Morality goon squads in Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhoods

Women’s clothing stores warned not to use mannequins – faceless heads are OK

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.

“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.’ ”

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.

In the close-knit world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, community members know the modesty rules…Women wear long skirts and long-sleeved, high-necked blouses on the street; men do not wear Bermuda shorts in summer. Schools prescribe the color and thickness of girls’ stockings.

The rules are spoken and unspoken, enforced by social pressure but also, in ways that some find increasingly disturbing, by the modesty committees…

You are warned
Jewish women warned to abide by ultra-Orthodox standards of “modesty”

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…

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.

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.

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…

“There are quite a few men, especially in Williamsburg, who consider themselves Gut’s polizei,” said Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic journalist, using the words for “God’s police.”

“It’s somebody who is a busybody, and they’re quite a few of them — zealots who take it upon themselves and they just enforce. They’re considered crazy, but people don’t want to confront them.”

RTFA for more details, anecdotes, a Jewish community’s equivalent of shari’a law.

3 thoughts on “Morality goon squads in Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhoods

  1. Michelle Meaders says:

    The heads displaying hats are there because married women must cover their hair. Some wear wigs instead.

    So many cultures keep women down by accusing them of being too arousing to men! Why can’t men control themselves instead?

    • Martyn Wilson says:

      It’s because women are the source of all the evil in the world. Surely you’ve been told that, Michelle. 🙂

      This story is yet another reason for consigning religion to the dustbin of history. Christopher Hitchens used to say, and I think he was right, that women hold the key to ridding the world of religious bigotry. Once women start to say “No” – and mean it – then the men (and it is almost invariably men) who make these stupid f***ing rules will see their power immediately diminished.

  2. Sex, Spirit, Soul Mates and Chocolate....Ivonne's Journey says:

    Wow, if a man or a young boy can be aroused by a plastic mannequin may I suggest they find the local therapist. The problem is not with the mannequin but with the man. A wonderful modern day example of the patriarchy in which both the old testament and new testament are steeped in, in which women or in this case a plastic replica is the downfall of week men!

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