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Friday, 29 August 2014

Samford Hill: Two rivals Hasidic gangs the ‘SS’ –Stamford Soldiers’ and the “KT’s” – ‘Kaiser Thieves’

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Gang warfare with a twist
Sadly for the weary residents in the London borough of Hackney, youth gangs are a depressingly constant scourge of life in one of the country’s most deprived areas. Despite a robust campaign administered through a concerted effort of ministers and community leaders – and one which included another gun and knife amnesty – all efforts have dismally proved futile.   The assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Sir Alasdair Brinely, was compelled to confirm the worryingly sharp increase in gang activity in recent years as anecdotal tales were soon surpassed by mounting concrete evidence. The disturbing trends in the growth of youth gangs in some major cities and towns have alarmed politicians and the nation alike, with calls for even more stringent measures to extinguish the escalating violence. Unfortunately, because gang violence is such a perennial hazard for society they rarely warrant front page news. However, there is something shockingly unusual about the latest crop of youth gangs that have proliferated in the fertile ground of Hackney and are sending shockwaves throughout the nation.

Typically, gangs manifest their own unique signature dress code which invariably involve hoods and trainers and some inimitable feature, such as the thick brightly colored rubber bands worn below the knees that denote hierarchy in the  ‘BOB’S’ – the Band of Brothers – a notorious Sheffield based outfit that has terrorized the city for the past five years. Indeed, the gangs that have emerged from Hackney, particularly from Clapton, too have their own distinctive sartorial style which appears rather incongruous to the eye. Rather than blandly imitating the latest fashion trend, these gangs have opted for a more ‘traditional’ and unquestioningly conservative image: a plain black coat and trousers, a plain black fedora hat complete with the obligatory twirls. And not through preference have they chosen their distinguishing attire but rather through strict observance of their orthodox, Hasidic strand of Judaism! Incredible though it may sound, these new youth gangs that have emerged from Clapton are composed of authentic Hasidic Jewish youths.

When news of Hasidic youth gangs marauding on the mean streets of Clapton and surrounding neighborhoods first began to circulate, they were met with utter disbelief and contempt from the Jewish communities and anti-racist campaigners.  The local synagogue based in Stamford Hill, issued a vociferous denial in a statement posted on their website, denouncing the rumors as ‘malicious’,  ‘scandalous’ and ‘a vicious affront to vilify us one again”. Even when the first grainy image captured on CCTV appeared, that showed a couple of seemingly solemn looking Hasidic youths smashing the window of a local corner shop; it was dismissed as a ferocious hoax. Indeed, there was an air of stupendous surrealism in watching these images that seem ludicrously out of kilter with expectations of reality, and which gives proof to that seemingly strange scientific axiom that given enough time, anything is possible. Regrettably, a proliferation of images soon appeared that could no longer be denied by either the Jewish community or the police who too were initially dismissive. One particular image captured by a middle-aged couple on their mobile phones as they cowered behind their cars caused a sensation when first broadcast on the internet and then on local news channels.  The couple, who have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, had just left the local leisure centre when they heard an almighty crash coming from nearby. With great trepidation they walked towards where the noise was coming from, the parking lot of a recently closed down pet shop, where they were met with an astonishing sight – a dozen or so Hasidic youths dressed in their traditional  attire but viciously hurling bottles and punches and wielding knives.

Stunned by the surreal sight before them and increasingly frightened by the ferocity of the violence witnessed by their very eyes; nonetheless, they were calmly determined to carry out their civic duty and started to record the scenes while they waited for the police to arrive. The local police have since confirmed that the fight was between two rivals Hasidic gangs who have dubbed themselves the ‘SS’ –Stamford Soldiers’ and the “KT’s” – ‘Kaiser Thieves’ over disputed territorial claims. Furthermore, an experienced police officer, who wishes to remain anonymous, has also confirmed that they had been aware of the emergence of these Hasidic gangs  ‘for some time now’ but were ‘warned to keep this out of the public domain’ for fear of stirring racial tensions.
The sight of the traditionally attired Hasidic youths engaged in mindless criminality including robbery and drug dealing, does appear initially farcical.  However, there was nothing funny for Natalie Clarkson, a 26yrold  local Clapton resident,  who was mugged by a couple members of the increasingly notorious ‘SS’ as she walked home from work one late afternoon. It started out as an ordinary day for Natalie after finishing work at the local council where she is employed as ‘cohesive community advisor’.  She was stunned when a trio of the gang suddenly appeared from nowhere and surrounded her as she reached the corner of her street; still visibly shaken by her traumatic ordeal and fighting back tears, Natalie recounts that fateful day:
“At first I wasn’t scared…I mean I had heard the rumours of these so- called Jewish gangs, but to tell you the truth I didn’t believe it.  I mean… I know there are lots of racists, you know …anti-Semitic people round here, so when I walked passed them and they just look like your normal orthodox type, I wasn’t scared at all. But then as soon as I walked past, they all stood up and surrounded me very quickly, and demanded that I give him my money… at first I was stunned and thought that perhaps it was just a prank, but then one of them pulled out a knife and immediately, I remembered the stories I’d heard… Two of them grabbed my bag; I didn’t fight back- I thought I was going to die.

