How Can a Religious Person Justify Being a Slumlord?

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?

273 Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, where non-Orthodox tenants are denied repairs.
Emily Berl
273 Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, where non-Orthodox tenants are denied repairs.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Emily Berl
Rabbi Jill Jacobs
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.
Baruch Herzfeld, Williamsburg bike mechanic
Emily Berl
Baruch Herzfeld, Williamsburg bike mechanic

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.

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Jill Jacobs
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.

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].

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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Baruch Herzfeld
An Orthodox Jewish bike mechanic in Williamsburg, where he owns Traif Bike Gesheft (Yiddish for "non-Kosher bike shop"). He has been a liaison between Hasids and hipsters during bike-lane controversies.

Why do you think many religious Jews pop up on lists of the city's worst landlords? The only reason why Jews predominate on this list is because Jews own a lot of properties in New York. It just so happens that being a landlord in New York for the past 50 years has been a Jewish business. If you went to Buenos Aires or Beijing, you wouldn't find many Jewish slumlords.

So when you see many ultra-religious Jews pop up on the list, what is your reaction? The list is a public service—it shames the landlords into acting properly. If you're in New York, you'll find some bad Jewish landlords. Not all are bad. Many are fair and decent. But some are bastards, and they should be shamed. The Jews that I know are good landlords. And it cuts both ways: A lot of the artists' lofts in Williamsburg couldn't have happened if it weren't for the Hasids, because a lot of Hasidic landlords were lax about codes. It's always more fun to paint "the evil landlord." No one writes the "best slumlords" list.

Sounds like you feel some empathy towards landlords. I'm a landlord. I once created a list called "Shame on Jew," about the 500 most embarrassing Jews of all time. I don't want to be on the list. Look, I'm glad you created your list. I'm sorry that these people are Jews. And I'm a landlord and I hate to think that this could be my future.

Coming from a religious community, can you say what the thinking is that doesn't prevent certain ultra-religious Jews from becoming slumlords? There's an inside/outside mentality. And there is certain understanding that if you are bad to people who aren't Satmars, you haven't done any wrong. It's not Talmudic or biblical. It's just a survival mentality.

Do you think these behaviors increase anti-Semitism? Absolutely. I talk to a lot of people in Williamsburg, and a few of them have had problems with Hasidic landlords. And it reflects badly on all Hasidism, because the average new immigrant to Brooklyn—and in this I include Americans who have moved here from outside New York State—can't distinguish between Jews as a whole and individual Hasidic landlords.

What about the whole "Never mistreat the stranger because you were once a stranger in a strange land," that I heard so much growing up? I'm sure someone has told you by now: You don't base your life on what is in the Torah. You live your life, and you find passages in the Torah that justify the way you are living.

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Isaac Abraham
An unofficial spokesman of Williamsburg's Satmar Jews to the outside world, a self-styled advocate, and a recent candidate for City Council.

Why do you think, when we look at who owns the most decrepit buildings in New York, many turn out to be extremely religious Jews, including Satmars? First off, I'm a tenant advocate. I represent 3,500 families in NYCHA [the New York City Housing Authority] and Mitchell-Lama buildings. Second, what is your proof here? Do you have any proof?

Moishe Indig, a leader in your own community, owns a property on the city's worst-buildings list . . . I see buildings that are literally ambushed by certain tenants—literally! And I've watched this in court. When the landlords are Jews, non-Jews, Muslims, Asians. And the tenants come back to the judge for repairs. And it doesn't last 20 minutes and the vandalism is back there again! And it's not the landlord leaving these filthy messages in the hallways.

The landlord isn't the one punching holes in the walls. He doesn't put graffiti up. He doesn't rip out the toilets! When the landlord pays the bills, the residents—they should consider their home as their castle, and instead, they destroy it.

Some tenants should be removed. Here we have a liberal system where we should find every reason for tenants to stay even as they vandalize the building, and pay them with taxpayer dollars. Even if they commit crimes, or have drugs over there.

