Brooklyn Fire That Killed Seven Opens Door to a Deeper Prejudice

by Nina Zade

On March 22nd, 2015, Gabriel Sassoon stood above seven small, wooden coffins containing the bodies of his children, ages 5-16, at the Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The coffins were to be driven to John F. Kennedy International Airport, and then flown to Jerusalem for burial on Monday. “My children, they were so pure,” said Sassoon during his broadcasted eulogy for the kids. “There’s only one way to survive this: It’s complete, utter, and total surrender,” he said in reference to his religious beliefs.

What officials are calling New York City’s deadliest fire in eight years claimed the lives of the seven Orthodox Jewish siblings on March 21st, 2015, and left Brooklyn’s large Haredi community shaken and grieving. The mother of the children and an older sibling were the only two survivors of the blaze that started in the early morning hours of the Sabbath.

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Mourners grieve for the seven Hasidic children killed in an accidental fire in Midwood

Attributed to a malfunctioned hot plate used by the Sassoon family in the observation of Shabbat, the tragedy has since stirred up talks of its cause, prevention, and moving forward. Critics of Shabbat practices blame observant Jews for the occurrence. Others use the fire as a means to propagate dangerous and age-old stereotypes of Orthodox Jews that infiltrate every sector of Jewish observance, and even secular Judaism.

Fire fighters believe that the Sassoons did not have any smoke detectors in their home, except for one in the basement. The family recently moved from Israel, where using smoke detectors is not as widely encouraged, and is a possible explanation for why there were not enough of them in the home. New York law says each floor in a house is required to have at least one smoke detector.

New York’s Jewish population – and its Orthodox one, is large and steadily growing. The 2012 New York Jewish Population study found that the area has 1.54 million Jews, and 32 percent or 492,800 of them consider themselves Orthodox. Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood has seen a thriving religious population since the 1980’s, and is home to some of the largest synagogues in the area.

This type of accident is not unheard of: in 2010, an 8-year-old boy was killed in a fire resulting from a malfunctioning hotplate on the holiday of Sukkot in Midwood. Three people were killed in fires resulting in traditional candle lighting in Williamsburg in 2000 and Borough Park in 2002.

But in the aftermath of this most recent tragedy, it seems that stereotypes are now being discussed and assigned more freely, often times grouping all Jews as one. Orthodox Jews have been called backwards or reckless, G-d obsessed, and too reliant on the Torah’s teachings. Connecting these labels with an accidental fire suggests that these events target those who are religious. Statistically speaking, Jews are not prone to such accidents such as an overheated hot plate, considering the number of fires attributed defective appliances or ovens left on for too long.

“Its interesting to note the Torah tells us that when it comes to safety or if someone’s life is in danger, no rules apply,” said Berel Bronstein, resident of Crown Heights and member of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. “If there’s eminent danger, the mitzvah (good deed) in that point in time is to break everything you would usually observe.”

Adds Bronstein: “Talking about fire safety is always a good thing anywhere you go. Its not just for the Jewish community. Any criticism that comes against the Orthodox or observant community for keeping the Sabbath is just unfair.”

Professor Lawrence Schiffman of New York University’s Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies agrees with Mr. Bronstein. “There’s a problem always when a terrible tragedy comes where you can end up in the position of blaming the victim. I think everybody, observant or not, should take precautionary measures about any electrical or fire-related object,” he said.

On a BuzzFeed article profiling the fire, user Jerome McCollom commented, “Looking to G-d at the time of the tragedy? It is because of a belief in a G-d that this happened at all! If there weren’t an absurd religious belief behind it, these kids would be alive. Religion killed these kids.” Joseph D. Stryffeler wrote that the fire proves “religion is the opiate of the people”.

In the comments section of a New York Times post about the fire on Facebook, Khadijah Darmame wrote, “It is time to think more about human safety than awkward religious beliefs… how can you leave a hot electric plate on in a civilized and rich family without making sure there is an alarm?” The assumption that the family did not have alarms because they were Jewish and “uncivilized” is seen here once again.

