Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about Bill de Blasio and ultra-Orthodox political currency.
*Interview conducted on May 4, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Bill de Blasio, Mayor of the “Big Apple,” what is the case with some of the Orthodox Hasidic community and the change in tone over the last week with him?
Jonathan Engel: He finally took a stand on something. The ultra-Orthodox community in New York City concentrated in Brooklyn has, historically, had a lot of political power because they are a powerful voting bloc. They tend to be a powerful voting group and vote as a bloc. The top rabbis will say, “This is who I am supporting.” The congregations will go out and vote for them. The politicians will court them, “If you can get the rabbi to say you’re the guy, then you’ve got the bloc.” De Blasio has been different than his predecessor Bloomberg. He has really bent over backwards. I will give some quick examples of him not doing what he should have done. With the ritual, believe or not, of the bris, Jewish boys are born. There is a ceremony involving the circumcision. So very few, but some ultra-Orthodox, part of the ceremony, it is going to sound weird, because it sounds weird to me. And I grew up Reformed Jewish. The mohel, the guy who does the circumcision puts his lips to the penis to suck out some of the blood. It is weird. Yes, okay, it also raises the chances of the mohel passing herpes to the child if the mohel has herpes. It can lead to devastating effects, including death.
So, when Bloomberg was mayor, the Department of Health issued an edict, “You cannot do this.” A small amount of Hasidic people were up in arms. De Blasio says, “Okay, we’re going to give you advice not to do it. We won’t issue an order, but just advice.” It’s like, “Man, you are putting the public health over this. You are putting the health of small children at risk over this.”
Jacobsen: The elephant in the room is a religious practice, a religious cultural practice.
Engel: That’s right. Another example is in the Department of Education with ultra-Orthodox kids raised in religious schools called yeshivas. There have been reports. I have heard it from people who graduated from yeshivas. A woman said that she graduated and could barely do high school mathematics and science. All she was taught was about religion.
Jacobsen: I have heard from friends who left.
Engel: Yeah! The state education department, there are some things for every private school, whether religious or not. You still have to follow state guidelines. When reports were coming out, de Blasio was supposed to have the city Department of Education investigate. He really, really dragged his feet. It was left to the state education department to do real legwork to get this stuff done. With that kind of background with Bill de Blasio, I was pleased that he took a different track on a similar issue. It was a senior rabbi who died. When a senior rabbi dies, it is a big deal. They are attended by hundreds and thousands of people with streets blocked off. During the pandemic, you can’t do that. People did organize the funeral to try to make it so people would social distance. They lost control of it. So, you had a whole bunch of people mostly not wearing masks crowded shoulder to shoulder. De Blasio, this time, said, “I cannot allow this. We’ve got thousands and thousands of people dying in New York City.” He said, “Enough,” and sent in the police to break it up. The Police Commissioner was upset by the whole thing. 10% of the police force was out recovering from coronavirus to risk their lives while trying to break this thing up. It’s been interesting.
Jacobsen: To a fair point question, are there any other religious or non-religious groups not only in Brooklyn but in New York state where this happened? A large gathering grounded in a belief system, religious or cultural, where there was required or a need for breaking it up.
Engel: Not that I know of, I am not going to say, “It hasn’t happened,” but not that I know. The churches and synagogues have been doing virtual stuff. This is a very small minority of Jews, even in New York City. Most Jews are not ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic. Jewish congregations are doing the same things as churches and mosques, which is holding their services online, doing virtual services, and so on. I have not heard of anything. One of the reasons for this being an interesting question is the Hasidic and non-Hasidic groups of being borderline anti-Semitic for doing this or for what he said afterwards, which, in my view, was really ridiculous. He said, ‘You can’t do this. I am not going to make some separate exemption for Jewish people. You can’t do this.’ Some said, ‘Oh! You lumped all Jewish people together. We are only a small group.’ De Blasio said, ‘No, I didn’t!’ He’s right in this case. I am attuned to anti-Semitism. I can tell you, “This wasn’t it.”
Jacobsen: In the United Kingdom, mostly women running this particular campaign, but it’s also some men too. All are mostly around the identity of former Muslims. They have the campaign One Law for All. They have the issue around separate Islamic courts in the U.K., which creates a secular law for all, as per standard issue of the legal system, and then a distinct secondary legal system based on some interpretations of “religious law.” I believe the same campaign spirit of interpretation can be applied to New York. It is one country, one state. It’s one law for all. If you exclude yourself, then you are considering yourself above the law as a religio-cultural group.
Engel: It is fascinating. If you applied that to the United States, we have freedom of religion, but there are restrictions on it. This is coming up mostly in the most religious parts of the country, like in Brooklyn in Borough Park where Hasidic Jews dominate the area. But some states in the South in the United States; you have some Christian denominations that are larger swathes of those states. You have some pushback by some people saying that they want to hold a service. There was one guy named Tony Spell in Louisiana, who has been under house arrest!
Engel: Because he has been telling congregates to “come on out!” It is a very interesting thing, in my view, because a lot of this comes down to “How much do you really believe this stuff?” I supposed: if you are really a true believer, why not come out?! “Jesus and God will protect me.” We are hearing this all the time here. “God will protect me, and us. Why shouldn’t we go into church and have our services?”
Jacobsen: If God is always open for business, why the need to close the buildings?
Engel: That’s a good question.
Engel: “If they go out, they’re only risking their own lives.” Yeah, but they are going to go home and go to the store! If only adults of age could go there and only risk their own lives, I still wouldn’t like it. But that’s the problem. Because you’re risking a lot of people’s lives when you do that, including hospital workers and medical workers. They are already overwhelmed. If you get sick, then you will want them to treat you, right? We have a First Amendment, which allows freedom of religion. Yes, we do. It does allow freedom of religion. There are always limits. In a national emergency, that’s when you see real limits nationally. In our country, it is a very religious country in spots. You are seeing people saying, “Our freedom of religion says…” or similar to what you say about Sharia, “I answer to a higher authority than the civil, secular law.” The problem is, you get to pick the authority and what it says – don’t you? If it says to kill someone, are we supposed to follow that too? No, you can worship in synagogues and mosques, but not many follow the law. Once again, your right to believe in your religion ends when my health is involved. Your right to swing your arm around ends at my nose.
Jacobsen: Jon, thanks as always.
Engel: Okay, and thank you too, Scott, and stay healthy!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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