From what you know about Jewish tradition, how do you reconcile the behavior of religious Jews who are slumlords? Judaism has a lot of things to say about how to create a just society. There are a lot of people who are outwardly religious but ignore a whole section of the Jewish tradition.

Judaism has two bodies of law: civil law and ritual law. But for various historical reasons, the focus for a long time was on ritual law. . . . Jews were always under some foreign government. Even if they had a lot of autonomy over their own affairs, they were controlled by the state.

So the civil law wasn't as applicable to their lives? Right. And the more traditional Jewish learning environments emphasize ritual law. So if you become an Orthodox rabbi today, in Israel, or at Yeshiva University, there are three big areas of law that you will study: Shabbat [the observance of Jewish holidays], Kashrut [eating kosher], and niddah [family law, or laws of sexual relations].

Rats in Bushwick: Tenants at 684 Flushing say rats have taken over and pester their children.
Emily Berl
Rats in Bushwick: Tenants at 684 Flushing say rats have taken over and pester their children.
Rats in Bushwick: Tenants at 1136 Willoughby say rats have taken over and pester their children.
Emily Berl
Rats in Bushwick: Tenants at 1136 Willoughby say rats have taken over and pester their children.

The other part that's even more painful to me is that, in some religious Jewish communites, there is a sense that Jews don't have responsibilities to anyone beyond their own community. And it manifests in a lot of ways. Not just in the slumlord problem.

I'm a practicing Jew, and we always grew up hearing phrases like, "Be kind to the stranger because you were once a stranger in a strange land," as biblical guideposts for the way Jews are supposed to relate to non-Jews. What about things like that? Are those references for the ultra-Orthodox who are slumlords? Firstly, I can't speak from inside the Orthodox community. I can't put words in their mouths. Liberal Jews will often point to phrases like that—"You were a stranger in a strange land," for example. But strictly speaking, biblically, "the stranger" refers to something else. It refers to a person who is living in your midst permanently but hasn't yet converted to Judaism. People say that phrase doesn't apply to non-Jews in America because they aren't minorities.

So it's fair to say there's a tension between two interpretations here? Yes, there's a living tension between people who say the body of civil law, which governs business dealings, refers to relationships between Jews, and others who would say it governs relationships between Jews and non-Jews. In my writing, I apply Jewish civil law to everybody. A lot of people just bifurcate their lives—there is a difference in their head between their religious lives and their business lives.

In liberal communities as well, for a lot of people, it's easy to separate their Judaism from their business practices. Jewish organizations are constantly having benefits for honoring people who give a lot of money, instead of honoring people for the less tangible good works that they might do. There is little attention to how they earned that money, or who might have suffered in that drive to make money.

When I was researching your slumlords list, I turned up a lot of incidences where people turned up as the honoree at a dinner or a board member of a federation. When you are deciding who is going to be the honoree at the dinner, then you want to make sure that person is actually somebody who is worthy of that honor. In the case where you're about to honor someone who is on the 10 Worst Slumlords list, or you are about to honor someone who has a strike right outside their building, well . . .

In your article, you wrote about a case from the 1960s in which a rabbinical court actually ruled that a Jewish slumlord had to make repairs on his buildings. I brought up this case in order to show that there is historical precedent—in fact, fairly recent precedent in America—for Jewish religious courts taking action to compel Jewish landlords to behave appropriately toward their tenants, whether these tenants be Jewish or non-Jewish.

Do you think, relative to their numbers in owning real estate, that a disproportionate number of slumlords are religious Jews? I have no idea. But they do stand out because they dress differently.

Why did you raise this issue in public? I'm interested in what my community does. And I want my community, which is a Jewish community, to be exemplary. And as long as there is one Jewish slumlord, then there's reason for me to raise a public discussion. Any criticism of the Jewish community that comes from the outside is going to be perceived as anti-Semitic. Sometimes it's a fair characterization, and sometimes it isn't. Some people will say, "But this is a stereotype! There are so many other slumlords that aren't Jewish." But my attitude is if this is my community, and I am a leader in my community, then I want it to follow Jewish values and laws.

For me, it's important that if there are a lot people out there who are Jewish slumlords, then it's really important to me that there were other people—other Jews, and other religious Jews—publicly say that it is wrong and not consistent with Jewish values.

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