Brooklyn, NY – Americans -along with the rest of the civilized world- are obsessed with diplomacy. The fact that the ineffectual United Nations is still respected by many, that the greater populace of New York is willing to forfeit their best parking spots and accept the gridlock and traffic, proves that the common citizen still maintains a deep-seated reverence for those engaged in trying to solve international problems. The recipient of the coveted Nobel Peace Prize dolled out annually to the person “that has done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations”- a prize that includes a medal, personal diploma, and a sum of money (currently 10 million Swedish crowns)- is hailed as a hero.
Reb Moishe Duvid Niederman never got a cash prize, and in his humble office, I saw a set of chumashim, piles of paperwork, and a pair of Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin, but no diploma.
Yet he is, without doubt, one of the most effective diplomats that the Orthodox Jewish community has. No, he hasn’t mastered the art of the furrowed-brow and insincere expression of sympathy, and neither is he the back-slapping, jovial type- yet he has network of international connections and has brokered deals involving prisoners of war, global superpowers and despotic regimes. Tapped by the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, Rabbi Niederman represents much of what has made Satmar in to the force it is: he is fiercely loyal to the Rebbe’s ‘shitta’, even as he navigates a web of diplomatic contacts with skill.
I am meeting with Reb Moishe Duvid in his son’s home, on an idyllic road just beyond the southern tip of Kiryat Joel, and I am looking forward to connecting with him here, far away from his Brooklyn office.
This is my second chance.
Several weeks earlier, I had arrived for an interview- which had been scheduled months in advance- at the headquarters of United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, which Reb Moshe Duvid heads, accompanied by photographer Menachem Kozlovsky.
As I walk up the grassy lawn for this follow-up meeting, I remember the first one….
We are led through a maze of humble offices until that of the boss- the simplest one yet. Reb Moshe Duvid is a study in contrasts. The archetypical macher- on two phones, surrounded by assistants, one eye on the computer screen- he still manages to project an air of complete calm and tranquility. The activity around him never ceases, yet he is completely unruffled.
The conversation begins pleasantly enough, and he attempts to answer our questions despite the steady interruptions from phone, Blackberry and a bevy of staffers that keep entering.
He has an uncanny ability to complete a phone call and return to the exact place in the conversation that we left off at, often to the word.
The phone rings yet again, and here, as I watch closely, the first hint of tension crosses the tranquil features. He motions to me with his hand, asking for patience, as he begins to dial a series of numbers, all the while paging various assistants to his office.
Some sort of crisis is taking place here, before my eyes.
On one phone he speaks to a friend in the state department in flawless English, briefly putting him on hold to consult with a Yiddish-speaking rov on another line. I strain to follow the trail of conversations and I gather that the F.B.I has just ‘picked up’ a Yid- seemingly from a foreign country, visiting America with his family- for some offense, and the good rabbi is trying to ensure that his legal rights are met. He wants them to hold off questioning until the accused has a lawyer with him, and he is quietly making arrangements for the family, the wife and children waiting at home for their father- who isn’t coming home so fast.
At the first opportunity, he suddenly remembers that we are there. He looks troubled. He clearly isn’t interested in proceeding with his negotiations while being recorded and photographed, but is far too refined to say anything. I take the high road, offering to reschedule our appointment for another time- it’s obvious that he won’t be free anytime soon- and with a pained smile, he accepts.
Now, we are trying again. Here, far from the rush and pressure of the office, the computers and phones and foot traffic, maybe we will get in a few quiet moments.
THE REBBE ZT’L
Of course, I open the conversation by reflecting on the legacy of his spiritual mentor, the great man that lies buried in the sprawling town of Kiryat Joel, the Satmar Rebbe zt’l.
He smiles wistfully. ‘The Rebbe had a tremendous distrust of journalists, of the media. One of my earliest memories is how, just before the Rebbe left to Eretz Yisroel on his nesia in 1959, there was a tremendous crowd in the old beis medrash, there to see him off.” When Reb Moshe Duvid says the words, “the alte beis medrash” a look of pure nostalgia crosses his face. “There were television cameras on hand, a relative novelty, to report on the large crowd and the Rebbe’s leave-taking. I recall how, just as the Rebbe stepped out of the beis medrash, a chassid screamed in a panicked voice, ‘Rebbe, televizia!’ The Rebbe jumped back in to the safety of the beis medrash, far from the cameras.”
