|Street scene in New Square|
New Square. That is a city of extremes. Extremes that according to most religious authorities are not required to the life of an observant Jew in service to God. As Agudah spokesmean Rabbi Avi Shafran put it:
The Skverers of New Square — with 7,700 people occupying less than half a square mile — are extreme, even among highly observant Jews…
I don’t think anyone would dispute that the way Skverer Chasidim lives their religious lives is extreme. I do not say this pejoratively. I say it only as a factual matter. As information about a segment of Orthodox Jewry that believes what it does – that the rules it follows are the best of ways to serve God. Rules that their supreme leader, Rabbi David Twersky increasingly spells out for them.
Those who wish to follow those rules should be allowed to do so, without interference from anyone. As long as they do not harm anyone internally or externally in any way. If this lifestyle makes them happy, no one has a right to stop them.
Is theirs the right way for a Jew to live? Obvioulsy, as a Centrist, I believe Centrist Orthodoxy is the best expression of doing God’s will. At the same time I think there are other good ways of doing that. Ways that do not reflect my Hashkafa - but are not extreme.
For example most mainstream Charedim do not live extreme lives. They may have stringencies and customs that they observe which a Centrist like me may not. But those stringencies are generally not anything one would characterize as extreme. Like using only Chalav Yisroel products, not having a TV in the house, not attending movies, avoiding the internet, or men wearing black velvet Kipot under their black hats. These are of course stringencies and customs accepted by New Square too. But they have a lot more rules which are extreme.
What are some of those extremes that separate mainstream Orthodox Jews from the Jews of New Square? An article in Lohud lists a number of rules that must be agreed to in writing. Which if violated - subject their children to expulsion from their schools. They include the following:
(M)others are banned from driving, and they must shave their heads and wear only clothing that extends at least 5 or 6 inches below the knee… fathers (are) require(d)to pray regularly with a quorum and refrain from cutting their beards. Mothers are prohibited from using smartphones — even for business purposes. (Men are permitted for business purposes but only with a special permit.) Mothers and fathers must cease using WhatsApp, a popular smartphone messaging application... Radios, televisions, Internet connections and newspapers are also banned… men and women (are required to) walk on opposite sides of the street to preserve modesty…
(As has been stated here many times, their educational system does not include any significant level of secular studies. How that impacts them and others is beyond the scope of this post. The point I’m trying to make is as I said. If this is how they choose to live they have that right.)
Why do they choose to live that way? Here is how Yenti Holczler, a 50 year old grandmother, put it:
"We are human beings. We also have families and we live the way life was given to us…" "Our way of doing things is trying to do it spiritually, the way the Torah brings it for us."
I get that people believe that this way of life brings them closest to God. This is what they are taught by their parents and teachers - practically from birth. Isolated as they are from contact with the outside world (a world that includes other legitimate forms of Orthodoxy) they know no other way of doing things.
But still, I have to wonder, do Skeverer Chasidm do all of this if with a full heart, or do they do it because this is how they were raised and know no other way? It’s really hard to know. But there are some clues that may tell the story:
Just as some Skverers defy the ban on WhatsApp, plenty skirt the rules forbidding smartphone use. Enough people in New Square buy two mobile devices — a kosher one for calls within the community, another to keep up with the outside world — that authorities believed it necessary to post a sign on the synagogue wall this fall warning parents that they will be investigated.
Once they are exposed to the outside world via the internet, I have to wonder whether they start challenging living their lives in such a controlled environment. They may love their lifestyles, but do they love them enough to not question it? ‘How ya gonna keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris?’
Well, here’s one way:
There are a dizzying number of committees — or vaads — in New Square charged with enforcing school, modesty and technology rules. The rabbinical court, or beis din, is the community's ultimate judicial authority. The rebbe sits above them all and is surrounded by a few trusted advisers, including his eldest sons.
And yet, I’m not sure that in this age of instant communication so easily accessible and so easy to hide, that enforcement committees like the above mentioned ones will be enough. On the other hand, because they are so isolated and different than even other Orthodox Jews, they may feel they have no other option. It’s either that or opting out of an observant lifestyle completely. An almost impossible alternative since it usually means a lot of guilt and severing your relationship with your family. Sometimes even from your own children as was the case with Shulem Deen.
This makes me wonder just how many in that community feign loving it and how many actually do. My guess is that there are many that fall in between both extremes. But those that are unhappy will never admit it publicly for fear of the sanctions they would get if they are exposed.
These are some of my thoughts. As I said, I completely disagree with their lifestyle, but will defend their rights to live it as they choose as long as their way of life does not harm them or others. My only question is, how many would walk away from it given the chance to do so without the terrible consequences that would surely result?