The latest news from the holy land is bleak. Once cited as a model example of Covid-19 suppression, Israel is now suffering from one of the world’s worst second waves. Yet another country faced with the awful choice between plague, on the one hand, and economic collapse and nationwide house arrest, on the other, looks like it is going to end up getting both. Blame is flying around, but a large proportion of it is, not for the first time, finding its way to the Charedi population. Nor is the association between Charedim and Coronavirus an exclusively Israeli phenomenon. Boro Park and Williamsburg have been widely pointed to as epicentres of Coronavirus in the United States, and their Charedi denizens blamed for endangering themselves and others. Much has been written in attempted exoneration of the global Charedi community, pointing out where critiques have been uncharitable, unfair and, sometimes, simply inaccurate. What no-one can say with a straight face, however, is that the Charedi reaction to the threat of Covid-19 has been an example to others or something that we can be proud of.
That is except for one shining exception: Antwerp. Belgium, by some measures, stands as the country with the worst Coronavirus outbreak in the world and, in late March, observers were predicting that Antwerp’s Jewish community would suffer hundreds of deaths, if not more. By June, however, it was clear that the opposite had happened and that the Charedi community had emerged almost unscathed. The reasons for this are of course many and complex, but what is beyond doubt is that a key role was played by the community’s Mara D’asra, Rav Aaron Schiff. Not only did his early and decisive action save lives, it also gave ordinary Charedim a rare feeling that things were under control, that they had leaders who could guide them through the storm.
Rav Schiff’s videos went viral on Charedi Whatsapp groups around the world. One factor in their popularity was simply practical; many Charedim had been looking in vain for reliable guidance that was relevant to their lives: instructions for what to do about shul and mikvah that allowed us to do something more than making diyukkim on vague comments reportedly uttered by gedolim. I believe, however, that there was something deeper going on. Charedim were looking for the experience of being led.
That last sentence might seem paradoxical to some readers. Isn’t being Charedi all about giving up one’s individuality and following the daas Torah of leaders? That’s the theory, but in reality, much, perhaps most, of the Charedi world suffers not from an excess of leadership, but a deficit. It’s certainly possible to find examples of real leadership in the Charedi world. In England, we look at the tenure of Rav Zimmerman at Gateshead, where he found a community in demographic decline and revitalised it with a bold, coherent plan, not to mention his decisive intervention that put Todros Grynhaus behind bars. However, most of us live in communities that are effectively anarchies.
Let us look, for example, at how things work in my own Stamford Hill, Europe’s largest Charedi kehila. Most of the community’s shuls, schools, mikvahs and other religious institutions belong to local franchises of global Chassidic courts. These international organisations are capable of setting rules and standards for their own institutions and members, they tell you which seforim to learn, what songs to sing, and how to wear your socks. What they cannot do, however, is exercise leadership on issues that are local and transcend sectoral lines. Individuals have leadership, including from some of the most talented and charismatic political organisers anywhere in the world, but Stamford Hill doesn’t. Our local Rabbonim command respect, and rightfully so; we go to them for sheilos and often personal advice too. Leadership, however, is something else, it’s about setting a vision and marshalling resources to achieve it.
For that, officially, we have The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. This organisation can, it is true, exercise real power in certain areas. That’s why there is not a single Kosher butcher in Stamford Hill that sells anything other than Kedassia and why it’s the last large frum community to get an eruv. But its power lies solely in its ability to arrest change. What is the Union’s vision for the future and how does it plan to implement it? If there is one, no-one’s heard about it.
Because of our sectarian diversity, the only kind of leadership that could possibly galvanise the whole community is of the lay variety. In theory, Charedi Judaism is defined by lay submission to Rabbinic authority, but there is at least one excellent historical precedent for this kind of leadership. The Agudas Yisrael of pre-war Eastern Europe gives us a model of Charedi lay leadership that revolutionised Jewish life in Poland and was, arguably, responsible for saving orthodox Judaism from extinction. The modern-day Agudas Yisrael in the UK, however, is a benevolent organisation that runs valuable outreach and educational programmes but is in no position to exercise communal leadership and, to its credit, doesn’t pretend to be.
In Stamford Hill, we have nothing like the pre-war Agudah, but the only remotely similar entity is Interlink, which began as an umbrella body for charities and, through its hard-earned reputation for competence, has become the go-to organisation by default whenever community-wide problems arise. However, while Interlink is certainly capable, and forms a kind of leadership in waiting, it still lacks an official mandate and remains subservient to the Union, which alternately employs and undermines it as convenience dictates.
Having surveyed all the candidates, then, we lack any kind of organisation or figure that can plausibly act on our collective behalf or implement rules across the community for our common benefit. We have a surplus of symbolic leadership, but for practical purposes, we might as well turn to the portraits of Rabbonim that adorn our walls.
At this point, you might say “so what?”. On a day to day basis, the normal institutions of community life can carry on perfectly fine without any centralised authority. We don’t need a leader for Bikur Cholim or Agudah Housing to do their thing. For the stuff that really does require centralised authority, we can let the state get on with it; unlike pre-war Jewish communities in Eastern Europe we’re not independent entities with powers of tax collection, law enforcement or rubbish collection and we’re OK with that. Everything ticks over well enough and there’s an added benefit for certain free spirits: as long as they’re willing to forego the privileges that go with paid-up membership of a specific Chassidus, they enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom.
The problem with having no leadership, however, is that ticking over is the only thing you can do. Proactively organising to face looming challenges, address structural decay, or make sustainable improvements to the community is something we just can’t do. When each new problem comes our way, all we can do is moan and hope that one of our behind-the-scenes askanim can negotiate a half-baked, half-spun concession on our behalf. We’ve been this way for so long that we struggle to describe what it would look like to have ambitious leadership with a vision and the capacity to implement it.
Everyone in Stamford Hill knows we have problems. Education for boys remains chronically poor while the government continues to insist we teach boys and girls about sexual relationships. Unregistered schools are in the firing line, potentially criminalising most parents in the community. Finding a livable flat for a halfway reasonable price becomes harder and harder. School boards are populated by petty tyrants who humiliate prospective parents for their private amusement and random zealots can set themselves up as community spokesman through sheer assertion.
The truth though is that these problems have one solution: leadership. What exactly Charedi leadership in the 21st century will look like and how it will be constructed is as yet unknown. It may come out of existing organisations, but it might require forming entirely new ones. What I do know is that leadership will never arise until there is a clear public demand for it. The first step to getting what we need is recognising what it is that we lack.