Monday, November 09, 2015

Do they Really Have a Choice?

The New Square Synagogue
In America people have the right to live any way they choose. When there are entire groups of people that choose to live a certain way, they may set up communities that live that way. They can also accept whomever they chose to lead them. And then willingly abide by any rules that leader makes.

I just more or less described the community of New Square led by Rabbi David Twersky – the Skverer Rebbe.  If any individual from Skvere no longer chooses to live there, he may freely leave. So what could possibly be wrong with that? The answer is plenty.

I have been very critical of this community - and more so of its rabbinic leader - for an incident that occurred a few years ago. A resident of Skvere was set fire by one of the Rebbe’s young disciples. It happened when he attempted to burn down the victim’s house with the victim’s family sleeping in it. I was further outraged by the community’s reaction - and that of their Rebbe - to that horrible event. Treating the victim as the criminal and the criminal as the victim is not something any decent human being can just ignore. It should outrage anyone with a sense of decency and justice.

But this post isn’t about that. It is to expose just how cult-like New Square is and what it’s like for someone there who wants out.

First let us define a cult. This is a community of religious people that have socially deviant beliefs or practices. A cult is perhaps most characterized by the control its leader has over its members - even to the point of preventing them from leaving.

So is New Square a cult? Is their Rebbe a cult leader? If one reads the Lohud article about what life is like in New Square one would be hard pressed to see them any other way. For example a set of new rules has just been instituted that includes a prohibition for mothers against smart-phones even for business purposes.  And then there is this: 
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
Now many of their rules are just extensions of rules or values that exist for all Orthodox Jews. We are all supposed to act and dress modestly.  And the dangers of the internet inherent in smart-phones are well known to all, including the secular world. But the level to which these values are taken in Skvere... Well the word extreme may be to mild.

But again - if people choose to live with these rules, they have that right. Why do they put up with it –even as many of them admit that it often severely inconveniences their lives? It’s because they love their lifestyles. It is a way of life in which they grew up and saw as joyous. The fact that everybody was brought up that way makes for a special bond between them. It is a warm community with a social life that only a closed community of like minded people could have. They revel in it, looking to their Rebbe to guide them in virtually every important aspect of their lives. That makes many of the normally difficult decisions one comes upon in life a lot easier to handle.

When for example marriages partners are suggested by a Skevre Shadchan it is usually with the approval of the Rebbe. And that usually ends up in marriage. There is no dating. Just one meeting to make sure the couple is basically compatible and agree. Which the Shadchanim of that community – and family members (parents; siblings…) encourage. Love if it ever comes – comes later. Having been raised with the same values and expectations about Shiduchim - it takes a lot of pressure off a young person. There is no Shidduch crisis in Skvere. If there is, it is nowhere near what goes on in the rest of the non Chasidic Charedi world. In short, there are many inspirational experiences shared by members of that community that causes a communal bond unlike anywhere else.

So what’s the problem? Why is should this community be seen as cult-like - if anyone is free to leave any time they choose? Indeed - no one will stop them.

The answer is that they are not all that free to leave. Why is that the case? The lifestyle they live in Skvere is not readily transferable to other Orthodox Jewish communities. Nor can they take the bonds they have made with them. They are therefore ill prepared to function socially.

But worse than that, the men have absolutely no education to help them find decent jobs. Their insular ways make it nearly impossible to live outside of the community they were born into - and raised. Their insularity is assured by the kind of rules the Skverver Rebbe implements. Rules like the following: Yiddish is their primary means of communication;  learning English as a second language; no secular courses for men; no educational skills developed; and no job training of any kind. From Lohud: 
You have more than 7,500 people who eat the same foods, go to same institutions, get the same kind of education and all look to the rebbe as paramount leader ... and are really dependent economically on being in this community… 
If someone has thoughts about leaving a community like this, they quickly discard them. They come to realize how nearly impossible it would be to make that move.  So even if no one is stops them from leaving, they are forced by their circumstances to stay. It probably seems like the lesser of 2 evils - even when they can’t take the strictures imposed upon them anymore.

Added to all of this is the way they take full advantage of government financial aid programs. While what they do may be legal, I find it unethical to take advantage of programs designed to help the disadvantaged. They were not designed for a community of people who refuse to be educated enough - purposely disadvantaging themselves. Not to mention the fact that such programs combined with the poverty that these the large families find themselves in lend themselves to abuse and fraud. 

It’s not that these extremes aren’t practiced elsewhere. There are other communities where restrictions like these exist. And perhaps the same thing applies to them. But the descriptions of life in Skvere in books and articles like this have been quite ubiquitous of late. Which is why I focus on them. 

So how should the rest of the Orthodox Jewish community react to all this? Should we have a ‘live and let live attitude? Normally I would say yes. As I indicated above  - it’s a free country and people are free to live as they choose. Even if they make what seem to be bad choices to the rest of Orthodox Jewry. As long as those choices do not infringe on the rights of others let them live as they please.

Ahhh, but the word choose is a tricky one. How much of a choice do the residents of Skvere really have?

So what’s my point here? It is simply to call a spade a spade. It ought to be known by all that if New Square is not a cult, it comes awfully close to it. And to urge support of any and all efforts to change things there. Because it is simply unfair for anyone to be forced (even if only by circumstances) to live that way if they don’t want to.