Borough Park The Miniverse of Ultraorthodox Jewry


Almost all of Borough Park (Boro Park) is inhabited by Chasidic Jews, giving it a distinct and unusual appearance to outsiders. Many Chasidim are descendants of Jewish migrants from Europe. But who are they?

CHasidic Judaism

Borough Park is home to one of the largest enclaves of Chasidic Orthodox Jews in the world. Orthodox Jews represent the most observant branch of Judaism. Within the branch however, different groups have different rules on observance, dress, and behavior. Chasidic Judaism began in the middle of the eighteenth century as a response to the norm of the time. Chasidic Judaism follows strict and literal interpretation of the biblical texts. Chasidic men are known for their unusual black and white clothing. The women wear clothing that emphasizes modesty. The distinctive clothing harkens back to the common clothing style of the middle of the eighteenth century. Like many other Chasidic traditions, the clothing hasn't changed to fit with new surroundings like New York City. Chasidic communities such as that of Borough Park, are very insular, choosing to govern and police themselves and don't involve themselves much with the outside world. While these communities are very supportive and charitable, they follow very strict religious guidelines that can be punitive for people who want to leave the community.

Distinct Appearance

These photos show everyday life in Borough Park. The aesthetic qualities that are particular to the Chasidic enclave can seem very strange to visitors. Most men are wearing traditional long black coats and large black hats and other religious Jewish attire. Chasidic Jewish women are either wearing wigs or other hair coverings as well as skirts and other modest clothing. What also becomes apparent is the large number of children that Chasidic families have. Borough Park has the highest birth rate in New York at around 5 children per family. The stores and their goods also reflect the ethnicity of the enclave. Kosher foods, Chasidic clothing, Hebrew and Yiddish writing all fill the shops and businesses of the area. There are hundreds of synagogues and religious educational institutions. Jewish symbols and items such as the Mezuzah are on the doorposts of most homes and shops.

Push Factors

Many of the current residents of Borough Park are immigrants or descendants of immigrants fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Europe was a hostile environment for Jews for hundreds of years, leading to large swathes of Jewish immigrants arriving in the United States throughout the 19th century. The persecution of Jews culminated with the events of the Holocaust. After World War II, survivors of the Holocaust were displaced, poor, and unwelcome in Europe. Thousands of Chasidic Jews that survived, came to America hoping to start again in a country that supports freedom of religion. The Chasidic Jews were not the first of large groups of Jews that came to America, and when this wave of immigrants arrived in the 1940s, they joined already existing Jewish enclaves in Williamsburg New York.

The push and pull factors don't end at Williamsburg however. The influx of African-Americans and Puerto Ricans into Williamsburg in the 1950s, caused tension between the very different communities. Many Chasidic groups left and relocated to Borough Park.

Pull Factors

Chasidic Jews were pulled to America for many of the same reasons that other groups of people have come to the United States. Like the Puritans in days of old, Chasidic Jews came to America seeking religious freedom. Unlike Europe, The United States welcomed all kinds of people to live equally. Chasidic Jews also came to America to take advantage of economic opportunities that the United States offered.

Living in a Chasidic Enclave

While most ethnicities find it important to stay in an ethnic enclave, it is a way of life for Chasidic Jews. The Chasidic Jews of Europe lived in insular tight knit shtetls. These small communities existed in Europe because Jews were often very disliked and couldn't assimilate in many countries such as Poland or Russia. In the United States, these communities still exist for a few reasons. Jewish immigrants in the United States had very little money and were in a completely new country, this is especially true of immigrants right after World War II. Chasidic immigrants would have had even more difficulty because of their distinctive dress and religious practices that prevented them from working on Saturdays and eating certain foods. Living in an ethnic enclave means that Chasidic Jews have access to stores and services that are run by and for Chasidic Jews. These communities pride themselves on upholding their religious values, supporting one another, and being friendly to each other.

Images of Luzer Twersky as a Chasid and as he is now.

Although the Chasidic enclave seems like a strong community, the restrictive insulation of the community makes leaving the Chasidic lifestyle very difficult. Some of the problems with this ethnic enclave can be seen in the story of Luzer Twersky. Luzer was a Chasidic man who hated the world he was stuck in. He is an atheist and managed to escape the "self-righteous" Chasidic community. Luzer said that the Chasidim kept people from leaving the community by "vilifying the outside world" and by warning that those that left would become criminals and drug addicts. Luzer also said that people were kept from questioning their lifestyle because they barely received a formal education and spent most of the time studying religious texts.


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  • Images
Created By
Gil Levitan

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