The Bedford Bike Lanes Controversy


rabbi-shmuel-herzfeldBy Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Rabbi of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue

There is a major brouhaha currently going on in New York City concerning a bike path from Brooklyn to Manhattan that goes along Bedford Avenue. Bedford Avenue goes through Williamsburg, which has a very large and politically powerful Satmar Chassidic community. The Satmar Chassidim successfully lobbied Mayor Bloomberg to remove the bike lanes from Bedford Avenue for different reasons. One major reason is the fact that they do not like the way the female bikers dress when they ride through their neighborhood.

So Mayor Bloomberg ordered the city to paint over the bike lanes. The bikers were unhappy with this and so one night they repainted the bike lanes on Bedford Avenue. This controversy has so far generated more than 500 articles and a YouTube video of the bikers repainting the bike lanes has so far been seen by more than 100,00 people.

Full disclosure. My brother, Baruch, owns a building in Williamsburg, which gives free space to the bikers. He also gives free bikes to Chasidim who sneak away in the middle of the night to get a free ride under the cover of night. After the city repainted the bike lanes my brother was quoted in the New York Post as saying that the bikers are “stocking up on cans of white paint.” My brother has been quoted in the New York Times as “the unofficial spokesperson” for the bikers. Some have even suggested that he was “born as a Satmar chasid”…. Not true at all!

Although this might appear to be just a pedestrian issue, the controversy really cuts to an important theological difference between the Modern Orthodox Jewish community and the Hassidic Jewish community; i.e. what should characterize our relationship with the world around us.

There are many great aspects of the Hassidic community to admire; e.g. their commitment to caring for the social needs of the Jewish community and their devotion to Torah and, prayer, in particular.

But there is an area where there is a clear bright line between the Modern Orthodox community and the Hassidim. The Hassidim view the ghetto as an ideal place to live. In their minds it was great when Jews were isolated in the Middle Ages and forced to live apart from the rest of the world. This was a beautiful and pristine era which we should long for and recreate. That is why the Hassidim still dress like the Jews of Eastern Europe and that is why they long to freeze out the spiritual dangers of the rest of the world by living in their own enclaves.

On the other hand, the Modern Orthodox community views the ghetto as a sad time in Jewish history; a time where our isolation prevented us from carrying out God’s work in the rest of the world; a time where our isolation stifled us and limited our impact. The Modern Orthodox world flees the ghetto in order to embrace the world around us.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I deeply believe we must not assimilate and abandon our Judaism; but that does not mean we should live in a ghetto. It means that while living in the world at large we must not forget who we are and where we come from.

My brother, being my holy brother, is planning a series of positive dialogues with a close friend of his who is a spokesperson of the Satmar community where their different approaches will be discussed and debated.

If I can ever make it to one of those forums, and if I am given the chance to speak, I will say to the Satmar community: “Instead of using all of your political power to take away bike lanes so you don’t heaven forbid see a woman’s legs as she rides her bike through a public area, together we should join forces and follow in the evangelical path of Abraham, who was given the name Abraham so that he could be a ‘father amongst the nations.’ You should view the fact that so many bikers are riding through you neighborhood as an opportunity to embrace them and proudly show them what it means to live in accordance with the Torah. As they ride past your house, avert your eyes from the woman’s legs and greet her and her friends with some water and a smile. And if you embrace these riders then you will truly be offering them blessings in the spirit of Abraham.”

Shmuel Herzfeld is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

This article appears in The Washington Post.

{The Washington Post/ Newscenter}


  1. Even as a non-Chasid I will far quicker take, and indeed embrace, the Chasidic outlook on life described than R. Shmuel Herzfeld’s description of Modern Orthodoxy’s outlook.

  2. I am truly disappointed in Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s cavalier attitude towards the absolute necessity of avoiding pritzus.

    Also, it is absolutely not the fault of Rabbi Herzfeld nor his responsibility, but it should be mentioned that his brother is looking to make trouble against religious Jews.

  3. What the Rabbi doesn’t mention in his misleading letter, is the fact that the bike lanes were only put there a VERY short time before they were removed. In fact, they were put there after vociferous objections from the community at large, who made their objections clear before the bike lanes were ever installed.