The Rebbe represents so much to Reb Moishe Duvid.
“I remember calling my mother on that black day- 29 Av- when the Rebbe passed away, and she was crying, ‘oy, Moishe Duvid, what will be with us? How will we go on?’ My mother, who lost her parents, siblings and three of her own children in the war- her entire world was taken from her- yet she had the strength to rebuild. But when the Rebbe left us, she felt like there was no tomorrow.”
“That was the overwhelming feeling amongst the chassidim; how can we exist without the Rebbe?”
How did it all start? “It was the early nineteen seventies and there was much to be done for our brethren in Russia- they were looking to escape that oppressed regime, but there was nothing by way of infrastructure to help them get out, to facilitate their immigration, to meet their spiritual needs. The Rebbe called on me to head the nascent organization, Rav Tov, which was established specifically to help Russian Jewry.”
It was a job that involved more than just high pressure and long hours; it meant boarding a plane and flying overseas at a moments notice, it meant clandestine meetings in the shadows of European hotels, establishing relationships with the UN and other middle-Eastern governments, and it meant that Reb Moshe Duvid, who is blessed with a large family, rarely saw his young children.
“That was what made it too hard, missing Shabbosos with them, having to leave to Europe just after megillah reading on Purim to Dublin- I had many disappointed children at home.”
He went in to the Rebbe and asked to be relieved of his duties at Rav Tov. “It’s too hard.” The Rebbe was unmoved. “Everything in life is ‘hard’- that’s not a reason to give up the job.”
Then the Rebbe paused for a moment, and began to repeat, as if to himself, ‘Rav, Tov,” drawing each word slowly, ‘Rav, Tov- much good”, asking “ vi ken mir farlozen Rav Tov, how can one contemplate leaving Rav Tov?”
So Reb Moshe Duvid stayed on, creating, in effect, an organizational superpower, one which eventually branched out to helping yidden in other hostile countries as well, notably from Iran. With the recent mass exodus of families from Yemen’s tiny Jewish community, it became clear that Rav Tov- or Satmar- was capable of accomplishing the rescue and absorbing the kehilla and helping its members re-establish their lives.
Rabbi Niederman is hesitant to discuss his own efforts- the high moments, the low moments, the intrigue and drama- of his role in Rav Tov. He does, however, agree to talk about the state of Satmar diplomacy today and his current position as the head of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg- which serves the needs of a community comprised of Satmar, Pupa, Skver, Vien, Klausenberg, Tzehlim, Spinka, Vizhnitz chassidim and many other locals.
U.J.O. is a social services organization serving the housing, medical, and advocacy needs of the residents of Williamsburg and the surrounding neighborhoods. They guide elderly and new immigrants through the process of obtaining government assistance, help the ill and infirm navigate the sea of available medical services, assist new businesses in getting started, and try to ensure that there will be adequate housing for an exploding population.
That’s on an organizational level. On a personal level is a known ‘ba’al tovah’, constantly being sought out to use his connections to help individuals or institutions.
He plays that game differently as well. A close associate of Rabbi Niederman’s expounds. “Rabbi Niederman and I once met with an extremely connected individual that had great influence with a certain politician. Whenever someone would ask him a favor, however, he would worry that he would ‘use up his connections’ and would think three times before helping them. Rabbi Niederman later remarked ‘our attitude has to be different; if someone is in power and we have a connection with them, we have to use it as soon as someone asks us to. That’s why Hashem gave us that connection, to help, and one never knows for how long it will last. Politics is so fickle, things change so fast, that we don’t make those cheshbonos; if we can help, we help.”
Rabbi Niederman has become a central figure in the battle to protect sacred Jewish sites in Eastern Europe, and has also emerged as a leading advocate for Orthodox Jews in the prison system.
