There is an interesting conversation on the frum internet forum imamother.com about our tours. The questioner wants to know how insiders feel about what we do. This is a question we get asked most often by our tourists and it is something we grapple with ourselves. Here is the most succinct version of the ethical dilemma:
“Frida Vizel is a former member of the Kiryas Yoel community who left Satmat and now operates a business running tours of Chassidic Williamsburg. It’s called Visit Hasidim.com. (I googled; you could have, too).
How do you think you would feel if someone started running tours of your neighborhood so that strangers could get an up close and personal look at your way of life? In theory it’s to generate understanding but there’s plenty of plain rubbernecking going on as well.
Now how would you feel if the person running the tours was an OTD formerly frum person from your community?”
We do can’t give a single answer because various people we asked had different reactions; and because what we experience isn’t the sum of the community’s philosophy towards tourism. But while we don’t know how everyone feels, we do know how people have treated us over more than three years of quietly touring the neighborhood. People in the businesses we visit are just friendly and very down to earth, while everyday folk go about their daily affairs as if we aren’t there. On occasion we get stared down, or people ask what we come to see, or contribute to the conversation. Rarely but sometimes a Hasidic person gives us a short lesson. We had only one instance of an individual disrupting the tour on several occasions. A middle-aged man followed the group around and disrupted with cries of “hypocrisy”; at some point a local Hasidic shopkeeper came out of his store to ask the disruptive gentleman (in Yiddish) to “leave them alone”. The two had a conversation as the older gentleman argued we had come on some traitorous mission, before he went his way and we went ours (to taste some rugelach.)
Here is what people on this forum say they feel about the tours:
“It’s actually amusing. I have never come across a disrespectful or annoying tourist. I see local bakeries profit from their purchases.
I live here. No one cares. At worst it’s an eyeroll, combined with a “what can possibly be interesting about that pharmacy that they’re all taking photos of?…”
“Few people even know about it, and nobody cares. She’s not the only one doing tours in Williamsburg. An average Shabbos has many tour buses riding down Lee Ave and dropping tourists off to check out the sights. Nobody gives them a second glance.”
“I grew up and lived in Williamsburg until two years ago. These tours are going on for years already. I remember seeing her on shabbos, they’d board their bus across the house I grew up in. And I watched them often from my window.
I couldn’t care less. For me it was entertainment on a long shabbos….
I’ve never heard a complaint.
I remember my sister mentioning that she knows her amd it was sad that she ended up this way.
There are lots of tourists coming to tour the “hasidic” Williamsburg. Her Groups were the most respectful groups. No noise, no trash, quiet and quick.”
“We gawk right back, if they take photos of a pharmacy. Or we go right on with our business.
Do Parisians mind the tourists? Do Londoners?
I love when uber drivers ask me about our neighborhood. I love pointing out that we are not as homogeneous as they think. I never speak to anyone in the tour groups, mostly because I can’t spare the time. It also seems like they don’t want to bother people with questions. I like to think they are here to learn just a little bit more about us than the one dimensional portrait the media often paints.”
It is worth pointing out that the comments on an online forum are not a particularly indicative sampling, and people online tend to be more open in the first place, but these sentiments were the surprising and thoughtful reactions we have always experienced.
(We should clarify that we never run tours on Shabbes or holidays. We have no connection to the large bus tours that make a quick stop in the neighborhood on weekends. If our tour guides are in the neighborhood on such occasions, we are usually visiting family or friends.)
The most negative feedback that we get from community members is that we come to Williamsburg to “gawk as if at a zoo”. This is a critique that is not unique to Williamsburg tours; all cultural tours or anthropological studies might be guilty of turning people into involuntary performers or unwilling objects of analysis. We do our best to avoid disrespect by coming in small groups, engaging with the shops and avoiding stereotyping at all costs.
If we had an opportunity to explain to members of the community why we do this; we would say that visiting cultures so radically different than the mainstream is a worthwhile learning experience; it broadens our understanding of history, community, Jewish life and the colorful tapestry that is New York.
Can you imagine a Williamsburg without a Jewish congregation?
Here’s a notice of – almost a rumor – of the formation of a synagogue in Williamsburg in 1852.
Williamsburg is described as a “growing town on Long Island”!
From The Occident, Elul 5612, September 1852.
A century ago a Christian Mission to the Jews stood in the heart of Williamsburg. A great sign “The House of the Prince of Peace” stood atop the building, and inside was, among other things, a medical clinic called the Sar Shalom Dispensary.
It was founded by Leopold Cohn, a Hungarian apostate, who founded a ministry to the Jews called the Chosen People Ministry. Amazingly, the ministry founded in 1892 survived eventually became Jews For Jesus, 80 years later!
And even more amazingly, Leopold Cohn (1862-1937) wrote the following about his youth in Hungary:
“At about eighteen years of age I was proficient in Hebrew literature and Talmudic law. I then received from several rabbis, in whose colleges I had studied, a diploma containing a certificate of my good character and acquirements and and authority to become a rabbi. This was confirmed by my first and chief rabbi, a miracle performer, S. L. Teitelbaum, in Sziget.”
That is, the Williamsburg missionary Cohn was a student of the Yetev Lev, progenitor of the Satmar rebbes, in his youth, in Sighet!
I was raised to the mantra of: a goy works to eat and eats to work. Or אוי אוי אוי, שיכור איז א גוי. Oh, oh oh, a drunkard is a goy! There was a sense of intense meaninglessness of the secular world evident by the short sighted hunger for pleasure, a world of instant gratification. When we heard about the high divorce rates and small facilities we could understand the temptation of throwing off the yoke of difficult relationships, but we knew that this type of shortsightedness ended with a lonely old man dying abandoned in the hospital, while the Jewish zeidy’s side of the curtain was always noisy with people who cared.
Today, since I am secular, I know that the goy isn’t a hedonistic, drunken, sex ravaged and incoherent slave to his every whim, but I think there was truth to the religious criticism of the secular world. I experience a world in which he loyalty and sacrifice for others is too often perceived as pushover weakness while selfishness is exonerated as “bravery”. Still, plenty good people know not to buy into it.
It's the winter season... Please bundle up for the tours!