“Lets take sports, for example,” said Professor Schiffman. “There are sports injuries all the time. You don’t say sports killed the person. Or if someone is walking to church, and there’s an accident… they would be alive if they hadn’t gone to church. We have to be careful to not blame the activity itself. The number of people who observe these [Orthodox] laws without accidents is fairly large.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, writer for Haaretz and Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel, wrote that dislike for the Jewish population is secretly more commonplace than people know. “It seems to me that there is an amorphous, sort of default, resentment of Orthodox Jews and Jewish observance underlying much of enlightened society today,” he says. “It doesn’t generally express itself; that would be uncouth. But when an opportunity arises for it to bubble up and belch forth, it happily does so.”

Bronstein agrees. “As long as everything is peaceful and quiet, no one really says a word. When something does happen, like with the fire, they come out of the woodwork. Blame this, blame that… I definitely think there’s an opportunity there.”

Rabbi Alexander Kaller of the Chabad Jewish Center in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, also believes that tragedies such as this one generate discrimination. “Certain hate and prejudices resurface when things like this happen. More people are getting killed every single day in car accidents, but no one says don’t drive a car.”

Other academics in the field of Jewish study see talk of any backlash as nonsensical. Hasia Diner, also a professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History at New York University, disagrees with Rabbi Shafran’s opinion. “Absolutely not,” Professor Diner said. “De Blasio is bending over backwards right now to allow these ritual circumcisers to engage in a barbaric practice, which I think of as child endangerment.” Diner is referring to the practice of the Brit malah, in which a circumcision ceremony is performed on the eighth day of a male infant’s life. Stories have circulated of rabbis performing the ritual occasionally sucking the blood for the incision, sometimes ending in the death of the infant. “They’re engaged in a criminal act. Public officials bend over backwards to accommodate them, because in places like New York, they represent a very clear and distinctive voting bloc.”

Since the fire, several news outlets such as The New York Times, and even the Jewish publication The Forward have begun calling Shabbat practices “risky” and referring to them as a “deadly plague”. The Times published an article immediately after the fire about “concerns over a weekly ritual”, circulating the idea that observant Jews somehow engage in strange ceremonies that are unsafe. The New York Post wrote, “In the city’s Orthodox Jewish enclaves, Friday nights can be deadly.”

Those who call out the practice, such as J.J. Goldberg of The Forward, say that Shabbat safety is not discussed enough, and in this way Jews “lull [them]selves into apathy and neglect”. According to Goldberg, Orthodox Jews have a monopoly Sabbath observance, and therefore increase their risks of injury.

Critics of Orthodox Judaism often bring about the issue of Haredi males traveling on airplanes – the type of situation that almost always makes it onto the news. In the Haredi branch of Judaism, men are forbidden from sitting next to women who are not their wives. Some say that it is to avoid “temptation”, but on almost every occasion has proven to be non-negotiable. One suggested solution to such a problem is to make it easier for large groups to choose their own seating on planes, if the reasoning is over religious reasons. Others say that men with these concerns should be required to purchase the adjoining seats.

“I’m a Hasidic man,” said Bronstein. “I’ve traveled on airplanes and sat next to women many times, and I don’t make a show of it. There are so many different subtleties within the Hasidic community itself, and its wrong to think of these things as being commonplace. If its juicy, and it sounds good, there’s a story there and people jump on it.”

On April 9th, The New York Times reported varying accounts of passengers faced with the dilemma of switching seats to accommodate religious beliefs. Many reluctantly agree to move, but believe that this practice is “sexist”, and “confusing”. Adherents to Orthodox Judaism claim that such occurrences are rare and not entirely representative of the beliefs of all Hasidic men, yet more and more of these incidents are occurring as the Orthodox population is growing. Some Hasid follow the teachings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who stipulates that as long as there is no intent to seek sexual pleasure, there should be no issue for men and women to sit together. Rabbi Yehuda Mirsky believes that multiculturalism has created a society in which groups should be allowed to say, “you have to respect my values”.

Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, started a campaign urging women not to give up their seats.

A user named Stanley commented on the Times post, “Why not designated the row in the back of the plane (next to the bathrooms) as a “men only” section?”