I ask him about this last role, playing devil’s advocate. “There are many that feel that, when a yid is found guilty of a crime, perhaps it isn’t a favor to run and cry foul. They feel that the very fact that we have such an advocacy network in place makes people in out community less afraid of engaging in shady business, knowing that here are askanim that will help them.”
Rabbi Niederman contemplates this for a long moment. “First of all, I have to tell you- though it isn’t appropriate to disclose names and details- that it’s happened, not once and not twice, that innocent people were accused and we were able to help them. Second of all, the people who are all self-righteous and indignant about all the yidden in jail…I am sure that they don’t want me to check their tzitzis! I wonder just how clean they are.”
“And there is another point as well. Just because someone is a thief, and indeed worthy of our scorn, it doesn’t meant that he isn’t obligated in taryag mitzvos and halacha. It’s easy to be cynical and say, ‘oh, a big tzaddik, first he steals and now he wants to hear megilla’ but the fact is, an inmate, regardless of his misdeeds, does need to eat kosher and keep Shabbo, which are his constitutional rights.”
While I am playing devil’s advocate, I ask Rabbi Niederman something else; can it be that the efficiency and effectiveness of the social services organizations helping young families with medicare, medicaid, section 8 and a plethora of other programs are likewise creating more problems? Can it be that by making it easier to get by without working, these young would-be breadwinners remain handicapped- never being forced in to the workplace- and growing accustomed to receiving help from Uncle Sam?
“Our attitude was never that the programs implemented by our benevolent government are a ‘lechtachila’; they aren’t. They are a means to allow people to get the point where they can help themselves.”
Reb Moishe Duvid expounds “The Satmar ideal was always to work, to be gainfully employed and pay taxes; not the opposite. Chaza’l tell us the benefits of a ‘neheneh m’yegia kapav, and that yafeh talmud Torah im derech eretz- that hard work in conjunction with a serious kevias ittim l’Torah brings blessing. The Rebbe had a dream ‘oifshtein a dor- to establish a generation- of ehrliche baalebatim, and historically, our tzibbur has always worked hard. Every decade brought its industry, and we were always leaders. First it was in the needle trade, then retail, electronics, and more recently, real estate and mortgages. We met each one head on, becoming pioneers, and then, inevitably, each industry collapsed for various reasons; manufacturing went to foreign countries, retail was swallowed up by superstores, the mortgage bubble burst, and we were left with korbanos, struggling families with no income. Then, we turned to government programs for help while our young families regained their footing. No one can say that Satmar chassidim are afraid of hard work.”
I ask Rabbi Niederman, who is the ‘go-to guy’ for politicians eager to find favor with Williamsburg voters bloc, about the political effectiveness of Satmar. “It’s not just the numbers. It’s that in most New York City neighborhoods, there is diversity amongst the residents, so what concerns one citizen isn’t that important to his neighbor. In Williamsburg, we may not all be Satmar chassidim, but we share values. When it comes time to vote, we unite to ensure that our legitimate needs are met.”
Rabbi Niederman is quick to point out that the organization he heads, U.J.O, is not synonymous with Satmar at all. Its board of directors is comprised of representatives of all the local chassidic groups and its clients are neither exclusively chassidic or Williamsburg residents. Indeed, a cursory glance around the waiting room proves it; at the time of my visit, there was a Lubavitcher chassid learning Tanya, an elderly Russian woman reading a newspaper in her own language, and a clean-cut student waiting for help.
“We are there for anyone in the neighborhood and beyond. But for the most part, our constituents feel as we do and that translates in to some degree of influence.”
How does one know when to exert that influence and when our role- guests in an alien, though friendly, land- dictates that we accept the will our hosts? We are in golus; do we really have the right to make so many demands?
“Making demands is a last resort, and we never look to flex our communal muscle,” he answers, “ we prefer to work things out diplomatically. I will give you an example. A major company placed indecent advertisements on billboards throughout our neighborhood. Instead of shouting at them, we explained that advertising is a means of winning friends and customers; through using images that we found offensive, they were actually alienating a very significant group of people, counter to what they wanted. They understood and took down the billboards.”
