Hasidim - Orientation

Identification. Hasidim are ultrareligious Jews who live within the framework of their centuries-old beliefs and traditions and who observe Orthodox law so meticulously that they are set apart from most other Orthodox Jews. Even their appearance is distinctive: the men bearded in black suits or long black coats, and women in high-necked, loose-fitting dresses, with kerchiefs or traditional wigs covering their hair. They are dedicated to living uncontaminated by contact with modern society except in accord with the demands of the workplace and the state. They do not, for the most part, own radio or television sets, nor do they frequent cinemas or theaters. They dress and pray as their forefathers did in the eighteenth century, and they reject Western secular society, which they regard as degenerate. They do not, however, constitute a uniform group but are divided into a number of distinctive sects and communities, each organized around the teachings of a particular rebbe, or charismatic religious leader. Although the various Hasidic sects share a desire to maintain the integrity of Orthodox Judaism, they are sometimes sharply divided on practice, points of philosophy, and the personality of their religious leaders. In spite of their differences, all attach great importance to preventing assimilation by insulating their members from the secular influences of the host culture, which they perceive to be disruptive of the lifestyle they wish to observe. To outsiders, the Hasidim are a homogeneous entity whose life-style and religious practices mirror those of previous generations. Such a view exaggerates the reality. Despite the perception of Hasidic society as relatively static, and as unresponsive to social, political, economic, and technological changes over the past decades, a more precise appraisal is that it is an ongoing sociocultural entity constantly adapting to events in the larger society and is, in the process, becoming transformed. Owing to their persistent and organized efforts, the Hasidim have both maintained their distinctive way of life and adapted to societal influences that in the case of other ethnic and religious minorities have resulted in their assimilation.

Location and Demography. Although the estimation of numbers is difficult, the Lubavitcher and Satmar constitute the two largest groups, with approximately 25,000 followers in their respective areas of Brooklyn, New York. A current estimate of the number of Hasidic Jews in North America is Between 90,000 to 100,000. The Hasidic population of Montreal is but a fraction of its New York counterpart—it numbers some 4,000 persons. Outside of New York and Montreal, the Hasidic population is relatively small. The exception is the Lubavitch sect, which has created nuclei of Communities throughout North America. Several Hasidic sects have established enclaves to remain shielded from the urban environment. Three such settlements include New Square, near Spring Valley, New York; Kiryas Yoel, in Monroe County, New York, named after the previous Satmar rebbe; and Tash in Boisbriand, Quebec, established by the Tasher rebbe.

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