Kiryas Joel became a model for the other Hasidic groups that moved upstate. Many of the sects in Rockland County were transplanted, largely intact, from Eastern European villages—the Skverer in New Square from Skver in Ukraine, the Gerer in Monsey from Ger, Poland. The ideal of the shtetl was that it could establish a border around the Jewish world, shutting out the goyishe one. A 29-year-old musician named David Kiss, who grew up in the Gerer sect in Monsey but would leave to visit his divorced father on weekends, told me that each time he returned to yeshiva, his principal would interrogate him about whether he’d seen any television, as if it were an infection that might spread. Even Hasidic education reflects this divide: In many yeshivas, the morning is spent on Torah and Talmud, instructed by Hasidim, and then in the afternoon there are a couple hours of instruction in English and math, with separate teachers who are often not Jewish and not much respected. Naftuli Moster, a 26-year-old who grew up among the Belzer community in Borough Park and now runs a nonprofit devoted to modernizing Hasidic schools, says that in his own yeshiva, there was not a single secular class—not even English or math—taught after eighth grade. By the time he left the community, in his early twenties, he did not understand what the U.S. Constitution was.
And yet, there are things about the Hasidic world that even dissidents like Kiss and Moster miss. There is the rabbi’s tish, the weekly meal at which the whole community gathers. There is the exultant rush at the end of services, as the congregation runs together out into the world, and the insistence of the senior rabbis that religion ought to be, for the young Hasidim, an experience of joy. There is, most of all, the comfortable feeling the communities give of immersion and purpose. Some Hasidic acquaintances told me that whenever they encounter another Hasid in a secular environment, even if he is a stranger, they will greet him warmly and often share a meal. One way to understand this embrace is that life inside the Hasidic community has been, for those within it, rendered so complete that simply to see another Hasid is to enter it again, and to enter it is to move from the chimerical to the real.
Late one Thursday evening just before Passover, I drove down Spook Rock Road in Suffern to a food warehouse belonging to an organization called Tomche Shabbos. It was the only place with lights on in a dark industrial park. Inside, a highly ordered operation was under way. There were several hundred boxes on shelves, each meant to contain a week’s worth of food for an indigent Jewish family, and a couple dozen Orthodox and Hasidic volunteers were moving energetically among them, dispensing a designated amount of chicken, bread, eggs, and gefilte fish, the contents of each box tailored to the family’s size.
Every week, the charity’s co-director, Yakov Yosef Moskowitz, told me, between 400 and 500 families receive these packages; this week being Passover, the number had more than doubled. Moskowitz had arranged 76 delivery routes around the county, each carefully assigned to volunteer drivers from other shuls and other villages to preserve the recipients’ anonymity. Drivers were trained to turn off their lights and drop the boxes off silently, on the stoop, so the charity was unseen. Often, Moskowitz hears from wives whose husbands have no idea they are getting food, or husbands whose wives don’t know.
It is not simply that there is charity among the Hasidim, but that charity is the way the community runs. The Hasidic sects in Rockland county are poor, some of them extremely so. New Square has an annual per capita income of $6,570; 58 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. (Even in Monsey, larger and less isolated, the figure is 43 percent.) In kosher grocery stores, Moskowitz told me, the shopkeepers are accustomed to letting their customers accumulate large bills, running up the tab, trip after trip. “Of course they hope to pay it,” Moskowitz said. If they can’t, the shopkeeper will eventually call Moskowitz (or another charity, or a private individual) and present the assembled bills. Someone else will pay the debt, and when the customer appears the next week, her debts will be canceled, unmentioned.
It was nearly midnight when I left the Tomche Shabbos warehouse, and I saw some Hasidic politicians and school-board members whom I recognized still there, packing gefilte fish and chicken. Hasidim will often say that their community is the subject of enormous envy, despite its poverty and insularity. This is what they mean.