Flashback: Crown Heights Polarized Over Council Election

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Crown Heights- flashback- flash forward

Henry, Marilyn. Jerusalem Post December 11, 1994

A VOTE for the leaders of a local Jewish community board in Brooklyn became a “holy war” last month.

Despite the heated religious rhetoric and occasional references to the moshiach, this was – in theory – the most prosaic of elections, for the directors of a secular agency that serves the small neighborhood of Crown Heights, which is also the headquarters of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Instead, the tally has yet to be certified some three weeks after secret balloting in the Lubavitch community for directors for the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.

Roughly two-thirds of the nearly 4,000 people eligible actually participated in the voting, according to official estimates.

Rabbi Joseph Spielman, the long-time chairman, was re-elected to the council. However, he was not the top vote-getter on his victorious slate and will lose the title of chairman to Samuel Malamud, a stamp dealer and printer.

The new board of seven directors also includes several businessmen, a dentist and a law professor.

Spielman says his role in the council will not change, despite losing his title. “This is a friendly change of chairmanships,” he said. “We campaigned as a slate, not as rivals.”

“Friendly” is a word not usually associated with this election, which was ordered by the New York State Supreme Court. (Despite its grand name, the court is the lowest-ranking in the state court system. )

The court became involved when several members of the Lubavitch community, led by Mimi and Harold Furst, challenged the leadership of the council, an agency with a $1 million budget that oversees a wide variety of government-financed social welfare programs in the Brooklyn neighborhood.

The Fursts and their allies, who are called “dissidents” by some and “insurgents” by others, contended that the council was in violation of its by-laws for failing to hold elections every two years. The November 20 electionwas the first in eight years.

The dissidents, whose slate of candidates was overwhelmingly rejected, contend that the campaign and theelection were tainted by harassment and intimidation, both subtle and overt.

“I will be shocked if we don’t appeal,” said Saul Feder, whose firm, Regosin Edwards Stone & Feder, represented the Fursts in the New York court.

Enter the rabbis.

As the campaign was drawing to a close, a member of the Crown Heights rabbinic court endorsed the Spielman slate, a move Feder called “improper.” Before the election, the combatants for the council signed an agreement saying, in part, that the director of the community council, the Va’ad Hakahal and all employees, would not use undue influence or coercion in the campaign.

Members of the rabbinic court get a salary from – and are employees of – the Va’ad, Feder said.

If a religious court rabbi had been “standing on a street corner” while endorsing the Spielman slate, it would not have been welcome, but may have been permissible, Feder said. However, joining Spielman’s slate at a campaign event crossed the line.

“This is not a community where rabbis don’t count,” Feder said. “Only Jews can vote; only the Orthodox can run” as a candidate for the community council board.

“The fact that a rabbi deems something is not kosher, you don’t eat it,” said Mimi Furst, “and this was the same.”

Once the rabbis endorsed the slate, many in the community said, there was no free choice.

Yet despite what the dissidents called the compulsion, many people avoided the election, which the dissidents viewed as a silent sign of support. And some “400 brave souls” publicly voted for the dissident slate, Feder said.

The election was held at a Crown Heights yeshiva under the watchful eyes of Honest Ballot Association, which monitors union elections. “Teamsters’ election are a lot easier than this one,” the association’s executive director was quoted as telling New York magazine, referring to the labor organization with a flamboyant history of violence and intimidation.

Many in the Lubavitch community cringed at the introduction into the election of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. They emphatically note that the campaign was for a secular agency serving the Lubavitch neighborhood of Crown Heights, and did not reflect the interests or the intentions of the international Lubavitch network of activities.

Others objected to what they saw as the manipulation of hassidim for political ends.

“The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council has nothing to do with Torah,” said one dissident who declined to be named. “It has to do with the sanitation department, welfare. You need services, you call the council.

“The moshiach? That’s another red herring,” the dissident said. “Whatever works, they’ll use to get votes.”

The election generated substantial interest outside the Lubavitch community because it offered a rare public glimpse of the jockeying for position after the death last summer of the Lubavitcher rebbe.

Observers were treated to reports of death threats, firings, tire-slashings and verbal assaults so ferocious that, had this been a sporting event, people would have been ejected for foul play.

Observers also had been intrigued by what was believed to be the first democratic balloting for Jewish communal leadership in the US. That procedure was short-lived.

 

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