Rabbi Niederman is quick to point out that U.J.O is not a lone operation. “Boruch Hashem, we have a generation of Orthodox askanim, and we partner with so many other organizations and agencies to advance the common good; it’s not just U.J.O.”
He is passionate about the responsibility of the tzibbur to vote. “Aside for the basic obligation of hakaras hatov, it makes such a difference- even if not to you personally- but to your brother, your neighbor, another Yid. The politicians play close attention to who voted and how they voted and it’s important to remember that.”
Rabbi Niederman is a unique figure in that he intimately familiar with the avenues and alleys of New York City politics and bureaucracy even as, at the very same time, he fills the same role on an international level as well.
One of the Rabbi’s close friends is William Rapfogel of the Metropolitan Jewish Council on Poverty. He reflects on Reb Moishe Duvid’s ability to multi-task. “ I remember clearly one day that exemplifies the many dimensions to Rabbi Niederman. He asked me to accompany him to meet with the UN Ambassador from Turkey about a Rav Tov issue; while we walked to the meeting we were both calling and e-mailing the Governor’s office about funding for UJO social services. As soon as the meeting ended, we began talking about preserving cemeteries and then he raised the needs of Yemenite Jews who needed to escape persecution (that would lead to my putting him touch with officials at the US Department of Homeland Security that I knew). In less than 2 hours we were cutting across local, national and foreign affairs.”
Though Rabbi Niederman has made it clear that the details of his diplomatic adventures are off limits, and too much information about his contacts and methods can jeopardize ongoing efforts, I cannot resist asking him which politician has done the most for the Jewish people, in his experience.
“We have many friends in various foreign governments and among them, the Austrian government is one of the most committed to helping the Jewish community. I would single out a leading Austrian politician, Alois Mock, who is somewhat of a hero to Iranian Jewry, though few people have ever heard of him. He was vice-chancellor, and later foreign minister of Austria, and it was he that opened the doors to Vienna wide, allowing Iranian refugees en route to a new life a place to escape to. There was nothing that he wouldn’t do for us, no favor that was beyond him. He was more than a friend; when an independent activist requested his assistance in negotiating for captured Israeli soldiers, he filled that role as liaison with distinction. I was once in Europe and was trying to obtain a meeting with him. I heard that he was in Dublin, so I traveled there. He was told that I had come to Dublin specially to meet with him, and he hurried over to my hotel.”
“There were four hundred Jewish families trapped in a certain country that needed help, and together with him, we created an organization called International Refugee Assistance, all in one day, with which to help them. We assembled a list of famous American politicians and celebrities to serve on the board of directors, and got to work. He was instrumental in that campaign.”
“It’s interesting,” Rabbi Niederman reflects.“ When we talk about Austria, everyone thinks about Kurt Waldheim and the countries history- I always point out that, over the past sixty years, Austria provided the first stop to freedom for the persecuted Jew, and they continue to do so- Hakadosh Boruch Hu chooses his shlichim to help us.”
I ask him about some of the American politicians he has dealt with over the years. “President Reagan was a great friend. We met at length and he expressed a strong belief in open immigration, an ideal which he subsequently implemented.”
Has Rabbi Niederman ever had to ‘meet the enemy’ for the greater good? “Well, I once met with notorious Austrian politician, Jorge Haider. It was at the time when his influence was steadily increasing, and as much as the Jewish establishment didn’t want to recognize that he might very well ascend to real power- due to his families connection with the Nazi party and his own racist views-, the possibility was real. The cooperation of the Austrian government is crucial to our efforts, and it was important to me to have open dialogue with him. A mutual acquaintance arranged a meeting when Haider was visiting New York:we both agreed that if asked, we would deny having met. We had a very interesting conversation and and the next day,a leading New York daily reported unconfirmed reports of the meeting, but ‘both parties denied knowledge of any meeting.”
