying one full row of the plane and spilling politely into two others. Here, in my family, was Judaism’s German-socialist strain, so relaxed about integration and intermarriage that it had reduced itself to a generation, my daughter’s, containing exactly 0.25 Jews. There, a row away, was the ultra-Orthodox strain, 36 times as successful. I felt a twinge of tribal guilt, that simply through reproduction I had abandoned an important fight. In some final accounting—in the accounting that has been rapidly transforming Israel—all politics is biology.
“I’ll give you your story in one word,” a Hasidic real-estate developer named Shaya Glick told me when we met in the lounge of a Holiday Inn in Ramsey, New Jersey, a few miles from Monsey. His companion, also Hasidic, rolled his eyes—he’d heard the shtick before. “One word,” Glick insisted. “Demographics.”
Glick moved here from Brooklyn when he was a boy, and he can trace the community’s transformation over the past three decades. Where there were once horse farms, there are now large townhouse developments all up and down Route 306. Each shopping center has been reoriented: Gone are bars and Pathmarks, replaced by Judaica stores and kosher supermarkets. Glick had recently looked at a commercial property for sale in downtown Monsey. During each weekday, 22,000 cars passed by the store; on Saturday, when Orthodox Jews do not drive, there were only 4,000. The area has been so completely altered that on Saturdays, Hasidim will simply walk to shul in the middle of the road because there is such little danger of any motor vehicle passing.
The few converts to Hasidism here are rare enough to be objects of community fascination: The beatific, blond German in the Satmar matzo factory, the Puerto Rican with payess. Mostly, the growth has come from within. Demographers estimate that Hasidic families average more than five children, and one 2011 study put the average at 7.8. Sometimes it seems as if everyone is making plans for the coming population swell. When I toured a new Orthodox yeshiva in Spring Valley, its administrator showed me the school’s vast, 8,000-square-foot ballroom, complete with ornate molding and chandeliers, that he hoped to rent out for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
One way to think about the villages of Ramapo is as a mature stage in an experiment begun a half-century ago, by a rabbi named Joel Teitelbaum. Before World War II, Teitelbaum had been the chief rabbi of a Romanian village called Satu Mare, and after he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he made his way to Brooklyn, where he started to accumulate followers among the other Holocaust refugees.
Teitelbaum had an acute sense of the demonic, a conviction that the world around him was abundant with false promises of salvation. Even in Romania, he had been an advocate of Jewish separatism, but in the aftermath of the Shoah, this message had a particular appeal. “Separatism was of such importance,” Teitelbaum would say, quoting an older rabbi, “that even if a city had no wicked Jews, it would be worthwhile to pay some wicked Jews to come and live there so that the good Jews would have something to separate themselves from.”
In the early seventies, Teitelbaum’s followers bought empty farmland in Orange County, half an hour north of Monsey, and then in 1977 petitioned the New York State Legislature to make their acreage a village, a discrete political unit named Kiryas Joel, after Teitelbaum. In a jurisdiction as small as this, with a community committed to voting together as a bloc, the Satmar could use local politics to control their own government, free themselves of outside interference, and shape a miniature society. Soon, small as it was, Kiryas Joel became a “powerful force” in state politics, according to David Myers, a UCLA historian who has studied the community extensively. The community that formed there was, “in many respects, more insular, more homogeneous, and more exclusive than the European shtetl.”
Kiryas Joel became a model for the other Hasidic groups that moved upstate. Many of the sects in Rockland County were transplanted, largely intact, from Eastern European villages—the Skverer in New Square from Skver in Ukraine, the Gerer in Monsey from Ger, Poland. The ideal of the shtetl was that it could establish a border around the Jewish world, shutting out the goyishe one. A 29-year-old musician named David Kiss, who grew up in the Gerer sect in Monsey but would leave to visit his divorced father on weekends, told me that each time he returned to yeshiva, his principal would interrogate him about whether he’d seen any television, as if it were an infection that might spread. Even Hasidic education reflects this divide: In many yeshivas, the morning is spent on Torah and Talmud, instructed by Hasidim, and then in the afternoon there are a couple hours of instruction in English and math, with separate teachers who are often not Jewish and not much respected. Naftuli Moster, a 26-year-old who grew up among the Belzer community in Borough Park and now runs a nonprofit devoted to modernizing Hasidic schools, says that in his own yeshiva, there was not a single secular class—not even English or math—taught after eighth grade. By the time he left the community, in his early twenties, he did not understand what the U.S. Constitution was.
