Friday, June 03, 2011

New Square – Paradise or Jonestown?

New Square, the city of Skverer Chasdim - what does one make of it? I guess it depends who you talk to, or what you read. There are two articles circulating in the media that tell virtually opposite stories about this town. After reading them, I have concluded that they are both essentially telling the truth while at the same time embellishing it from their own perspective.

How is that possible? It is not only possible but likely. The positive side of this town reported by Ami Magazine (as of now unavailbale on the internet) can actually lead to the kind of negative side reported by the Forward.

The positive side is considerable.

Although it was a fawning article about New Square, its Rebbe and its (his) Chasidim, I believe that it is essentially true. The author of the Ami article spent some time there recently and was overwhelmed with a feeling of warmth which this community had towards him and the Chesed they do for fellow Jews. It is done without any expectation of reward. They do it simply because they feel a responsibility to help any Jew in need.

The Shabbos experienced in that town is unlike any other. The author describes Shabbos there as physically palpable. Everyone there is on the same page. Even though the author lives in one of the 5 towns and has a lovely community of Shomer Shabbos Jews there, New Square’s Shabbos had a spiritual high that cannot be matched anywhere.

The descriptions of Chesed this community does on a regular basis is unmatched as well. He described his own past experience on a highway near New Sqaure where his car broke down. Skverer Chasdim were there in a flash and not only helped him with his car troubles they were there with food packages and all manner of good will. The feeling of Chesed, Shabbos, and Achdus among these Chasidim is very genuine.

The negative side of this town has unfortunately been discussed in the news a lot lately. It revolves around an incident that can only be described as one of the most horrific crimes anyone can ever commit. Arson that culminated in severe third degree burns on over 50% of the body of a religious fellow human being.

The Skverer Rebbe who was interviewed for that article tried to explain this event as an aberration - that this was not what Skvere was all about. The Ami article took that at face value and concluded that his paradise like description of that community was New Square’s true identity and that all negative articles about it are the result of bias – mostly through the anti Charedi bias of Jewish websites and blogs.

Then there is the Forward article. It was written by a former Skever Chasid who grew up in New Square. Even though he sounded a little like he had an axe to grind, for the most part I believe his article is essentially true too. There he tells us another story. One that can easily come about as a result of Achdus – perhaps too much of it. Here is an excerpt:

Eighteen years ago, as a Hasidic student at the yeshiva of New Square, I found myself swept up one morning in the frenzy of a mob. I, along with around two dozen young men, ransacked the private dormitory room of a fellow student. We broke open the door, smashed the lock on the bedside cabinet, scattered the contents of dresser drawers across the floor, and ripped blankets, sheets and mattresses from the bed in a desperate search for… well, we weren’t sure what we were searching for.

There had been rumors in the study hall that the student in question was in possession of items forbidden by the rules of our austere Hasidic lifestyle. We’d heard rumors of portable TVs, of audiocassettes of secular music, of secular newsmagazines; we didn’t know for certain nor did we care. The important thing was that we demonstrated our willingness and ability to commit violence against those who violated our community’s code of conduct.

In the end we found only several photographs of our friend wearing a baseball cap and a t-shirt, and we thought his adoption of the vulgar sartorial habits of common Americans enough to vindicate our vigilantism.

Our behavior was publicly condemned by yeshiva officials. In private they commended us.

This paints quite a different picture of New Square.

The loyalty shown to the Skverer Rebbe is real and in many ways well deserved. Like most Chasidic Rebbes he cares about and is truly devoted to the welfare of his Chasidim. He goes to great lengths to meet their needs spending a lot of his personal time with any and every Chasid that needs it. He is a father figure to all. To say that Skverer Chasdim are loyal to their beloved Rebbe would be an understatement.

One of the main reasons that New Square was established was to create a community where there would be Achdus – unity among all the residents. Achdus of course has many benefits. Especially if the values espoused by its leaders are the kind of positive ones espoused by the Skverer Rebbe. The way they celebrate Shabbbos and their expression of Chesed to every Jew are just a couple of the positive attributes they have in great abundance.

But even if Achdus was not promoted by the Rebbe it is one of the by-products of the kind loyalty that is indigenous to Chasdus. When everyone is loyal to the desires of a community leader they follow his directives meticulously. But Achdus has its downside and is in part responsible for the kind of behavior described in the Forward article as well as the kind of behavior that ended up setting a fellow Jew ablaze.

The kind of Achdus promoted in New Square does not only include Chesed and the joy of Shabbos. It promotes a standard of religious conformity that if violated will make the zealots of New Square take quick action. The kind of action that results in anything but Chesed. The description in the Forward of a violent rampage in service to that goal; and the public condemnation and quite approval of it demonstrates that. So too does arson committed by the Rebbe’s own ‘house Chasid’ and his public reaction to it.

Image and Achdus seem to be more important than the pain and suffering of one individual – whose name was not even mentioned by the Rebbe. And when he said that healing should come to all that were injured it was almost in passing and without any apparent expression of horrific nature of the crime. The focus was on the image of Skvere and the pain the Rebbe had by the spreading of this negative image of his wonderfull community.

I wonder if the Rebbe went to visit the victim? There was no mention of it in the Ami article if he did. I hope it was an oversight and that he did. I would assume no less of the leader of a group that is known for their Chesed to every single Jew.

So is New Square paradise or is it Jonestown?

Jonestown, was a community founded by Jim Jones, a charismatic Christian religious leader known for his dedication and service to the poor. His followers were so loyal to him that they all followed him in committing suicide by drinking a poisonous Kool-Aid rather than to submit Jonestown to government scrutiny.

Of course the Skever Rebbe would never God forbid order his Chasidim to commit suicide. But aside from that - after reading both articles, reading about the great spirituality of Skverer Chasdim, but also about their vigilante style enforcement of community standards, the arson resulting in some of the most severe pain imaginable to humankind, and reading about the reaction of the Rebbe to it, I am beginning to think that New Square may very well be a little bit of both.