Brooklyn's Sex Champs

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Census, plague and h-groups breeding.

There was a question going around Williamsburg a few years ago, about the h-words vs. the Hasidim: Who had more sex?

The h-words did it loudly, on mattresses on the floor, without condoms and with iPod speakers pumping Sade, played ironically. The Hasidim did it quietly but produced visible results, doubling their population over the last 20 years.

Now that growth is forcing one Brooklyn Hasidic community to look across the East River and down the Turnpike to secure its futurein Philadelphia.

Lubavitcher Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Borough Park sees Philly, where a tax-abatement program is creating a real estate resurgence, as the new Brooklyn. The rabbi has spent the past year petitioning Mayor John Street and Governor Ed Rendell to have dozens of acres in northeastern Philly developed for 300 to 1000 of his constituent families, punctuating his pitches with gifted loaves of rye.

Solomon's efforts underscore years of success for the Hasidim, who numbered only 40,000 in Williamsburg in the 1960s, and whose very survival was questioned at the time by the Hasidic sociologist George Kranzler. The Brooklyn fixtures have prospered due to a high birth rate (eight children is fairly common), dedicated internal efforts to address poverty and powerful deals with city governmentrabbis like Isaacson can deliver 5,000 ironclad votes to the Council member who comes to the table. There are now anywhere from 165,000 to 250,000 Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, with exact figures difficult to pin down as the group tends to ignore census forms. (Every time a census takes place in the Bible, a plague or disaster is sure to follow.)

But in neighborhoods where single-family homes cost $1.5 million, this breeding success brings genuine concern about space to raise the next generation. And while there isn't any risk of Hasidic Jews abandoning Brooklyn entirelythere have already been decampments to Lakewood, NJ, and Monsey, NY, with no appreciable loss of the borough faithfulthere is a sense that Solomon's proposed move is one of several recent growing pains.

The last three years have seen a small-scale war between the Hasidim and the h-words, with Rabbi Zalman Leib Fulop of Williamsburg pointing out that h-words were sent from heaven to punish the Hasidic community. At the same time the Hasidic community has been torn from within by a borderline-civil war between Aron and Zalman Teitelbaum, sons of Grand Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, whose struggle over the leadership of Williamsburg's Yatel Lev synagogue has resulted in an embarrassing temple brawl and two civil suits.

The paradox is this: as Hasidic communities grow, they become less governable by singular figures like Rabbi Isaacson, whose push to Philadelphia is ordered and precise. Perhaps the Hasidim had too much sex; they've now got to head h-word style into undefended urban enclaves.

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