There are definitely many irresponsible tenants. But when you see Hasidic landlords who don't hold up their end of the bargain—who don't provide heat or hot water for consecutive winters—how do you respond to that, as a Hasidic Jew? How do you respond to that within your community? Let me ask you a question: Who do you consider to be the worst landlord in the City of New York? I can give you one: NYCHA. And not because I say so, but because of the facts. They didn't provide heat in East New York. . . . There was a five-year-old child who died in a elevator. And did [Brooklyn D.A.] Joe Hynes prosecute NYCHA? There's nobody prosecuted here. No one went to prison. No one stood in front of a judge. Where do we take NYCHA when they don't provide heat? Where do we take HPD [the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development]?

Are you saying that because tenants act badly, landlords shouldn't do their part? The landlords' bad behavior is excusable? The landlord has to be responsible to provide services. But it gets to a point where a landlord is chasing his own tail. I didn't create the phrase "Graffiti creates graffiti, vandalism creates vandalism." Any landlord who doesn't provide services, he should be hit by the book.

Do you feel that way if the landlord happens to be a Hasidic Jew? I will not answer your pinpointed question of defining a landlord based on race. When a tenant calls me to tell me his toilet his clogged, I don't ask him his race, and he doesn't ask mine. I don't look at an owner with respect to race. And I don't look at tenants with respect to race.

Have you ever heard of a slumlord being taken to a beit din, a rabbinical court? No.

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Shmarya Rosenberg
A former member of Chabad Lubavitch, writes the muckraking blog FailedMessiah.com, a mix of news and commentary about the dark side of the Orthodox world. TheForward has listed him among the 50 most influential American Jews.

When you see many religious Jewish landlords appearing on slumlord lists, what is your reaction? The first couple of times, I was shocked. Now I'm kind of numb. There's just so much of this stuff, and it's just kind of mind-numbing. And you know, to do this [blog] every day, people say [of me], "He loves to do this stuff. He's out there with glee doing this stuff." Most of the time, I'm nauseated.

You are a former member of an ultra-Orthodox group, Chabad Lubavitch, which you've said gives you some perspective on the mentality of the members of those groups who end up committing crimes. Once you're inside the group, there are few crimes you can commit. There are few crimes that anyone can put against you. If the slumlord was doing it to hipsters or Puerto Ricans or blacks, it would be fine. They aren't going to condemn that person or say he shouldn't have an aliyah in synagogue or say he shouldn't be rewarded.

For them to go past and realize that other people suffer besides Jews is hard for them. "We are doing God's work, so why should we be worried about anything? We're sacrificing and doing what God wants. I mean, we could be out there living like secular people live and making more money and having lots more fun, but instead, we're here doing what God wants."

Part of this comes from Jewish law. You are supposed to first give your charity dollars to your family, then to your neighborhood or town. And then there's an argument whether the next should be your country, or Jews in Jerusalem. And after Jerusalem, the rest of Israel. Helping non-Jewish causes would be the last.

A lot of rabbis believe that if we don't help the non-Jews when they need us, they won't be there when we need them. When times get rough, there could be pogroms. There could be an attacking of Jews. . . . If you talk to kids from Orthodox schools, especially Haredi schools, they are going to say, 'They hate us, so why should we help them . . . ?"

The ultra-Orthodox style and outlook are a reaction to the Reform movement, and a reaction to the attempt to make Judaism conform with the modern world. They are fighting the battle to preserve the "true Judaism." They want to withstand all change.

Of course, it's a reaction to years of actual persecution. You create a society that is not going to look toward the outside with loving eyes. And many of us have transcended that. We live in America. We've been OK.

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Joe Levin
A Hasidic Jew and private investigator who works cases in the Orthodox communities.

When we put together our worst-landlords list, we noticed that ultra-religious Jews own many of the worst-kept properties in the city, those with the highest violation counts, where the tenants describe the landlords as having complete disregard for their repeated requests for necessary services. A lot of readers ask us why so many Hasidic Jews end up on lists of slumlords. You are Hasidic. Most of your business is with ultra-Orthodox Jews. We wanted to get your perspective on this. I watch the news, and I see these things about these Orthodox guys. This is the nature of some people, screwing around for a little money and embarrassing the whole community. I say to myself, "If you have to do these things, why call yourself a rabbi? Why put this title on yourself? Why do it?"

I'll be honest with you. It's difficult to be a Hasidic guy and wear a yarmulke. I'm telling you, I see so much. The crime that has happened in the frum [Orthodox Jewish] community is a disaster. Every day I come home, and my wife asks me, "How was your day?" and I have tears in my eyes. When I send my kids to yeshiva, I have a lot of doubts about them growing up to be good Jewish boys. I have a lot of doubts. I pray every day for my children.