And yet, there are things about the Hasidic world that even dissidents like Kiss and Moster miss. There is the rabbi’s tish, the weekly meal at which the whole community gathers. There is the exultant rush at the end of services, as the congregation runs together out into the world, and the insistence of the senior rabbis that religion ought to be, for the young Hasidim, an experience of joy. There is, most of all, the comfortable feeling the communities give of immersion and purpose. Some Hasidic acquaintances told me that whenever they encounter another Hasid in a secular environment, even if he is a stranger, they will greet him warmly and often share a meal. One way to understand this embrace is that life inside the Hasidic community has been, for those within it, rendered so complete that simply to see another Hasid is to enter it again, and to enter it is to move from the chimerical to the real.
Late one Thursday evening just before Passover, I drove down Spook Rock Road in Suffern to a food warehouse belonging to an organization called Tomche Shabbos. It was the only place with lights on in a dark industrial park. Inside, a highly ordered operation was under way. There were several hundred boxes on shelves, each meant to contain a week’s worth of food for an indigent Jewish family, and a couple dozen Orthodox and Hasidic volunteers were moving energetically among them, dispensing a designated amount of chicken, bread, eggs, and gefilte fish, the contents of each box tailored to the family’s size.
Every week, the charity’s co-director, Yakov Yosef Moskowitz, told me, between 400 and 500 families receive these packages; this week being Passover, the number had more than doubled. Moskowitz had arranged 76 delivery routes around the county, each carefully assigned to volunteer drivers from other shuls and other villages to preserve the recipients’ anonymity. Drivers were trained to turn off their lights and drop the boxes off silently, on the stoop, so the charity was unseen. Often, Moskowitz hears from wives whose husbands have no idea they are getting food, or husbands whose wives don’t know.
It is not simply that there is charity among the Hasidim, but that charity is the way the community runs. The Hasidic sects in Rockland county are poor, some of them extremely so. New Square has an annual per capita income of $6,570; 58 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. (Even in Monsey, larger and less isolated, the figure is 43 percent.) In kosher grocery stores, Moskowitz told me, the shopkeepers are accustomed to letting their customers accumulate large bills, running up the tab, trip after trip. “Of course they hope to pay it,” Moskowitz said. If they can’t, the shopkeeper will eventually call Moskowitz (or another charity, or a private individual) and present the assembled bills. Someone else will pay the debt, and when the customer appears the next week, her debts will be canceled, unmentioned.
It was nearly midnight when I left the Tomche Shabbos warehouse, and I saw some Hasidic politicians and school-board members whom I recognized still there, packing gefilte fish and chicken. Hasidim will often say that their community is the subject of enormous envy, despite its poverty and insularity. This is what they mean.
There are other problems that are more complicated, embedded more deeply in the way the community has grown, and residents are preoccupied by one in particular: special education. Whenever I spent time with community leaders, we were often interrupted by Hasidim coming up and asking for help on behalf of a disabled child. “A nephew, a grandson, a friend,” says Yehuda Weissmandl, a Hasidic homebuilder who is vice-president of the East Ramapo School Board. “I hear it every day.” He himself has a niece with a rare, debilitating chromosomal disorder called cri du chat. “It’s French for ‘the cat’s cry,’ ” he told me. “When she was born, she yelped like a little pussycat.”
There are many recessive genetic diseases to which Ashkenazi Jews are prone, biological traces, in a way, of the community’s history of isolation and persecution. No precise epidemiological studies have been done to determine whether Hasidic communities have more genetically disabled children than average, but Yaniv Erlich, who studies the genetics of the ultra-Orthodox at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, points out the obvious: that an isolated and highly procreative community will provide ample opportunities for these traits to express themselves.
For years, the custom among Hasidic parents of severely disabled children was to hide them—“to put them in a home somewhere,” says Feivel Mashinsky, a diamond dealer who runs the Monsey charity Kupath Ezra. When so much depended upon marriage prospects, a disabled child was a bad advertisement for his siblings, and a source of shame. But over the past generation, that has changed dramatically. During the late eighties, an Orthodox Jewish educator named Harriet Feldman, who has a severely disabled son, was spending a great deal of time in his secular special-education class when she began to pay attention to a small Hasidic boy whose disabilities were severe. Each day he would sit in the corner emitting guttural noises, his hands twitching nervously; the teachers told Feldman he had no ability to communicate at all. One day Feldman thought she could detect a throaty pattern in the moaning: “Cha-cha-cha.” She watched his fingers moving. He wasn’t spasming, she thought; he was kneading. “Yoni,” Feldman said to the boy, “are you making challah?” His head snapped up; he grinned. “He had comprehension, and they thought he was just making noise,” Feldman told me. In 1991, she founded a special-education school in Spring Valley, Ohr V’Daas, dedicated to working with the severely disabled in a Jewish environment. She wanted the community to welcome these children, not shun them.