What kind of people does Rabbi Niederman look for as U.J.O employees? “We have all sorts on staff, ranging from chassidic to modern Orthodox to a non-Jewish building planner, but they all have one thing in common; compassion. We don’t have time for too many staff meetings, but whenever we get together, I have a standard drasha. ‘Everyone has a peckel’ I tell them, ‘and I am sure each of you has pressures in your personal life. When you are sitting behind your desk here,however, those problems don’t exist; the only issue is the one of the person sitting across from you. The people that come in here need help, and we are here only for that reason: to help.”
“Not all of our staffers have to share our hashkafos, but they to have to share our commitment.” With obvious pride, he indicates a staffer, David Katz- a graduate and musmach of Yeshiva University- an institution not known for its adherence to the Satmar worldview. “You know where he’s from” he jokingly says, “but we couldn’t manage without him.”
‘Yes, U.J.O is an equal opportunity employer,” David deadpans.
A key player in U.J.O, and an intimate of Rabbi Niederman’s, David is a highly intelligent, very pleasant young man. His connection with the Rabbi goes back to when he was a staffer of U.S. Congressman Ed Towns, with whom Rabbi Niederman works closely. Rabbi Niederman has an eye for talent, and in David Katz, he saw someone that could help the tzibbur. When David got married and moved to Eretz Yisroel to study in the Gruss Kollel, Rabbi Niederman maintained contact with him. When he moved back to America this June, he was immediately hired by U.J.O, where his official role is to work towards safeguarding Jewish sacred sites abroad, but unofficially, he is one of Rabbi Niederman’s right-hand men.
I ask David what most impresses him about his employer. “Rabbi Niederman has a remarkable ability to engage people in dialogue, even people with different viewpoints. His openness and willingness to work with others is refreshing, and that’s how he gets results. Rabbi Niederman is a textbook example of how to forge unlikely alliances.”
David is being literal. There is actually an entire chapter in a book- called The Activists Handbook- devoted to the lessons learned from relations between Rabbi Niederman and his counterpart in Williamsburg’s Hispanic community.
Relations between the two communities that reside in the neighborhood- chassidic and Latin American- have always been tense, with mutual distrust and wariness, each side convinced that the other is receiving a disproportionate share of the scarce public resources that flow to the community. Various puns on the name of the street that separates the two enclaves, Division Avenue, have appeared in print throughout the eighties and early nineties.
Then came the incinerator.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator project would be an easy way to get rid of the cities trash and create energy at the same time. The problem, of course, was that burning toxic and non-recyclable materials reduces them to ash that endangers people’s health. Incinerator’s emit hazardous chemicals in to the atmosphere, including lead, mercury and dioxin.
In September of 1991, then-mayor David Dinkins announced that the city was going forward with the plan. In addition to the proposed facility, there was already a local transfer- facility for toxic, flammable and radioactive waste- a proven hazard. The city ignored the fact that the company, Radiac, had an expired permit and could not meet minimum buffer-zone requirements.
The anger in both communities- chassidic and Latino- was great. It was if the city had decided that, because Williamsburg was a low-income neighborhood, its inhabitants and their children were less deserving of clean air.
In the book (p. 86), the chapter on Coalition Activism describes how a Latin community leader formed a group to combat the proposed incinerator: One day, El Puante founder Luis Garden Acosta received a visitor: he was stunned to see Rabbi David Niederman in his offices, offering to help lead a march through Latino streets to galvanize the community into action. “So astounding was Niederman’s gesture, that Acosta compared the visit to Nixon’s first trip to China: thus was the necessary contact made for the two often-warring parties to work in coalition against the incinerator plant.”
The book speculates on the reason’s for the Rabbi’s success. “His background of negotiating with often hostile foreign world leaders to achieve freedom for Jews in areas such as the Middle East gives him a perspective on international and ethnic cooperation that helps him in his work at UJO.”
In time, the alliance formed by Rabbi Niederman and his Latin-American counterpart resulted in 907 Driggs, a prototype of co-operation- a government funded housing project shared by the two communities.
