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A Long-SimInering Case Coming to a Head in N.Y By LUCEtIsE LAGNADO
NEW YORK—A decades-long struggle between the Chasidim and the Hispanics of Williamsburg over access to low-cost public housing is coming to a head amid accusations that the Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. has been orchestrating a campaign against one of the poorest Jewish communities in the city. The battle is intensifying even as public housing lists for projects in WiDiamsburg have become virtually Judenrein—devoid of any Jews— and qualified Chasidim are being shut out of the projects. Yet partisans of the Brooklyn Legal Services Corp., which is federally subsidized insist it is playing a legitimate role in siding against the Chasidim within the community in the struggle over housing
. Flames of Suspicion
One of the developments bringing the struggle into focus is recent court testimony from a client of Brooklyn Legal Services, which represents the Hispanics and blacks in their battles against the Chasidim. The client, Patricia Davis, a member of a Williamsburg tenants group called Concerned Residents, stated under oath in March that she had arranged for literature announcing tenants meetings to be distributed exclusively to non-Jewish residents of the projects. Under cross-examination, Ms. Davis admitted she had gone so far as to instruct her helpers to place the pamphlets only under the doors of apartments devoid of mezuzot, the religious emblem affixed on the doorposts of observant Jews. Ms. Davis also stated that, with the knowledge of a Legal Services attorney, she scheduled a tenants' meeting for the Jewish holiday of Purim, a time when religious Jews might not have been able to attend. Radical Policies
The criticism facing Brooklyn Legal Services is occurring even as the Legal Services Corp. in Washington is under fire from Republicans in Congress, facing criticism from those who feel the radical policies of grantee agencies have not served the poor especially well. In this case, Brooklyn Legal Services is being accused of advocating the interest of one poor ethnic group, the Hispanics, over those of another impoverished ethnic group, the Chasidim. New York City's Housing Authority has entered the fray on the side of the Chasidim; city housing officials angered by the actions of Brooklyn Legal Services ----- longtime foe—filed two separate letters of complaint in 1995 against the Brooklyn agency. The second missive dispatched to Washington on July 14 accused Brooklyn Legal Services of showing a "reckless disregard" for the corporation's charter and becoming not merely lawvers DUt intemperate and arguabl) unethical" advocates. This complaint a copy of which was obtained by the Forward, suggested Brooklyn Legal Services had so alienated the Jews of Williamsburg that it had "removed itself as a resource for legal representation" by those Jews. The incident involving the pamphlets was cited in the complaint.
"It is our view that Brooklyn Legal Services was acting inappropriately ... and instead of representing interests, they were fomenting interests, that the lawyer, instead of acting like a lawyer, acted like an organizer, a rabble-rouser," said Jeffrey Schanback, general counsel for the Housing Authority. When asked for his perspective of the Mezuzah Affair Mr. Schanback said, "It seemed to me the conduct [Legal Services] condoned was inappropriate, and there was some testimony they may well have directed." Mr. Schanback said he is awaiting a reply from the Legal Services Corp., which had concluded his earlier complaint was groundless.
"I think that Brooklyn Legal Services is trying to keep the Chasidic population out of public housing," says Gerald Dunbar, the attorney who cross-examined Ms. Davis on behalf of the Chasidim. Ms. Davis could not be reached for comment her Legal Services attorney did not make her available.
Attorneys at Brooklyn Legal Services do not clearly repudiate the incident involving the mezuzot— Martin Needelman, its director of legal work, says that it "is a little shocking" and "sounds weird"—but they defend the tenant group alleging years of discrimination against Hispanics and blacks by the Chasidim as well as by the city's Housing Authority. The action of excluding Jews, says Mr. Needelman, was "not anti-Semitic." Hispanic and black tenants were merely "reaching out . to their caucus," he remarked, sifting through between doors with mezuzot and doors without mezuzot "was one way to do it."
Mr. Needelman argues that the real outrage in Williamsburg is not the action of Concerned Residents in excluding Jews from meetings but what he alleges is the larger problem of "quotas" inside the projects where 60% of the apartments are occupied by Chasidim. His group has spent years fighting the quotas he insists exist and challenging the Chasidim's claim that they should be allowed to move into the projects. Mr. Needelman says Brooklyn Legal Services will continue the fight until discrimination against the Hispanics is ended. He also charged that wealthy Chasidim were unlawfully residing in the projects, snapping up apartments for themselves.