Feldman’s message, for a community accustomed to educating its own, had a powerful appeal. But private special education is prohibitively expensive for most Hasidic families. The East Ramapo School Board can, in certain circumstances, direct New York State funds to pay for special-needs children to attend nonpublic schools, but only if it deems the public school less appropriate. By the early aughts, dozens of families were petitioning the school board, arguing that appropriateness included a familiar, culturally sheltered environment. The district refused most of these requests. Many parents appealed, but the district won most of those, too.
The Hasidic parents had one obvious recourse: Vote in more-amenable board members. Starting in 2003, Orthodox candidates began running in every school-board election. Once they gained a majority, the district began to grant many more special-needs placement requests. It has granted so many, in fact, that the New York State Department of Education has formally notified the district that it is violating the law. And the topic of special education has usurped the board’s agenda so completely that, according to former board member Suzanne Young-Mercer, “we haven’t talked about regular education in five years.”
The Hasidic political emergence in East Ramapo is often told as a story of aggression, of a growing community discovering its own power. But it is also one of deep compassion and desperation. A separatist community can only remain apart so long as it is able to provide everything it needs from within. The needs of the disabled children were both a consequence of the community’s insularity and a demonstration of its limitations. They beckoned the Hasidim into the political world.
“And maybe now,” says Mashinsky, “it is coming back a little bit to haunt us.”
Even the mildest meetings of the East Ramapo School Board—ones when no board members call one another moral degenerates, when no references are made to Treblinka—contain a fascinating tableau: At a meeting in March, soon after Young-Mercer and the second remaining secular board members had resigned, seven yarmulked men looked down from the dais at a crowd of angry students and parents, most of them black and Hispanic. A few members of the board speak only rarely, and on the dais there is often an atmosphere of uninterest and distraction. Sub-dais BlackBerry manipulation is observable. After the main district business is conducted, but before the public has a chance to speak, the board usually departs for private executive sessions that sometimes last hours. This infuriates many of the students and parents, who often must wait past midnight on a school night in order to speak. During one recent late-night interlude, a group of students held a teach-in, then sang the protest anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
The students come to board meetings, in many cases, because their parents can’t. “Many parents don’t speak English or are too busy with work,” Olivia Castor says. But it leaves them in a difficult position: They are ostensibly the people the board is supposed to serve, but they have also become anti-board activists. “At a young age, you hear ‘Jewish’ and you automatically think, Oh, they’re trying to kill my school district,” says Tendrina Alexandre, a student leader at Spring Valley High School who graduated last year. “That’s not necessarily the case. I had plenty of Jewish friends that I grew up with. But then when you look at the school board, it’s like, What else are you supposed to think? Because it’s all Hasidic Jews. And it’s them against us.” In the past few weeks, while a state assemblyman was proposing the district be split geographically into two—one for the Yeshiva community and one for the public schools—the rhetoric intensified. Students held protests. After one contentious meeting, the board’s attorney buttonholed a high-school senior and called him a “piece of shit.”
There is a small, committed group of adult activists in the district—one remnant of the liberal middle-class culture that once predominated. They act as watchdogs and antagonists, have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the students, and run a monthly radio show, “East Ramapo Underground,” that serves as a communal vent. One of its hosts, Peggy Hatton, first became involved in the district’s politics in 2007, after she heard from a teacher that her son’s school might be sold to a yeshiva. She started to attend meetings, and when the board voted to cut a program in which her son was enrolled, she approached the board president and explained that he was making a terrible mistake. Hatton says the president gave her a blank look. “They have no idea what they are cutting,” she says. “They’ve not spent one day in the public schools to see what goes on in the lives of students.”
Public-school parents have often challenged Orthodox candidates for the board, but in recent years they have always lost. “Here is what everybody’s missing,” Weissmandl told me. “The private school community is two-thirds of the district’s children. They are very organized, very vocal.” Both Schwartz and Weissmandl told me that they recognized the cuts they have instituted have been painful. Schwartz himself had received an excellent education and was “very sad to entertain the prospect that there might be a lot of children in the district who won’t be able to look back in their adult years on their education similarly,” he told me. Last Friday, citing personal reasons, he submitted his resignation. But the other Orthodox board members remain. They have a massive community to represent, one that they believe deserves its share of political power. “We’ve been elected,” Weissmandl says, “fair and square.”