    Just to make it clear who his brother is: the guy runs a shop called the “Traif Bike Gesheft”. The name alone is traif. This is what the brother (Baruch) had to say:

    “If anybody can break these barriers, though, it’s probably Herzfeld. Though not a Hasid, he is a Sabbath-observant Modern Orthodox Jew. Both of his brothers are rabbis — one at the National Synagogue in Washington. But he also is a classic Brooklyn bon vivant: Next to the rubber-chicken bike loan sign is a graffitied picture of Che Guevara, and in back, with the bikes, is a chicken coop, where Herzfeld gets eggs for his wife. He wears a fedora, tilted forward, ironically, and an open-necked shirt — and he shows no fear in challenging the local rabbinic authorities who might look down on his program.

    “Both of my brothers are rabbis. They’re probably smarter than your rabbis,” Herzfeld told one skeptic who cited religious restrictions. “My brother’s the rabbi at the National Synagogue. He lets me ride a bicycle. You should ride one, too. You got the wrong rabbi.”

    Wow, so a Commie loving, chicken raising, bike hippie, whose brother is a Rabbi (yip-de-do) feels that the Satmars should lower their standards of tznius. No thanks. Get lost.

    Sincerely, a non-chossid (dare I say misnaged?) who respects others’ right to safeguard religious sensibilities.

  4. I am not a chosid, but lets be realistic, the 25% Torah-lifestyle abandonment rate amongst the MO attending secular undergraduate school speaks for itself. We must adhere to halocha, period. That will cultivate much more civility from our gentile neighbors amongst whom we live, as they don’t feel threatened.

  5. As a proud and Chassidish woman I say this: Don’t compare Avraham Avinu’s times to today where woman in the summer do not dress at all, where as in Avraham Avinu’s times they wore loose robes and veils as well. In addition, since you admit that Satmar has different opinions than the Modern Orthodox, RESPECT THEIR DESIRE TO LIVE IN THEIR GHETTO-LIKE COMMUNITY AS MUCH AS YOU RESPECT THESE HALF-DRESSED WOMAN.

  6. Why are you giving this MAN a soapbox? This “rabbi” supports toeivah marriage and believes that it’s a “lifestyle choice”. “[Toeivah] is an ‘abomination? We don’t use that language for eating pork, yet it’s described in the same way as [toeivah]. We should not assume that the totality of a person’s existence can be summed up in one lifestyle choice.”

    At least I don’t call myself a rabbi.

  7. Unfortunately, Rabbi Herzfeld is out of his league on this issue. He should be commended for his good work with liberal Jews in Washington, but it makes no sense for him to preach to Williamsburg Jews how they should maintain their Yiddishkeit. I read the article cited by Comment 10. Nowhere does it say he supports toeva marriage; just the opposite, Herzfeld told the toevaniks (he will speak to them and welcome Jewish ones in his shul) What ever it says in the Torah is Dvar Hashem. That being said, just like we don’t reject Jews who eat pork, only we try to be Mekarev them, so too with Jews who are, Nebuch, in the toeva lifestyle. Rabbi Herzfeld has been successful being Mekarev all kinds of nonobservant Jews to Shmiras Shabbos, Kashrus, Torah study and other Mitzvos. However, of all people, he should recognize that there are various approaches to Orthodox Judaism, and that “one size fits all approach” is inappropriate. He should understand that living in Western society is a double-edged sword. Indeed the opportunities to Kiruv and making a Kiddush Hashem B’rabbim are there for Jews who mingle more in the secular society. On the other hand, great Nisyonos exist in that milieu that for many individuals and communities are best avoided to the greatest extent possible. Just as Rabbi Herzfeld noted, the Satmar community is well known for its Chesed, and I must add, in many ways that Chesed is extended to all Jews, like in hospitals. But, the vast majority of Satmar Chasidim are not trained for, nor does their Chinuch encompass the “going out” approach of Kiruv Rechokim, and it is not their bailiwick. For Chabad it should be fine; as the bikers pass through Crown Heights, they will pass tables with tefilin, Shabbos candles, etc. set up just for them! Many Satmar Chasidim deal with secular people in business; for example on 47th St. However, when they go home to Williamsburg or Monsey, they want to exit that world and return to the relatively spiritually safe environs of the Frum community. They didn’t move to a neighborhood that had bike lanes. That was an imposition of dumping unwelcome outsiders on them. I am sure there are many neighborhoods that welcome bikers; route the bike lanes through those, as mentioned, Crown Heights. So also Rabbi Herzfeld errs on telling the Chasidim to avert their eyes from Pritzus. The Torah admonishes us to avoid being in a place of Pritzus as much as possible, only when that is impossible, then we must avert our eyes. For a Kiruv professional, such as Rabbi Herzfeld, perhaps he has a Din like a doctor or a farmer, who is given more leeway in what he may see, but it doesn’t apply to those not in the Kiruv field. Rabbi Herzfeld should be the first to respect and uphold the Chasidim’s right not to have their sensitivities trampled on in their neighborhoods.