Unlike many other victims of these gangs, Natalie was fortunate in that she was not physically harmed, but she is still reeling from the psychological trauma of her ordeal. After carrying out their cowardly attack, these young thugs nonchalantly sauntered away whilst still sniggering and hurling misogynist abuse at her as she stood paralyzed through fear. Weeks after the event, Natalie is still too afraid to venture outside unaccompanied:
“I’m still in shock, I mean you always got to watch your back living in a place like Hackney, but usually you can identify the kinds of people that will probably mug you or worse, but those orthodox Jews, I mean, they’re not the kind of people that normally do this type of thing..I still can’t believe it myself…it was like you were transported to a parallel universe or something like that. What is the world coming to?

Natalie’s ordeal and her expression of shock and disbelief over the seemingly fantastical notion of Hasidic Jewish youth gangs is echoed by many – Jewish and non Jewish alike-  who are astounded by the recent developments in Hackney. The incredulous news about Hasidic youth gangs first circulated in and around Hackney, specifically the area of Stamford Hill where there is a large and visible presence of the long standing Hasidic community. Those aforementioned footages accompanied by witness reports, and by victims accounts have gradually began to spread through to the national press. The coverage has even reached a perplexed global audience. The impact on the wider Jewish communities in Britain has been particularly traumatic and distressful, with many distinguished Jewish figures engaged in often heated and frustrating debates as to the causes of these appalling crimes that have ensnared their youth.

A prominent member of the Stamford synagogue, Dr Mikhail Karshan, shakes his head visibly and mirrors the sadness of the local Hasidic community and even optimistically vows to ‘work strenuously without cease with families, schools and other agencies to break down this cycle of violence before it becomes endemic’, adding:
this is unbelievable what is happening, we have always bought our children to be respectful and obedient, but now it seems that we are losing control, there is so much peer pressure that it is difficult to stand out as different from the norm, so they start behaving as other young people around here
Pointing out the devastating impact of the recent recession on youth unemployment, and the frightening loss of jobs impending, Dr Karshan laments the lack of employment opportunities for young people as well as the closures of youth clubs in recent times:
“It’s hard for the young people these days, there is simply no work for them, and there is nowhere for them to go, of course boredom is going to cause them to find some outlet for their frustrations. Of course I’m not excusing these thugs, but it is very hard for young people these days’ and urges the local community “we must work together, and not just the Jewish communities but all members of the community here in Hackney”

As the descendent of Polish Jews that fled from Nazi Germany, Dr Karshan is sadly all too familiar with experiences of anti-Semitic racism and acknowledges that ‘this is very bad for our people’.  And with depressing accuracy, racial tensions have indeed manifested. The disturbing developments in youth gangs have perhaps, unsurprisingly, ratcheted up the racial tensions which have always been skimming under the surfaces in this hugely diverse community. Already ‘retaliations’ against Jewish business have already started, with a kosher butcher store vandalized during a busy Thursday afternoon whilst people uncaringly walked by; and even more disturbingly, an innocent Hasidic schoolboy was ambushed as he walked home and beaten severely by a group of his fellow schoolmates hurling anti-Semitic abuse.

Tensions have certainly reached fever pitch in this troubled borough as hearsay, half-truths and truths spread like the proverbial wildfire. There is a visible and heavy police presence around certain hotspots and the local police have already installed a curfew to prevent gangs congregating to exact retribution. The police chief has strongly urged residents to stay ‘calm’ and warned both the gangs and those thinking of so- called ‘revenge attacks’  of severe penalties and urged community leaders on all sides to ‘open a dialogue to combat this living nightmare as soon as humanely possible’.  Natalie Clarkson understands, and emphasizes the growing hostility towards the Jewish communities, warning ominously:
It’s terrible, I mean, my job is to ensure there is understanding of different cultural needs and to help people of different ethnic and cultural groups work together, but after what happened to me…I can’t help being afraid of those Jews and I… can’t help it but… I do find them all quite sinister now, in their identical clothing and funny hair.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Seminary Scandal: Here we go Again !! Letter from American Gedolim


A letter signed by American gedolim - including Rav Levin from Telz of Chicago, Rav Aharon Feldman of Yeshiva Ner Yisroel, Rav Aharaon Schecter of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, Rav Malkiel Kotler or Lakewood and Rav Yaakov Perlow - praises the four seminaries which were acquired by Yaakov Yarmish from Meisels. They express their clear approval of the new spiritual managment that will be closely supervising these seminaries. Certainly sounds that they do not agree with the psak of the Chicago Beis Din!

