Lubavitcher Chasidim in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn will soon vote for new Jewish community council representatives, ending a mudsling campaign so bitter, it makes the negative campaigning in the recent general elections seem like child’s play.
It has taken on such eschatological fervor that it is no longer about choosing representatives to develop local housing and make sure the street lights are working.
It is about the forces of good versus evil, Torah versus secularism and the prophetic wisdom of the recently deceased Lubavitcher rebbe versus the wishes of a civil court judge.
And it has taken some violent turns.
The current board members of the Crown Heights Jewish community Council have invoked the rebbe and charge that their opponents are going against his wishes.
Their opponents charge that the current council leaders are intimidating local residents into voting their way.
One candidate who challenged the council leaders resigned from the race because, he said, his life was threatened by his opponents.
The elections, scheduled for Nov. 20, were decreed by a court order as part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by a Lubavitch couple. The couple sued because elections had not been held in eight years, even though the community council’s bylaws require elections to be held every two years.
For the first time, women will be eligible to vote in the community elections.
The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, like other community councils throughout New York City, is a non-profit organization charged with dispersing about $750,000 in state and city funds for community works. It has an overall budget of about $1 million.
The incumbents who control the council have framed the upcoming election as a referendum on the wishes of the revered rebbe, who died last spring.
Ultimately, the election is really about more than the community council.
Its outcome will determine who will speak for the Lubavitch community. Some of the seven incumbents are central players advocating the aggressive marketing of the rebbe as Moshiach, or the Messiah.
Their opponents advocate a more moderate approach to the late rebbe.
The three rabbis who rule on issues of Jewish law for the community have endorsed the incumbents, who quote pieces of speeches given by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to back their claims that their re-election is what the rebbe wished.
Their opponents say that the current council leaders are running a “communist” campaign.
Tires on the insurgents’ cars have been slashed and blows have been exchanged.
“These goons can terrorize an entire community. People are afraid they’ll be boycotted or bad-mouthed,” said one.
“There is a silent majority of people here who are terrified,” said Hindy Lewis, who was physically forced out of a neighborhood meeting run by the incumbents.
“Lots of people here rely on this neighborhood for their jobs and apartments. They are afraid of the violence and intimidation and threats,” she said.
Lewis was distributing leaflets opposing the incumbents at a Nov. 9 gathering of Lubavitch women when she was shoved hard against a doorway by a group of men and escorted out of the building.
Abraham, Greisman, a Crown Heights accountant who opposed the incumbents, resigned from the race writing, in an Oct. 17 latter to the neutral agency overseeing the election, that he was “compelled to do so because of the barrage of slander, harassment, intimidation and threats (life threatening) being perpetrated” against him.
When asked about Greisman’s charges, Rabbi Josef Baruch Spielman, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, who is running for re-election, said, “I personally feel it didn’t happen. He hasn’t proven it.
“I am insulted and hurt by these allegations that the people who are running on our slate are committing acts of intimidation. It’s being used as a ploy so that when they lost they can start the next court case.
“We see this election as an affront to the rebbe, as an affront to the rabbonim, an and continues to steal from this community,” said Spielman, who has chaired the council for the past eight years.
A two-page handbill urging voters to choose Spielman and the six other candidates on his slate says that “these `election’ are not elections, but rather a challenge to the Rabbonim and part of an attempt to remove the Rebbe’s rule from Crown Heights. Make sure that the Rebbe rules!”
One Crown Heights Lubavitcher, who requested anonymity, said that “By tainting others as anti-rabbis and anti-rabbe (the incumbents) garner influence.”
A Crown Heights couple named Harold and Mimi Furst forced the election by filing a civil lawsuit against the leaders of the community council for not abiding by their organization’s bylaws.
According to Spielman, the Fursts are simply acting as surrogates for Rabbi Dovid Fisher, a former community council staff member who has been charged by the current council with stealing property valued between $60 million and $100 million.
The current community council filed suit against Fisher, which is wending its way through the courts, and had him excommunicated from the Crown Heights Lubavitch community.
Fisher, who now lives in Jerusalem, and the community council, are entangled in more than a half-dozen additional suits and counter-suits over the control of Crown Heights property.
Spielman contends that the Fursts, who are distantly related to Fisher, sued the community council for elections so that if their candidates win, the community council can drop the suits against Fisher.
The settlement of the Fursts’ case resulted in an unusual set of requirements for eligible voters and candidates.
Voters must be at least 22 years old and married, divorced or widowed, and must be listed in the neighborhood’s local phone book.
Candidates must be male, married, widowed or divorced, at least 30 years old and sign “an affirmation which states `I am an Orthodox Jew,’” according to the terms of the settlement.
A copy of the settlement, dated Aug. 2, 1994, was obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Voting will be done by secret paper ballot in a booth in the Lubavitch yeshiva. There will be separate booths for men and women.
The closing line of the settlements states that “all sides will endeavor to conduct the election in an atmosphere of harmony and cooperation, free of all strife, harassment, intimidation, threats, provocation or conflict of any kind.”