A New York Times article from just after its opening, in the late nineteen nineties, says “Two months ago, 11 Hasidic, 8 Hispanic and 2 black families began moving into a six-story apartment building at 907 Driggs that was rehabilitated by United Jewish Organizations, a Hasidic social service agency, and Los Sures, which fills the same role for the Hispanic community. The joint effort was undertaken against a backdrop of longtime tensions between Williamsburg’s Hasidic and Hispanic residents, two burgeoning communities competing for a shrinking housing supply. In the last 15 years, the local populations of both groups have increased by more than 50 percent, according to community estimates. The groups have battled in the streets and in the courts over housing.”
“The executive director of United Jewish Organizations, Rabbi David Niederman, said 907 Driggs marked a new era of cooperation. ”We have proven what we have been saying,” he said. ”There is responsible leadership on both sides that not only could coexist but could work together.”
Today- though the two communities still find themselves battling for funds and resources- there is an openness and readiness to communicate and work towards mutual understanding.
David Katz credits Reb Moishe Duvid for breaking down the barriers erected by four decades of distrust.
If Rabbi Niederman was somehow miraculously relieved of his duties at U.J.O and Rav Tov and free to devote himself to any one political cause, where would he focus his efforts.
His answer is a lesson in the Satmar view of diplomacy. “My dream is to establish a office where we can focus exclusively on working- on a communal level- for services, and – this is crucial- we can work for our good with no compromises. Our tzibbur has to learn that it’s acceptable to demand that our legitimate religious rights practice mesorah be met without apologizing for that. There is always this perception that it’s somehow wrong to insist on things and that isn’t true.”
He shares an example. “Recently, a city agency wanted to implement a program that would call for all kindergarten teachers to be college graduates. This is something that simply would not work in our community because college is considered unacceptable . Our teachers are simply not going to college. So I told a friend in that agency just that; hayo lo sehiyeh, this will never happen. He saw that I was really committed and, after discussing it, understood where coming from. Diplomacy doesn’t meant acquiescing to every proposal, it means being direct and fair. He heard me and quietly dropped the plan. He knew that if I said that it wasn’t an option, then it wasn’t worth pursuing.”
Rabbi Niederman is reflective. “That, in a nutshell, was the Rebbe’s vision; a tzibbur of yidden unashamed that certain things are simply not negotiable, even as they are responsible citizens of the country we live in.”
How are Rabbi Niederman’s personal role models? Was his home and background a factor in his decision to devote himself to tzarchei tzibbur?
The question gives him pause. “My father was a real ‘beis medrash yid’. He worked hard all day and went straight to learn after work. I wouldn’t have imagined him as an askan, but then, when we sat shiva for him, the Satmar historian, Rabbi Shlomo Yaakov Gelbman (author of the definitive work on the Rebbe, Moshian Shel Yisroel) shared something astounding with me. He said that there are letters from my father to the Rebbe, written in the war years, where my father advises the Rebbe of which documents are available, how they can help various people, and what their cost is; a visa for this one, a passport for that one. I had a new appreciation and insight in to my father, how when he was able to help yidden, he was a true askan, though we didn’t see his activist side.”
How does Rabbi Niederman deal with the lack of personal space? How does he deal with the fact that the he cannot step in to shul for mincha without being besieged by petitioners for his help and advice? He laughs when I tell him that some of his staff members have mentioned that- to their chagrin- his door is always open, and people literally walk in off the street and in to his office.
“Once, I was going through a rough time trying to work out a thorny U.J.O issue, and a dear friend of mine told me ‘Moishe Duvid, everyone has pressures and rough times. The Aibishter has chosen to send you yours by placing the problems of the klal on your shoulders, rather than giving you personal ones.’ It’s that thought that keeps me going.”
David Katz adds something. “He also has a good wife; she sees when it’s enough and makes sure that the phone is turned off and he gets a few minutes of peace.”
Rabbi Niederman is motivated by an ideology of helping, more than anything else, and shows his stubbornness when people try to pay him for his services. Rabbi Gelbman recalls how Reb Leibish Lefkowitz, the Rosh Hakahal in Satmar told him about the frustration involved in trying to send an expensive gift to Rabbi Niederman at the time of a simcha. “Not only does he refuse to take money on a regular day: he won’t even accept a gift in this situation.”
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