I’ve worked in the Hasidic (Satmar) community since I was seventeen. Not to give my age away, but that’s some fifteen years and counting. These are all the Hungarian Hasidim from Williamsburg and sattelites; not the more Americanized ChabadHasidim.

There are some Hasidic men with whom I’ve had a professional relationship for my entire adult life, and yet I’ve never had a significant personal conversation with them. Ever. It’s pretty startling. I never said “I’m getting divorce” or “I’m moving”. I just notify them to change my exemptions and reporting address.

When I was first hired by a Hasidic company I was still Hasidic, and as one of its members my employers naturally felt they could expect more from me. I had to sign an agreement in Yiddish as follows: (note, no outsider would ever be told anything like this)

Some of the translation:

From the Organization that Guards our Barriers – Important Laws for Workplaces:

  1. It is forbidden for a man to talk extra words with a woman, and of course not to get into a friendly conversation, or god forbid to kid around (make jokes) or laugh, etc. It is permitted to talk about things that need to be done, and it is also permitted to say “good morning” or wish “mazel tov” etc. One needs to be careful, however, not to say it in a friendly way.
  2. If a woman needs to say something to a man, she should not stand too close to him, only at a distance.
  3. It is forbidden to address a woman or girl by her first name, only by her family name.
  4. It is forbidden for a man and a woman to compliment each other “personally”, for example to say “you did a good job. It is only permitted to say “the job” was well done. In the event that a man gives a compliment to a woman or vice versa, then the other person must pretend that they didn’t hear.
  5. It is forbidden for a man and a woman to speak about themselves as “us.” For example, instead of saying “we need to talk to them” one needs to say “they need to be talked to

The above, was the contract from one company that was very stringent. Over the years I’ve learned that there is a great spectrum of religiously acceptable behavior among Hasidic professionals. But I’m showing you what expectations in one company were because it can never hurt to go in understanding that on some level, the ideal of piety in workforces look like that: strict, strict separation of the sexes.

Here is my advice:

  • Don’t try to act like an insider. I watch my Hasidic workmates squirm uncomfortably when our secular business partners try to bond over being “Jewish”. My Hasidic workmates have a very different sense of what’s Jewish, and they feel patronized or confused when someone who clearly doesn’t look like them tries to act like them. When someone shows up to a meeting looking like they’d borrowed Hasidic shtreimels from a costume shop, no one thinks “ah, Chaim Burich Mordche, you’re vun of us!” People think: tatte in himel! (which is a Yiddish version of WTF!)
  • Know the basic rules of sexual separation. Avoid the dreaded erect handshake. Among almost all Orthodox Jews (not all, but many who look Orthodox) men don’t shake hands with women, and vice versa. Make it easier by casually avoiding the whole shpeil. It can easily be skipped without everyone fiddling with their fingers awkwardly. Eventually, as you know more about that person’s preferences, you might figure it out by either observing him/her or asking directly.
    • Also: men and women aren’t supposed to be friends.
    • Also: men and women aren’t to pass items directly into each other’s hands.
  • Know that there are a ton of degrees of piety. Don’t study one company and then hope to replicate its laws elsewhere. As I write this I already hear the critical voices of each Jew with three opinions telling me that “no, we are doing it like this, we are more pious, we are less pious, no one is like this, everyone is like that, etc.” My default is to never initiate any rule breaking. (That, even though I left and I’m the bad girl! still can’t help many, many years of modesty training.)
  • Don’t be their Satan. Don’t try to ask big questions and get your coworkers to simplify when they do what they do. Most people don’t need you to “enlighten” them. Hasidic culture is radically different, and most comments are lost in translation. All you do by trying to critique is show disrespect.
  • Don’t be their Rabbi. I have a friend who is what’s called “A Hasidic Double Lifer.” That is, he is a secular thinker, but because of familial obligations is committed to living his life externally as a Hasid. He told me recently that he went into a restaurant in Israel, and tried to order – let’s say – falafal. The woman at the counter was a secular Israeli, and she answered “zeh loh kasher”; it isn’t kosher. That friend tried to insist, and again the cashier said “but it isn’t kosher.” I can imagine that this woman tried to be helpful, but she wasn’t. Never try to impose on Hasidim expectations of piety. Some Hasidim deal with complex scenarios of trying to protect a fragile place in the community for their entire family, but also not always being able to drag around its shackles. Don’t check their compliance, thank you.
  • Don’t get shocked when they resemble people. When I was Hasidic and I wore the whole headgear, people consistently gasped if a word of even mediocre intelligence left my mouth. The patronizing gasps! Don’t hold Hasidim to different standards than your average goy. They are born with the same brain. Remember that many Hasidim are ordinary folks who were born into the sects, they did not choose it. Some are bright and self taught in various fields, some curse, some have secret interests.
  • People are people. Take your cues from them and ask openly if something is okay. Want to have lunch? Good. What are your dietary specifications? Kosher? What kind of kosher? Good. I’ll look up a place online, unless you want to suggest one. See you soon.
  • Give friendships a chance, but don’t fetishize. Here’s my tip: watch out for how someone might open up when they are alone. Hasidim are a very social group; there’s a lot of social penalty for acting “not normal”. Be sensitive to repeating what someone told you in private, even if it seems harmless.Will this help? I hope so. I hope it won’t make you fall over yourself.

