A gesture to honor Monsey hero ended up in controversy; here is why

Analysis: Joseph Gluck's decision to turn down the $20,000 prize should not come as a surprise

A Jewish man walks near the Monsey antisemitic attack, New York, December 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/EDUARDO MUNOZ)
A Jewish man walks near the Monsey antisemitic attack, New York, December 2019.
A few weeks ago, Joseph Gluck made headlines as the hero who stopped a horrific antisemitic attack that targeted a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York. Gluck threw a table at the attacker as he was stabbing people at Rabbi Chaim L. Rottenberg’s home synagogue, known as Rabbi Rottenberg’s Shul. He also managed to write down the numbers of the attacker’s license plate, allowing police to identify the suspect.
Five people were stabbed in the attack, one critically. The event became a moment that seems to be able to bring together Jews from all across the spectrum, reunited in solidarity with the victims and in denouncing the rampant antisemitism that in the past two years has grown exponentially in the United States.
For many, the spotlight on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community that followed the attack was also an opportunity to denounce how antisemitic attacks at a lower intensity, such as insults on the street, had too often targeted haredi Jews, who are very easily identifiable, without an adequate response.
However, a gesture that might have been considered the result of this general solidarity – a $20,000 prize granted to Gluck for his heroism by the Jewish Federation of Rockland County and the Anti-Defamation League – ended up in controversy after he decided to turn it down in light of the “Zionist” values embodied by the organizations.
“I was not willing to offer my soul for $20,000,” Gluck told News 12 Brooklyn last week. “My identity for $20,000 was not for sale.”
His decision should not be a surprise.
Rabbi Rottenberg and his followers are Kosov Hassidim, a group that originated in Hungary, moved to America between World War I and World War II and shares its origin with the Vizhnitz Hassidic dynasty, which is much larger.
Hassidism refers to a Jewish movement that was founded by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century. Over the generations, followers of the movement split into communities led by different spiritual leaders, known as rebbes. Today, traditional hassidic groups and their followers live an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, while ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not follow hassidic teachings are usually called Litvaks, or Lithuanians, referring to the country where they were based.
“The Kosov is a very small group,” Rabbi Levi Cooper, who teaches hassidism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post. “When it comes to Zionism, they follow a mainstream hassidic position. They are not pro, but they are not especially anti as other communities.”
“However, this episode sheds light on the status of hassidic communities in America at large,” he said. “The biggest and most influential hassidut [hassidic movement] in America is Satmar, and they are very anti-Zionist, often setting the tone for the others.”
“For example, the Vishnitz community in Israel takes money from the state and is involved, but the Vishnitz in Monsey identify more as anti-Zionists,” Cooper said.
The ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist attitude is based on the belief that Jews are supposed to be brought back to Israel by G-d at the time of redemption. The State of Israel should be governed by Halacha, or Jewish law, they say.
According to Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College of the City University of New York and an expert on contemporary Orthodox movements, even in America, the anti-Zionist attitude might have more to do with optics than with the reality.
“In the ultra-Orthodox world, political Zionism is problematic,” he told the Post. “We also have to keep in mind that this is a community where the pressure to conform is extremely high.”
The public nature of the Monsey attack and what followed is key to understanding Gluck’s decision to turn down the prize, Heilman said.
“The hassidic communities here receive funds from federal and local institutions, and many of its members work, so they are wealthier than in Israel,” he said. “But they do also accept money from Jewish federations and similar Jewish institutions connected to Israel – just that they do so quietly.”
Within the spectrum of hassidic communities, including in America, there are different nuances.
The most notable exception comes from the best-known hassidic group in the world, Chabad-Lubavitch. It fully cooperates with the State of Israel and its institutions. Nevertheless, at the core of its ideology, even Chabad has an anti-Zionist position, Heilman said.
Another movement, called hardali – from the merging of the Hebrew word haredi and dati leumi, which means national-religious – is ultra-Orthodox in lifestyle but Zionist in ideology.
The vast majority of ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel have reached an acknowledgment of, if not cooperation with, the state. In some cases, they support MKs or ministers sitting in coalition with Zionist parties, such Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who is a Gerrer hassid.
After turning down the prize from the Jewish Federation and the ADL, Gluck received an equivalent sum raised by his community at an event to honor him in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last Thursday, according to the Yeshiva World News website.
Rabbi David Feldman, a man known for his ferocious anti-Zionism, which has brought him to meet with figures such as former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also attended the event, it reported.
According to JTA, Feldman gave a statement to News 12 that the ADL and Jewish Federation were about to issue a statement “to encourage and promote the Zionist idea of Jewish self-defense, of fighting back, of fighting our enemies, but this happens to be contrary to our tradition.”
With rising antisemitism in America and in most of the Western world, fighting back, as Gluck did, may become more and more of a necessity – not only physically or with weapons, but also with a higher level of solidarity and support across the political and religious divides in the Jewish community. The spirit of cohesion after Monsey should not get lost.