Street poster: Convert Ukrainian refugees to Hasidism?

Street poster: Convert Ukrainian refugees to Hasidism?

The Hasidic community has deep historic roots in Ukraine. The father of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, lived and preached in the Kingdom of Poland, now Ukraine, and Hasidism spread and grew in the region until it relocated to the west after the Holocaust. Notably, the Breslover rebbe Reb Nachman is buried in Uman, Ukraine. Thousands of Hasidim (including some of my brothers) make pilgrimages to his gravesite in Uman every Jewish New Year.

The current conflict has been closely covered in the Hasidic presses. But unlike a war abroad that would be reported by the media but would not much interest the spiritual leaders, this conflict has been close to home. And so, it mobilized a lot of speech giving and activism.

Here is the Satmar Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum at an educational event in Monsey, New York, where he likens Hasidim today to the role of American Jews during the Holocaust:

“Both of these countries [Russia and Ukraine] have a long history of persecuting their Jews in the worst ways. One million Jews fled Russia and Ukraine prior to WWI, due to the terrible persecution.

“But in the last thirty years, beautiful communities have cropped up around Russia and Ukraine. And now these Jews find themselves in terrible danger… they must leave their homes, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They escape to neighboring countries, and must be fed and clothed there.

“Dear Jews! The ground is burning in Ukraine! Eighty years ago, after the Holocaust, our parents asked the question, ‘Where were the American Jews?’ And the question is being asked again; ‘Where are the American Jews?!’ We are the American Jews!

“The Jewish people must not stand on the sidelines, hearing the news… as though it pertains to someone else. We cannot be apathetic. We must take responsibility… We must help with whatever we can.”

To be clear, it’s not like there is still a Hasidic community in Ukraine on par with the Hasidic “shtetles” around the world in New York, London, Antwerp, Jerusalem, Montreal, and so on. There is no “community” with its Yiddish, specialized shopping centers, school buses, wedding halls, and enormous percentage of youths. So when Hasidim set out to support “our brethren in Ukraine,” we are largely talking non-Hasidic Jews.

There’s now a new mobilization by an organization called Hatzileinu Nu, which has been putting out leaflets and posters with the expressed mission to not only help the Jews of Ukraine but to save them from zionist aid groups. Presumably, this org wants to bring these Jews to New York instead of to Israel, perhaps even to Hasidic enclaves.

This poster reads:

A humanitarian crisis;

A spiritual catastrophe!

The evil zionist “Sokonot” is using the devastation of the war in Ukraine to capture the lost “remnants of Ukraine” in their dark net, to convert them from the innocent Jewish way, god forbid.

Satmar’s role:

To save the Ukrainian Jews from shmad!

Shmad is a very loaded word. It means to convert away from Judaism, usually to Christianity, but it is one of the most loaded, accusatory terms in the Yiddish vocabulary. These Jews, who presumably will be free to remain religious in Israel, are here described as setting out to be completely corrupted.

Here are some more pamphlets from this organization; these I took from Hasidic Twitter. They are in the Ukrainian flag color scheme here.

These efforts remind me of the mobilization to “save” Jews from Yemen that were very much a thing when I was a child. Those groups were on a mission to resettle the Jews of Yemen to save their souls, and so, Yemenite girls who had no experience with our culture showed up and were expected to completely conform. I remember a big scandal went down when some Yemenite refugee women refused to shave their heads (an incredibly mysterious custom that is recorded to have been practiced only by Ashkenazi Jews), and for this, they were ostracized and punished by having their kids expelled from the schools. It was a terrible project that lacked any awareness of the Hasidic community as a culture, of other Jewish settlements as its unique culture, and it ended with most Yemenites leaving our community. But not before they had been quite a bit persecuted for not conforming.

Sometimes I am surprised by how self-aware certain Hasidim are about their own culture, evidenced in this speech by the Satmar rebbe at the start of the pandemic. Other times, like with this activist group, that understanding is completely absent, and the frame of mind these people come from is “our way is THE correct way, the Torah way, and it is understandable to expect of all Jews to heed to it.”

Of course, that can’t lead anywhere good. Just as I think Hasidim should be left alone and not be forced to live like westerners, so Ukrainian Jews should be left alone and not have Hasidic expectations imposed on them.

Meanwhile, here’s a different Hasidic effort to help Jews of Ukraine, from the KJ Weekly. This one makes no mention of saving any souls. It is merely about helping to feed and give shelter to refugees. It states that “Ukrainian Jews are fleeing for their lives!!” and they flee with nothing — this organization awaits them in Hungary in a spacious guest house. This advertisement simply raises money to fund aid operations.


(As an aside, since Satmar is now fractured into two groups, I tried to figure out which of the two sects this is from. These posters are so completely written for insiders that it is no help. The ad says that the event will be in the great synagogue. Since each of the two warring factions has a great synagogue, I have no idea which great synagogue this will be in, hence, I’m still none the wiser. What I plan to do is check in which of the warring newspapers these ads appear, and based on that, I’ll know which faction this belongs to.)


Related:

Free Palestine’ in Williamsburg

(Mis)representing the Hasidic community positively

Reflections on the Jersey City attack

Returning from the afterlife to battle the turban

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