Weissmandl grew up in the Skverer Hasidic sect in New Square, where his father had been the village administrator, and he remembers the opposition to Hasidic shuls and yeshivas. His community, he said, had to fight for everything it had; at times the local villages had seemed almost dictatorial. What had changed, he explained, was the demographic power of the Hasidic vote. The votes in the Hasidic villages are often 1,000 to one, Weissmandl said, not because the votes were coerced or ordered by rabbis but because the community has a common interest, and understands that this interest can be secured by voting together. (It is the same reason, he says, that Hasidic arranged marriages work: common values.) “Now that we elect—and we’ve been influencing—certain politicians to accommodate our needs, what used to be opposition has turned into hate. Because people can’t stand that this community has turned out to be what it has turned out to be,” Weissmandl says, speaking of the activists. “What they want is to see us gone. They want to see us gone because I have a yarmulke on my head.”
But Weissmandl has not left. He has stayed, and now he has seven children, and when they have families of their own, he expects that they will live nearby, within walking distance from the shul, a sacred space that had been invented, within a couple of generations, from a plot of land that had once been anonymous and profane.
Place is something to which most Americans attach tremendous nostalgia, but our attachments are conditional, dependent upon what the place has to offer. The speed with which East Ramapo has changed—the tenuous grasp middle-class institutions had on it—has been, for the liberals, a depressing shock. Recently, when a longtime elementary-school principal named Pat Simmons assumed the responsibilities of laid-off social workers, she discovered immigrant families that were living in houses where one bathroom served 30 or 40 people. After a water main broke in her school and the building was left without running water, she found herself talking to a student and discovered he was familiar with the situation; his house had no running water either, and his parents were using barrels to collect snow. The East Ramapo Simmons thought she was living in has disappeared, and what has replaced it, at least for her students, is at best a way station. Alexandre and Petit-Bois have already departed for college, Castor will go in the fall, and if the aspirations of their parents and their community are fulfilled, they will probably not return. In many ways, the promise of the public schools is that every child will have a chance to leave.
Of all the imbalances between the Hasidim and their neighbors, few are more fundamental than this. One group is fighting for the land on which they expect their children to become grandparents within walking distance from the shul. The other is negotiating the terms of their children’s exit.
Nathan Glauber, the young Satmar Hasidic man who was killed with his pregnant wife and their unborn child when a speeding driver slammed into their taxi in Williamsburg in February, was originally from Rockland County and had only moved to Brooklyn, where his new wife’s family lived, to be married. A few days after his death, a Hasidic acquaintance called and asked if I wanted to go to the shiva at Glauber’s father’s house in Monsey; he thought I’d understand the community better if I saw it under stress. I showed up the next day in Glauber’s father’s living room, wearing a $4 yarmulke I’d bought a few hours before.
It was six days after the accident, and Glauber still had a glazed, spacey look, and he kept up a slow, stop-and-start monologue in Yiddish. After the accident, he explained, the police had sent his son’s cell phone to him. He had not wanted it at first—it was almost too intimate an object; Nathan Glauber had used it to call both his mother and father each day, had asked each how the other was doing—but eventually he had taken it. There were a dozen or so men sitting with Glauber, not close friends, just other Hasidim. They passed around the letter that Nathan Glauber had written his parents on the morning of his wedding day. Someone had already encased it in glass. “In these imminent, joyous, and highly spiritual moments of life, when I’m headed to the chuppa to begin my own family,” Nathan had written, “I feel a sting in my heart that I’m already leaving your warm home.”
The Glauber family had been buried together in Kiryas Joel, the Satmar homestead, and at the funeral there had been a mass of hundreds of Satmar black hats. A religious ambulance squad had carefully scissored the bloody fabric away from the seat of the gypsy cab so that the Glaubers could be buried whole, together with their bodily fluids. Another organization had sent chairs to the family home, and food, and scrolls. That there had been so many mourners did not forestall the grief. Still, all this support provided a story that could be told about why separatism was worth it. It was the same story the men at the shiva were telling one another as they passed around Glauber’s letter—about the ferocious attachments among the Hasidim, their special stability and unbreakability. There was a great deal that this story left out. But in it there was the promise of something permanent: a community.