If the Williamsburg bike-lane battle represents the Platonic ideal of a New York (and New York) metro story, then Baruch Herzfeld—self-appointed liaison between the pro-lane hipsters and anti-lane Satmar Hasidim—is the irresistible character who truly stamps it “Only in New York.” The impish 38-year-old ex-Orthodox bike activist who is at home in both communities (or, if you prefer, oblivious to the fact that he is home in neither) shows up in almost every article on the subject. But Tablet Magazine has learned that bike lanes aren’t the only area in which Herzfeld pushes the Orthodox community’s buttons from within. Another one is merengue dancing. Wait, what?
Prior to his current incarnation as bike advocate, Herzfeld spent a year shuttling back and forth between the Dominican Republic, where he ran operations for a telecom company called SkyMax Dominicana, and Brooklyn, where SkyMax’s parent company is based. On paper, it was an absurdly good fit: Herzfeld reported to the company’s owner, a Williamsburg Satmar gentleman named Moses Greenfield, but he also got to indulge his penchant for Dominican culture, and particularly merengue. Naturally, he was bitten by the merengue bug while he was a bad student at Yeshiva University, which is conveniently located in the heavily Dominican Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.
In the spring of 2007, after Herzfeld clashed with his colleagues one too many times, Greenfield fired him. An ugly dispute followed over how much money Herzfeld was owed. As per their contract, the parties took their conflict to the beth din, or rabbinical court.
The Beth Din of America is an odd institution: The judges are Orthodox rabbis (and their decisions are binding only because the claimants have agreed to use them as arbitrators), but the lawyers are … lawyers. In fact, Greenfield’s attorney in this case was Nat Lewin, an Orthodox lawyer who regularly argues before the Supreme Court. (Says Herzfeld of his foe, “He’s the guy who if they don’t let you wear a yarmulke and you’re an astronaut, he’ll sue NASA.”) According to Herzfeld, Lewin’s approach to the beth din case was to besmirch Herzfeld’s character and to highlight his least Orthodox habits. And so Exhibit A, in Herzfeld’s telling—Lewin says it was only a minor detail of the case—was a photograph of Herzfeld dancing the merengue with a Dominican woman dressed a tad short of modestly.
“In the Orthodox community, there’s no worse crime than mixed dancing,” Herzfeld explains. (By “mixed,” he means gender, although his dance partner’s skin color probably didn’t help.) “They wanted to show that they were at a higher level of religiosity than me.” The incriminating photo appears on Herzfeld’s Facebook page, followed by a seriously impressive number of punning captions submitted by Herzfeld and his friends, from “the behind the rabbis maligned” to “the dark tail that made the Hasidim turn pale.”
According to Herzfeld, the photo was used in court to back up the even weightier charge that he had sexually harassed two Dominican SkyMax employees. Lewin presented affidavits signed by the young women making these claims; Herzfeld asserts that their supervisors paid them to sign the statements, and indeed—at Herzfeld’s behest—one woman later said as much on video. (Lewin in turn counters that the harassment charges were just a small part of the evidence that Herzfeld’s conduct as a SkyMax employee was inappropriate.)
The beth din ruled that Herzfeld was entitled to some of the profits he demanded. However, in Herzfeld’s view, it did not go far enough in enforcing the verdict—to the point that, almost three years after the case first reached the beth din, he is suing Greenfield in civil court, where a hearing will take place later this month. Lewin has moved on from the case, but Herzfeld remains on a mission against him. Among the attorney’s highest-profile clients of the past few years are the Rubashkins, the ultra-Orthodox family that owned the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa that was shut down after a huge immigration raid. The day of the raid, Herzfeld said, Lewin was in the beth din with him. “I think the way it happened,” he said, “was that God punished the Rubashkins because Nat Lewin did what he did.”
Herzfeld, meanwhile, reports being happily married to an Orthodox woman. So, how does she feel about his merengue dancing?
“Eh,” Herzfeld replies. “She prefers to salsa.”
Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.