By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The pious Orthodox Jew who is also a notorious slumlord—now there's a touchy subject, especially inside the large and diverse community of Jews in New York. After the Voice published its series this spring on the city's 10 worst landlords, which included some religious Jews, Rabbi Jill Jacobs tackled the topic, writing a column titled "When the Slumlords Are Us" for the Forward. This was already a familiar subject for the Conservative rabbi and activist.
"When I was working at a housing-rights organization while doing my rabbinical training," she tells the Voice, "the No. 1 question I got from tenants was, 'Why is my bad landlord a religious Jew?' Or people would say to me, 'You're the first Jew I've met who is not a slumlord.' And I'm glad to have met them, but it's heartbreaking. The only Jew they knew was the one not turning on the hot water!"
We heard the same questions and comments from tenants and readers. How exactly can a religious (read: Orthodox) person justify being a bad landlord?
The best way to try to answer that is to talk with Jews themselves. And we chose several from inside and outside the Orthodox community for some questions and answers.
(All conversations have been edited for clarity.)
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Founder and president of Uri L'Tzedek, an Orthodox social-justice organization.
After we published our list of the city's worst landlords, one of the questions we got was, "Why are there so many religious Jews on it?" What's your take on that? We saw your list. When it came out, we publicized it and tried to create awareness around it. When it came out, we held a beit midrash—a study session—in Washington Heights to raise awareness about the issue.
We learned that the biblical prophets made injustice against tenants one of the paradigms of oppression and that Halakha [Jewish law] treated this extraordinarily seriously.
Did you know that before? We had a sense, but we really didn't know.
Did what you learned apply to non-Jewish tenants or only Jews? There's a halakhic saying that we ultimately treat non-Jews with the same dignity as Jews because of darkei shalom [the ways of peace]. Maimonides says that the imperative of "the ways of peace" isn't due to Jewish interests or to protect ourselves but is an emulation of one of the highest attributes of God.
Have you ever reproached another Jewish leader who was involved in a scandal? Have you ever personally confronted a Jewish landlord? We launched a national boycott against Agriprocessors [the scandal-plagued kosher-meat giant owned by the Rubashkin family, who are Lubavitchers]. And after about a week and a half, we had 2,000 rabbis and Jewish leaders sign on to that campaign. We called off the boycott once the family met with us and agreed to provide transparency that their practices were changing.
Are you thinking of doing something like that in relation to slumlords? It's always been a personal priority of mine to get into this issue. I figured someone would step up, but I haven't seen that happen at all. There's clearly a big problem with certain sects of the Jewish community in how they are treating their tenants. It's a national problem. It's a New York City problem, and it's a Jewish problem. I am currently deliberating the best approach to take this on.
Why are you doing what you're doing? I'm sure not everyone loves you for doing it. It's my belief that our first obligation is to clean up our community. At the core of the Jewish tradition is the call of responsibility for the Jews to be at the forefront of creating a just society and to defend the most vulnerable in our society. The priorities are to create a community of socially responsible and just Jews. So we have to hold responsible those in our community who are not meeting the Jewish tradition's standard of justice.
So you're reacting to the slumlord issue from your place as Jewish leader. How do you think that the wider world reacts when they see so many Jews on lists of slumlords? It is a concern for me. There's injustice coming from every community, but when one publicly portrays their piety, the community naturally holds them to a higher standard. It's always a concern of mine that ultra-Orthodox Jews are going to get scapegoated. So I think it's up to us to clean it up, and not for outsiders to point fingers at Jews. . . . I think the Jewish community feels great embarrassment whenever a Jew anywhere in the world is responsible for a wrong. Since the Holocaust, there is a fear that Gentiles will see one wrong and stereotype all Jews, calling it a Jewish injustice rather than an injustice that happened to be done by a Jew. But in general, the Jewish communal leadership is grappling very deeply with how to address scandals on a systemic level and from an educational perspective.
A rabbi in the Conservative branch of Judaism, she actively pushes social-justice issues and, though still under 40, has been named in several lists of the country's most influential rabbis. She's the author ofThere Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition (2009) and is rabbi-in-residence at Jewish Funds for Justice.