A Display of Disapproval That Turned Menacing

The New York Times/December 16, 2007

Kiryas Joel, New York -- It was late one night over the summer when the Greenberg family was frightened by a menacing phone call. Then came threats, and then vandalized cars. As the days turned into weeks and the police canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on doors and interviewing potential witnesses, they were met with silence.

This was not the troubled streets of the city, nor were the witnesses fearful of gang retribution. Rather, this was Orange County, and the victims a husband and wife who are members of the Hasidic sect known as Satmars - said they were being harassed by those in their own insular world here.

The woman, Toby Greenberg, told the police that the root of the harassment was her decision to deviate slightly from the culture of modesty that defines and reinforces this Orthodox Jewish enclave of bewigged women in long-sleeved shirts and ankle-length skirts and bearded men in black hats and long black coats.

According to the police, Mrs. Greenberg said she was singled out because she chose to wear denim skirts, long, natural-looking wigs made of human hair, and stockings without a visible seam - traditionally worn because they show that women's legs are not bare.

The incidents offered a rare glimpse into the strict social dynamics that govern life in this village of 20,000 people, an hour from Manhattan and not far from West Point. It is a place where television and the Internet are forbidden and women do not drive, restrictions intended to provide a haven from the temptations of the outside world.

Occasionally someone defies the social mores - whether it is a young man frequenting bars in the nearby village of Monroe or a woman dressing inappropriately or flirting. That is when the "vaad hatznius," the rabbinically appointed modesty committee that enforces the village's rules of behavior and appearance, intervenes.

"If we find they have a TV or a married woman won't wear a wig, we will invite them to speak with us and try to convince them it's unacceptable, or next year we will not accept their children into the school system," said David Ekstein, the vice president of the village's leading congregation, Yetev Lev, and one of eight men who make up the committee, hand-picked by Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the town's spiritual leader.

Mr. Ekstein, 62, the president of an insurance company, said that the committee was widely respected for its role in protecting the community, especially children. "There has to be some kind of watchdog," he said. "But do we have any real power? We're not a government."

In the case of Mrs. Greenberg, he insisted, "This had nothing to do with the vaad or the community." He called the harassment a "chilul hashem," a desecration of God's name.

But weeks after the incidents began, the New York State Police started to investigate the case of Mrs. Greenberg, the 25-year-old mother of a young daughter, and her husband, Yoel, who accused the vaad hatznius of orchestrating the harassment. According to the police, leaflets calling the couple immoral and threatening them with expulsion were scattered in the streets and delivered to their home.

In September, the tires of their Chevrolet Impala were slashed and the warning "Get out, defiled person" was slathered in Yiddish in white paint on a window of their Mazda CX-7. That was when Mrs. Greenberg approached the authorities - a rare move in a community that is loath to attract attention from secular law enforcement.

Hella Winston, the author of "Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels," said that it was not uncommon for women who defy their strictly codified role in such communities to become targets.

Ms. Winston, an assistant professor of sociology at Queens College, said that because these sects can not legally discipline nonconformists, they must resort to public shaming. "Their power is in fear and intimidation," she said, though "blacklisting children from schools can at times cross the line into threats and violence."

The efforts to silence the Greenbergs appear to have worked. Reached at her home, Mrs. Greenberg, with worry in her voice, declined to comment.

Kiryas Joel is no stranger to social discord and outbursts of violence. Since its inception in the 1970s, residents considered to be flouting the village's stringent rules have been victims of vandalism, beatings and arson, as well as expulsion.

A decade ago, a faction of the town's Satmars sued its rivals in federal court for religious persecution and intimidation. The dissidents claimed they had been assaulted, their cars set on fire and the windows in their homes smashed because they were defying the authorities chosen by Rabbi Teitelbaum. The two sides reconciled only so that Rabbi Teitelbaum would not have to take the witness stand.

On a recent day, villagers on the main commercial street here condemned the vigilantes and the harassment, although they also voiced disapproval of Mrs. Greenberg's actions.

"People are hot-blooded. They see her on the street and have asked her nicely to stop wearing tight-fitted clothing, but she wouldn't listen," said a woman working at Kiryas Joel Shoes, who identified herself only as Sarah. "If she had behaved as she does inside the four walls of her house, it would have been fine, but on the street is different. She turned it into a dirty public thing."

And although Sarah, a mother of 11 children, did not condone any efforts to drive the Greenbergs from the community, she said: "They're not after you if you go off a little bit. You really have to do something to bring shame."

After two months of fruitless inquiries, the police closed the investigation last month. "Pick any ethnic group and people are suspicious at times," said Sgt. Warner Hein of the State Police. "They don't want to be seen as cooperating, even at the expense of tragedies in their own community."

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