South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just blocks from the hipster epicenter of Bedford Avenue, is home to one of the most conservative, separatist communities in the country: Satmar Hasidim, an ultra-orthodox arm of Judaism.
It’s a famously insular group. But lately, a rogue group within the Satmar community has been making noise. Calling themselves a “modesty committee,” its members, all men, keep tabs on the behavior of community members, teachers, and store owners to make sure that they adhere to principles of modesty. One result? Stores selling women’s clothes now rarely use mannequins in displays, which might arouse men and boys who pass by. Instead, clothes and wigs are modeled on faceless heads. Other, more disturbing allegations against these committees include reporting unseemly behavior such as talking on the phone to a member of the opposite sex, confiscating technology, and bribing men who have been caught having affairs. A “modesty squad” also played a key role in the case of Nechemya Weberman, who was recently sentenced to 103 years in jail for sexual abuse of a minor.
What do Jewish people within and without the community think of the modesty committees?
- “They operate like the Mafia,” says Rabbi Allan Nadler, director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
- “[T]here are a lot of independent operators that believe they are protecting God and have to do this kind of stuff, and that’s sickening and gives us all a black eye,” says Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn.
- “There are quite a few men, especially in Williamsburg, who consider themselves [God's police],” said Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic journalist. “Zealots who take it upon themselves and they just enforce. They’re considered crazy, but people don’t want to confront them.”