Chicago Tribune: Ultra-Orthodox rabbi accused in sex assault suit


A Federal lawsuit alleging that an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who runs seminaries for girls in Israel is a sexual predator offers a rare look into the most traditional branch of Judaism, where a young woman's religious education can prove key to finding a good husband through a matchmaker.
The allegations raised in the lawsuit, filed this month in Chicago, have already been brought before rabbinical courts in Chicago and Israel. The courts —known as beis din — came to contradictory decisions on the accusations against Rabbi Elimelech Meisels.
The lawsuit was filed by parents of girls who want their tuition money back in light of allegations against Meisels. They say in the suit that the rabbi for 10 years recruited young women from Chicago and other cities to his seminaries in Israel "under the guise of educational and spiritual development."
Meisels is accused in the lawsuit of "developing mentor-mentee relationships with girls," taking them on late-night coffee meetings and sexually assaulting them. Meisels, who could not be reached for comment, does not face any criminal charges.
A few weeks before the suit was filed, a Chicago beis din heard the allegations against Meisels. The body ruled that, based on testimony (including from Meisels) and documents, it believed "students in these seminaries are at risk of harm and does not recommend that prospective students attend these seminaries at this time," according to the lawsuit.
Given the strictures of a religious prescription known as loshan hara (evil tongue), which forbids the ultra-Orthodox from speaking ill of anyone, parties to the lawsuit declined to talk about the matter, said Shneur Nathan, their attorney.
However, a parent who is not a party to the lawsuit agreed to talk about his experience with Meisels as long as his name was not used.
His daughter, a recent high school graduate, was scheduled to spend a year at one of four women's seminaries in Israel operated by Meisels. With a tuition of about $20,000, plus living expenses, sending her would deplete the family's savings and mean taking out loans. His wife volunteered to work extra hours.
But the two of them thought it worthwhile. For a girl in their community, a year at an Israeli seminary has become a sort of finishing-school experience; it separates childhood from the next stage of life, finding a husband and setting up her own observant household. As the lawsuit notes, for Orthodox Jewish girls a seminary experience in Israel "profoundly shapes and influences their marriage prospects."
hey learned of the Chicago beis din ruling against Meisels. When the man and his wife told their daughter why she wouldn't be going, the young woman was deeply upset, her father said.
Parents seeking refunds have been unable to get answers from administrators at the seminaries, according to the lawsuit. The named plaintiffs are seeking class-action status to cover damages, said Nathan, their attorney.
Meisels did not respond to an email request for comment or to a phone message left with the U.S. office of his seminaries.
Parents scrambling to find an alternative Israeli school for their daughters were further stymied when an Israeli rabbinical court issued its ruling on the case July 25 and sided with Meisels.
According to the Israeli rabbis, "there is no cause for concern" at Meisels' seminaries. In addition, the Israeli court said that "it is absolutely forbidden" for other seminaries to offer Meisels' prospective students the opportunity "to switch to their institutions."
If the federal lawsuit goes to trial, jurors will have to sift through claims and counterclaims connected to a lifestyle virtually unknown to outsiders, even to other Jews.
"The ultra-Orthodox are in the larger world, but not of the larger world," said Samuel Heilman, a professor at City University of New York, who has written extensively about the ultra-Orthodox.
In Hebrew, they're called haredim, "tremblers." The men have long beards, and ritual fringes trail out of their shirts; women wear ankle-length dresses and keep their hair covered after marriage. They live in strict obedience to 613 prescriptions — plus so many extrapolations made by ancient commentators, medieval rabbis and contemporary sages that it could take a lifetime to master the literature.
Not just rabbis, but all men who make that intellectual effort, command enormous respect in the ultra-Orthodox community.
"The social bonds of the ultra-Orthodox community are loshan hara, the seminary and the matchmaker," said Michael Salamon, a clinical psychologist with a practice near a largely ultra-Orthodox community outside New York City.
The matchmaker, called a shadchan, is necessary because of the strict separation of the sexes. So a third party has to introduce an eligible man to a suitable woman, a responsibility that's gotten harder lately,
"There's a crisis," said Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, a Chicago-area matchmaker. "There are more girls looking for husbands than boys looking for wives."
That demography, Salamon notes, puts a premium on polishing a young woman's credentials, if she is to be introduced to a pious and scholarly man. "Parents are convinced a daughter must go to the right seminary," he said.
The federal lawsuit quotes from Meisels' acceptance letter: "Your choice of our seminary ensures you the wonderful benefits of gaining from our marvelous faculty and staff as you prepare to build homes and lives that reflect the centrality of Torah."
Both supporters and detractors of Meisels agree that his is a charismatic personality. The lawsuit alleges that Meisels "threatened his victims that if they shared their story he would draw upon his vast contacts within the Shiduch system to ruin their reputations and ensure that no viable candidate would want to take their hand in marriage."
The accusations leveled against Meisels have sent shock waves through the ultra-Orthodox world. "The whole tapestry of their lives is tightly woven together," Heilman said. "So one thread coming loose threatens to unravel the whole thing."
The fact that the members of the community came forward could mark a turning point, said Nathan, the attorney who filed the civil case. There is even a chance that the question will be aired in open court because of a handful of parents who, by putting their names on a federal lawsuit, challenged loshan hara.