Sally wrote in the comments section, “If there are men out there who are uncomfortable sitting next to a woman, then there is only one solution and a very simple one: stay home and don’t travel. Otherwise, be aware that when you step out into the world, the world does not exist to service you and your worldview, and humbly take your correct place in it.”

Renee from Cleveland wrote, “So if a religion says someone cannot sit next to a person of another race or sexual orientation, are we supposed to honor that? Why is sexism okay because of tradition?”

Jews who aren’t observant also find themselves segregated from the religious community. “I live in a Hasidic neighborhood. I have since I was ten,” said Katya Slepak, secular Jew and resident of Bushwick. “I think some of these families are very far removed from reality. They pop out a galaxy of children, and then they aren’t very present in their mothering and child-rearing. They’re like baby-making machines.”

Some of the criticism observant Jews face has manifested itself in violent acts. Hate crimes targeting Jews have been on the rise in the New York area in the past few years. Eighty-nine of the 224 hate crimes in NYC in 2014 were directed at people who were “identifiably” Jewish, with a 39 percent increase of all hate crimes compared to 60 total incidents in 2013. Across the entire state, 231 incidents were reported. Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of European Jewry found that 2014 was the worst year for anti-Jewish attacks since 2009, with 766 documented world-wide.

The attacks included 22 cases of assault, 72 cases of harassment, and 137 cases of vandalism. Prior to July of 2014, there were 8 monthly anti-Semitic attacks; that number has jumped to 18 in the months following.

In a pamphlet titled “Global Anti-Semitism: The New Threat”, the Anti-Defamation League wrote, “One of the most disturbing aspects of the new anti-Semitism is the demonization and delegitimization of Jews under the guise of criticism of Israel and Zionism.” The ADL mentions the use of classical stereotypes, conspiracy theories, and Holocaust analogies as part of this “new anti-Semitism”.

Experts believe that the Israeli military mission Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 has fueled many of the more recent attacks spilling over into 2015, an example of how a seemingly unrelated incident (such as the fire) is able to spark hate. Berel Bronstein believes that adopting anti-Israel beliefs can sometimes be the perfect cover for those who are actually anti-Semitic but can’t freely express it. “It’s a very fine line they’re treading there. What’s the motive?”

In August of 2014, Rabbi Joseph Raskin was shot while walking to Shabbat service in North Miami Beach in what police believed to be a hate crime. Two suspects were seen but not apprehended. In November, an “identifiably” Jewish man was beaten by three assailants who were overheard shouting racial epithets at a Brooklyn train station. In March of this year, Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg reported being shot at by paintball guns by unknown assailants on several different occasions.

The start of 2015 has seen elevated dangerous behavior toward Jews, both in the tri-State area and nationwide. In January, pro-Palestinian protestors stormed a New York City Council meeting discussing possible resolutions following the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Later that month, two swastikas were found spray painted on the walls and doorstep of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi at UC Davis, making it evident that college campuses are in danger as well.

“There’s a lot of prejudice against organized religion. You can’t deny that,” said Slepak. “There’s still this labeling of Jews.

In February, a Boise woman attacked her Jewish neighbor and stood on her neck until she admitted she believes in Jesus. That same week, over 30 homes were found covered with spray painted swastikas in Madison, Wisconsin. The spat of incidents prompted Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president for the New York Board of Rabbis, to comment that anti-Semitism has become “fashionable” again.

Professor Diner believes that most hate crimes toward Jews should be attributed to lone wolf perpetrators or small, unorganized bands. “In the range of problems that society faces, this is pretty minimal,” she said.

“At this moment in time, there are certain interests within the American Jewish community to say that anti-Semitism is high,” said Professor Diner, who argues that there is a certain communal rhetoric stressing the dangers of anti-Jewish views that is really intended to instill fear in the Jewish population. “I think right now that that rhetoric comes primarily from the pro-Israel side that for one want to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Many Jews are critics of Israel and certainly can’t be accused of being anti-Semitic… the usual answer is that those Jews who are critical of Israel are either self-hating, or they’re duped.”

Diner believes this signifies that political influences are at work.

“There are organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee who thrive on freaking out the Jewish public, and therefore are able to say ‘send us money’,” said Diner. “Its not Germany, circa 1938. Show me someplace in American society where Jews are either by formal social government policy or even informal social policy denied access.”