    Hatzluche rabbe! (means good luck in Hebrew, as used by many Hasidim.)

I’m a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg, and visitors to this community often wonder about the economy. What’s interesting is that on the one hand, the children on Lee Avenue are often dressed to the nines in matching outfits, babies are pushed in designer strollers, and you will not see a homeless person at any street corner. Yet statistically, the community is very poor.

I grew up in a satellite community of this sect called Kiryas Joel, and the New York Times tried to delve into this question about my home town. In “A Village with the Numbers, Not the Image of the Poorest Place” the Times writes:

“The poorest place in the United States is not a dusty Texas border town, a hollow in Appalachia, a remote Indian reservation or a blighted urban neighborhood. It has no slums or homeless people. No one who lives there is shabbily dressed or has to go hungry. Crime is virtually nonexistent.”

Thus the paradox: on paper, the community ranks as very poor. But as with all things data, it does not give a holistic picture of a situation.

You will ask: So is the community poor?

The community is certainly *not* rich as a whole, but some things to keep in mind is:

  1. A factor that creates an unusual type of poverty: Families are large, often very large. I have 14 siblings. These family sizes easily distort family income, by creating a net income after deductions that will easily fall under the poverty line. Yet these families have different cost sets than American families, and one might argue life is cheaper. There are no nannies, expensive mid winter vacations, summer camps, hobbies, pets, second cars (women don’t drive). Large families often operate like efficient machines in which more can be shared.
  2. A factor that decreases poverty: There is a lot more “spreading the wealth” in this community than elsewhere. For example, there are some very wealthy people – see the article about $2.5 billion dollars in Brooklyn Real Estate that is owned by Hasidic Williamsburg individuals. These are men who strike it rich and will often then spend and hire within the community. They might, for instance, want to be honored for sponsoring a huge synagogue which will serve the entire community’s needs. Not only that, but the synagogue construction will probably create financial opportunities in the community.

3. A factor that increases poverty: Keep in mind that this community espouses a very different concept of education. Women in many schools don’t even graduate with high school diplomas, and as a general rule do not go on to be college educated. Men get even less in secular studies because of their obligation to Torah Studies. As a result, my brothers speak very little English before adulthood, even though they are native New Yorkers. They then find employment within the community and improve their English language and computer skills on the job. My father has some forty years experience working in the secular world and still speaks in a very broken English.

4. A factor that decreases poverty: The economy is helped by the community’s special needs. The community needs special food, clothing, education, entertainment in order to be appropriate to its religious teachings. We therefore see a lot of people buying and selling within the community. People also prefer contracting within the community because of trust when working with people “of their own”.

5. A factor that decreases poverty: being poor means you qualify for government funding by way of tax refunds, food stamps, Medicaid. I believe this kind of income is not taken into account when calculating the net income in a community, which means the numbers don’t reflect significant income.