So why do you think people act this way? There is a belief that you are allowed to steal from non-Jewish people. It's a kind of a sickness that these people have. I had a recent case. I said to a guy, "You're taking money from a bank." And he said, "What do I care?"

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Samuel Heilman
A distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College, where he holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies. Focusing on Orthodox Jews, he has written books including Cosmopolitans and Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America (co-authored with Steven M. Cohen) and Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.

Why are there so many Orthodox slumlords? First of all, let's be clear, we're talking here about Orthodox Jews, not religious Jews. And the question we need to ask is not, "Does their Orthodoxy lead them to be a slumlord," but rather, "Why doesn't their Orthodoxy prevent those of them who become slumlords from acting in this way?" We know that, overwhelmingly, people who are Orthodox and Jewish, and people who see themselves as religious, do not become bad landlords. It doesn't lead to that. The real question is, when you find that many Orthodox Jews are slumlords, why hasn't his Orthodoxy, or his being religious, why hasn't it prevented him from becoming a slumlord?

But first, we need to make clear that Orthodox Jews are not overwhelmingly slumlords. I think the distinction is subtle, but nonetheless important.

Would you extend that to people who may not be as religious but are extremely charitable towards religious causes? I would frame that in the same way. Most people who are charitable and philanthropic are not slumlords. But the question is how can people who are slumlords continue to be so charitable. . . . Most Orthodox, and most Jews who view themselves as religious, do not do these kinds of bad things. But the real question is, How does it happen that, among the people who do these bad things, there are significant numbers of people who are perhaps charitable and also Orthodox? How is it that Orthodoxy doesn't prevent it when it happens?

So what's your answer to that? Well, first off, I'm not familiar with every example.

OK, here are a few in Brooklyn, especially in the Williamsburg Bushwick area. [Some of the most neglected buildings are owned by Hasidic Jews in those areas.] OK, well, first, we can agree that Satmars—the Hasids that live in Williamsburg—are not representative of most Orthodox Jews. But there is something that characterizes their culture—it's more than their religion—that allows this to happen.

Satmars were always a more insular group, even within Europe. Keep in mind that Orthodox Jews in general—and Satmars, in particular—suffered much more from persecution than other kinds of Jews. In part, it was their own fault, because their rabbis told them not to change anything. So they really stood out. They looked different. And their behavior fit perfectly into those xenophobic attitudes that Europeans harbored against Jews.

Although most victims of the Holocaust were not Orthodox, Orthodoxy took a bigger hit than any other group of Jews. The Hasidim in particular were totally shell-shocked after the war. They took big hits, and they had to reconstitute themselves. The Satmar in some ways became stronger after the war since they were one of the only groups of Hasidim to survive.

So is this religion, or culture, at work? Some of the things I said to you are true for all Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews]. That the only way they can keep their own—in a modern pluralistic society, where boundaries are easily crossed—is by persuading them that the world outside is dangerous and threatening, is worse in every way, and that "you wouldn't want to be like these people."

I think the us-versus-them mentality is very important. It's always painted or coated with a religious veneer, but it's not fundamentally religious. To add to that, there are real financial issues in Williamsburg. If you look at the posters people put up, it gives you a strong idea of what's on people's minds. And what are the posters about? I've written about them—if you look, they are all about money. If you look at Kiryas Joel, the Satmar community in Orange Country, it has the highest poverty rate in the country. If you look, you get an economic picture of the Satmar. . . . There's a big sense of financial insecurity, whether justified or not. And so some people can pull this all together and see it as a kind of justification, even of victimhood. It's a view that allows them to say, "Religion is religion, and business is business."

If you look at Orthodox Jews who have gone through university education and have picked up some of those same humanistic attitudes, that newly acquired worldview makes it difficult for them to justify these behaviors. Keep in mind that the folks you are talking about, their education is completely insular. It is by them, for them. They have no exposure to anything else. It's not like other religious, even Orthodox communities, where there is more contact, even in the workplace or among everyday people, with non-Jews. So they don't pick up any of the other values. Some of these values are embedded in Judaism but are so overladen with other values that they have become lost.

edwoskin@villagevoice.com

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