  8. I’m embarassed by almost all of your comments. You are fools if you think the ideal is living in ghettos. And to the commentor that spoke of the high off the derech rate of the MO community… You are crazy! There is a much higher off the derech rate in the chassidic community. I grew up in a MO community. All of those I grew up with are living baalabatish frum mentchlech lives which is not the case for alot of the sheltered ones around us. Learn to avert your eyes! You can’t control the world around you, but you can train and control yourselves. Nice article. Poor comments.

  9. #14/”me” — The off the derech rate by the MO far exceeds any other Orthodox Jewish demographic group. They’re “synthesis” and secular integration is destructive to themselves.

  10. Shmuel Herzfeld makes an awfully bold stereotypical assertion that Chassidic garb is symbolic of the ghetto which symbolized the “sad times”. Shmuel, I’ve got news for you, not all Chassidim lived in the ghetto. By the way, Shmuel, Chassidim are probably the happiest segment of our people! Shmuel, have you ever heard of the Shtetl? The garb and culture of Chassidim is that of Eastern European culture, not a “ghetto mentality” as Shmuel stereotyped it. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot: I’d like to see Shmuel’s reaction to an anti-toeivah demonstration in front of his Shul (Shmuel is VERY pro-toeivah rights). Would he simply close HIS eyes to what HE does not like? Shmuel’s artice is the same old elitist stereotypical pablum he has been dishing out from his post in Washington since he arrived there about five years ago.

  11. #15/”Joe Hill” – I guess if you define destructive as becoming Lawyers/Doctors/Accountants and dealing with the world around them while maintaining there Yiddishkeit and serving as an Ohr Lagoyim than you are right.

  12. lets put it on the table, MO is saying to live life and together with that keep all our traditional concepts such as shabbos, kosher, teffilah, learning, and others, but the purpose of it is “(Modern Orthodox)…to embrace the world around us” “living in the world at large”. This my friends is the reason that MO is a joke, cause they missed the point, its not about living it up while “being shomer torah..”, but rather living for a much greater purpose, one which will not be attained in this life.So to them, observance (although they’ll never admit it) is just some cultural thing that defines them as “Jewish”, and gives rights to “Israel”. To them its just another family heirloom that although precious, it is not essential, and has no real meaning. Therefore, when it becomes too bothersome, its just discarded. And just like an heirloom, over time, begins to break/fade, so to the children of MO drop the tradition which has no real meaning to them (as the importance and meaning fade between generations). I do not necessarily agree about the bike lane situation, being that we’re in golus and all that, and there is something to “not being in a box”. But it is definitely not for the above fool who shames the maening of the word “rabbi”, to make that decision. (I do not hate MO ppl, but rather their ideals, I even befriend them, AND I DEFINITELY RESPECT THEM AS PPL, but i make it very clear that I don’t, and why I don’t agree with their ideals.)

  13. # 18 – the only thing straitforward is that you are a fool with a poor understanding of what you speak. As a MO person do me a favor, don’t befriend me. I see thru you.