6. A factor that decreases poverty: Because men don’t go to college, they start their “careers” at about twenty years old, a year or so after they get married. That’s a head start over their secular counterparts. Men are also extremely ambitious – being well off is important to everyone – and work very hard.

7. A factor that decreases poverty: men go to the synagogue three times a day. They spend a lot of time together and a lot of the conversation centers around jobs, investment opportunities, good credit cards, etc.

8. A factor that increases poverty: Women often stay home with the kids, so there is often only a single income. Talented and bright women often invest all their abilities in running a shmekedige home. While they may sell baked specialties, work on wigs or do other work from home, most bring in a sliver if nothing.

9. A factor that makes the narrative oversimplified: Many, many, many people in the community struggle and will readily tell you that the financial situation in the Hasidic community is coming to a head. Many will attribute their financial frustrations to their lack of proper education and job training. I do agree with the problems created by not even speaking English properly, and am myself glad to be giving my son a secular education, but this isn’t the whole story. On the flip side of this incomplete education is a benefit most in the secular world don’t have; a whole community serving as a most extensive, loyal economic network. Keep in mind also that many are struggling in the secular world as well, and there too there are unique challenges; ie – you start out with 40K in debt even if you work during your college years.

So is the community poor? I think yes, inasmuch as many communities that aren’t already wealthy are poor these days.

Are other Jewish communities better off? Probably. But it depends which ones. As you might see, each community is unique. Each economy is unique.

There’s been a lot in the news recently about how Hasidic women dress for swim. This comes amid a controversy in Williamsburg over if the Metropolitan Pool should offer hours especially for women, catering to Hasidic women who will not swim in a coed pool. Yesterday the city announced that it will keep the women’s hours, albeit only four instead of eight, which again fueled intrigue and conversation about unique Hasidic women’s swim tradition.

In its June 26, 2016 report, this is how the New York Times described the clothes of Hasidic women:

“Their swimming outfits would have been considered prudish even by the standards of 1922, when the pool was built. They swam in dresses, some with long sleeves. One paddled in thick black tights. Inside the locker room, wigs sat upside down on window ledges and benches while their owners swam with heads under ruffled swimming caps or knotted silk scarves.”

It may seem from the many comments about Hasidic women’s dress in pools that these women are all simply swimming in their house coats.

​In fact, Hasidic women habe their own swimwear, and it is called a shvimkleid. Yiddish for: swim dress.

This is what most Satmar Hasidic women wear to the pool.

​A shvimkleid is made of the type of material boy’s swimshirts are made of; a non-absorbant, quick to dry fabric. It has underpants sewn into it of the same fabric as the rest of the dress. With its shirt skirt and sleeves, it is not modest by Hasidic standards for wearing outside the home.

Why don’t Hasidic women wear bathing suits?

Because the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) believed that the bathing suit itself, as a garment that revealed so much of a woman’s body, was a “beged pritzah” a dress of impiety. In his letters he wrote that even if a woman wears a T-shirt over her bathing suit (which some women will do, especially from other Hasidic sects) she is still wearing that garment of impiety, and therefore sinning.

The answer to the bathing suit was the shvimkleid, which is worn by hundreds of girls flocking around in pools as we write this.

A Chikenpox outbreak among Hasidic children of Williamsburg had the NYC Department of Health launch an ad campaign in Yiddish newspapers to promote timely vaccination.

​Another NYC ad, by the Department of Emergency Management, promotes readiness in the event of a hurricane.

​Too bad the ad uses a Yiddish word for hurricane (הוראגאנען) that readers won’t understand, as contemporary Hasidic Yiddish uses the loanword “hurricane”.

#KnowYourZone indeed

Bike registrations are annually organized for Williamsburg Hassidic children by Shomrim, a Hasidic neighborhood safety patrol volunteer organization. At the registration drive, identification numbers are ingrained into children’s bikes and scooters and a registry of the IDs and andcorresponding owners’ information is kept by the NYPD to be used in the event of suspected bike theft, according to thus poster advising of today’s registration.

​h/t @WMSBG on Twitter