Stereotypical ideologies have been spreading in one sphere that can be considered the most pervasive: the realm of social media. A writer for The Daily Banter, a news and opinion site founded by Ben Cohen, wrote that it was time to start arresting Jewish men who held up airplane flights, referring to them only as ultra-Orthodox, considered a derogatory term to observant Jews. Luciano refers to the seat refusal as an “asinine display” that it far too extreme, refers to the Haredi men as “sexist troglodytes”, and states that their beliefs are blatantly stupid and that Haredim are disproportionately reliant on welfare payments from the government.

Cyber messages such as these have shown to find a way of spilling over into universities and even high schools. A student group in South Africa called for all Jews to leave the Durban University of Technology earlier in February of this year, yet more and more incidents are being talked about on American soil.

The National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students found that 54 percent of Jewish students in U.S. colleges experienced some form of anti-Semitism throughout the 2013-2014 academic school year.

In March, Rachel Beyda, a Jewish student studying at UCLA was initially turned down from a student government position when questions were raised about her ability to be impartial because of her faith. The Student Council’s Judicial Board asked her, “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” This suggestion of “divided loyalties” has been one of the tropes that have afflicted Jews for centuries.

“This is our next generation. This is our youth, our future leaders,” said Rabbi Kaller. He argues that in the name of liberal values and free speech, students are treading a fine line between bigotry and concern.

Diner believes that in a way, young Jews have brought this upon themselves. “I think we have a real problem because most Jewish communal institutions, including Hillel, which Rachel Beyda was involved with, have made support for Israel central to their mission,” she said. “In a sense, the Jewish community has done this to itself. We’ve created a kind of reality where Israel has become a kind of stand-in for being a Jew. I may not think that the student should have been asked that, but it’s not utterly ridiculous.”

On April 15th, 2015, two high school students from Commack, New York were photographed wearing t-shirts emblazoned with anti-Semitic messages. The red shirts sported large black swastikas and the words “Aushwitz” and “hit the showers”.

For the Orthodox community, the blaze set off warning bells all across the country to practice better fire safety. Central Ohio’s large observant population began fire proofing right as the news broke of the fire, and many threw away their own hotplates, some of which were described as being held together with duct tape. Religion News Service reported that many Jews have actually admitted to leaving the house while candles were burning and hot plates were turned on.

“This definitely shook everybody all over the country. The Jewish community everywhere felt the sorrow and the pain,” said Rabbi Kaller.

The immediate aftermath in New York was reported to be a rush of smoke detector purchases by Jews hoping to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, especially on the holiest day of the week. The owner of Buzz electronics, Shmuley Kresch, says he ran out of smoke detectors in the days following the tragedy due to such high demand.

Midwood Public High School led a lecture on fire safety on March 24th. Several mothers in the neighborhood have developed post-traumatic symptoms in identifying with what Ms. Sassoon has gone through and have received help OHEL Children and Family Services. Well-known Rabbi Edgar Gluck from Borough Park offered counseling services to those in need.

“When I first heard about the fire… it was heartbreaking. Just a nightmare,” said Mr. Bronstein’s wife, Dina. “To be able to visualize this family, with voices… and then the next week as we were eating our meal, I was just thinking about how just one week ago, those seven children were sitting around with their mother. They went to bed innocently. But who could figure out G-d’s ways?”

At the fire safety lecture, Rabbi David Goldwasser spoke and said that G-d always has a plan, and “we can hold onto the faith that binds us together”. The main goal is to move one with knowledge, growth, and a stronger bond among members of the community.

In a Chabad newsletter titled “Why do Jews always get noticed?” Aron Moss wrote, “Jews share a spiritual bond with each other. No Jew is merely an individual. We are a collective soul, a part of something bigger than ourselves. We may be a tiny blip on the census, but we don’t function according to normal demographic principles. Our strength is not measured by our numbers, but by our unity.”

Moss believes that the destiny of the Jewish people is to be “a strong voice of goodness and morality among the family of nations”.

 Rabbi Kaller pushes for unity. “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. The last three millenniums have proven this to us. All we can do is be in this together.”

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