Rabbi David Niederman, a Satmar leader in Williamsburg, countered that Brooklyn Legal Services is fomenting disputes between the Jews a and the Hispanics.
I preying on divisions and pitting one group against the other. "They [Legal Services] say the Chasidic < Jews have the power," he said. Rabbi Niederman and other Jewish leaders have concluded that Legal Services attorneys "do not want both communities to live together in peace."
"The problem with the Legal Services Corporation is that they fail to understand that when we talk about poor we are also talking about Jewish poor.... They do not want to recognize the fact that our communities are much poorer than the others," said Rabbi Niederman.
Legal Services attorneys will often decide who in a particular dispute is the victim, and their stance in Williamsburg is not unusual, says Rael Jean Isaac, a conservative who has published numerous pieces about the corporation. "They decide on who is the victim, and regardless of the merits of the case, they determine that 'X is the victim and Y is the victimizer, and this ls the way we do it,' " Ms. Isaac remarked.
Robert Echols, an official at the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, said his colleagues were in the process of drafting the results of their investigation into the Housing Authority's charges against Brooklyn Legal Services, their conclusions, he said, will be available shortly.
The fight over the Williamsburg projects is intensifying even as organized Jewry is grappling with the poverty of the Chasidim of Williamsburg, where families of 10 and 14 are common and many of the men either do not work and devote themselves to religious studies or hold low-wage jobs. While Brooklyn Legal Services says it is attempting to remedy years of discrimination suffered by the Hispanics of Williamsburg at the hands of the Chasidim, groups such as the Jewish Community Relations Council are pointing to the rampant poverty suffered by the religious Jews. "When we look at the census figures, we see there is tremendous poverty among Chasidim in Williamsburg," said David Pollock, a JCRC official. He cited testimony by Edward Koch, the former New York mayor, before Congress, disclosing that median household income for Hispanics of Williamsburg was $14,043; median income for whites—| namely Chasidim—was only $11,995.
According to the JCRC's data, only a handful of Chasidic tenants—four families—have moved into the projects in the last six years, and the ones that have gotten in have been emergency or catastrophic cases.
Barbara Ledeen, a conservative activist who is a critic of the Legal Services Corp., says it is not uncommon for grantee agencies to "pit one group of poor against another." Attorneys at Brooklyn Legal Services counter by saying that years of discrimination against the Hispanics and tilting toward Chasidim have yet to be remedied; they also allege that Chasidim have used back channels to move into the projects, so that the JCRC numbers are not especially meaningful. Attorneys for Brooklyn Legal Services say they have unearthed cases of wealthy Chasidim residing in the projects. The City's Department of Investigation is conducting an inquiry.
According to Foster Maer, the Brooklyn Legal Services attorney cited by the Housing Authority in its complaint, the Authority has sided wlth the Satrnars over the years, and covered up for them, because of their political clout: "It is naive to say the Chasidic community doesn't have power at City Hall. Mr. Maer charges that the Chasidim have themselves used questionable tactics to keep out Hispanic neighbors from their meetings, plastering project walls with notices in Yiddish announcing meetings in synagogues. "We have a situation where the Chasidic community, building by building, block by block, has unlawfully taken away homes from nonChasidic families," said Mr. Maer. Mr. Dunbar, the attorney for the Satmar Chasidim, counters: "They [Brooklyn Legal Services] have been agitating against the Chasidic population—they have appealed to naked, religious bias."
Mr. Maer concedes there are impoverished Chasidim who need housing. When asked why his office is representing the Hispanics and African Americans in their battles for low-income housing, Mr. Maer remarked: "That is a legitimate concern. I can only say that when I started working here, once we became lawyers for Latinos and African Americans, that is the role we have taken on, and that is the role we play." Meanwhile, an American magistrate, Kathleen Anne Roberts, who presided over the hearing on the mezuzah affair, sided on behalf of the Chasidim, even as she acknowledged the long history of suffering by the Hispanics and blacks. "It appears that this group, Concerned Residents, has chosen to fight against the perceived racism by the Chasidic community by, in some respects, the very same techniques that they have been victimized by in the past," Judge Roberts stated in her decision.