The two mini-moguls who wrested control of the Brooklyn Navy
Yard studio project from Robert De Niro and Harvey Weinstein just over a year
ago are facing another group of powerful opponents, whose considerable clout is
not merely political but spiritual: the rabbis of Williamsburg.
The plan for an immense movie studio has angered Grand Rebbe
Moses Teitelbaum, the spiritual leader of more than 100,000 Satmar Hasidim
around the globe, according to Rabbi David Niederman, the executive director of
the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, which includes more than 150
groups, synagogues and charities in the neighborhood.
The Grand Rebbe, who is 88, doesn’t directly involve himself
in secular and political battles. In fact, he doesn’t speak on the phone. But
he recently summoned a group of rabbis to the ornate library of his
Williamsburg home and, surrounded by old religious tomes, expressed his
profound displeasure with the studio, Rabbi Niederman said. The rabbis have
since hired attorneys who are searching for ways to stop the plan with a
The rabbis are worried that their shtetl -like neighborhood, which sits just north of the Navy Yard,
will be infiltrated by actors, agents, socialites, professional revelers, Baldwin brothers, Hilton sisters, smarmy
nightclub impresarios, flacks, reporters and other dubious characters
associated with movie studios. An extended brush with the boldface set, they
fear, could corrupt young Hasidim who have heretofore been painstakingly sheltered
from the mores of Manhattan and
“The Grand Rebbe believes that the studio will change the
character of the neighborhood,” Rabbi Niederman told The Observer . “Our children are taught to live, dress, speak and
think modestly. They are not exposed to immodest behavior. A studio might
change their modest way of life. It might lead to changes in their religious
Dr. Bernard Fryshman, a professor of physics at New York
Institute of Technology who is active in the Hasidic and Orthodox communities,
added that a studio could weaken the hold of Satmar tradition on young Hasidic
women. The Satmar community, like the Lubavitcher and Pupa Hasidic sects,
strictly segregates women so that married men won’t be tempted to stray.
“Our young women might be attracted to jobs there,” Dr.
Fryshman said. “These girls get married young, and they are focused on raising
families. Their interaction with men is very restricted. Their lives are
strictly home-oriented. It’s important that these barriers not fall anywhere.
Movies encourage the development of new, disturbing ways of looking at things.
Sex, for example. Sex is a very important component of movies.”
“The studio will bring midtown Manhattan into Williamsburg,”
added Rabbi Abraham Zimmerman, another leading opponent of the plan. “It will
bring Times Square into Williamsburg. It will bring show business into
Williamsburg. It would be like putting Times Square into the middle of
Chinatown-or, for that matter, Amish country.” It is estimated that about 40,000
members of the Satmar sect live in Williamsburg.
The site’s developers, Louis Madigan and Cary Dean Hart,
declined to comment for this story.
The wrath of the rabbis represents yet another strange turn
in the endless saga of the Brooklyn studio project, which would replace a large
swath of derelict industrial landscape with 11 soundstages big enough to
compete with Hollywood. The project has been beset by power struggles between
would-be developers and turf wars in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s City Hall. The
current developers, Mr. Madigan and Mr. Hart, won control of the project after
a bitter six-month battle with Mr. De Niro and Mr. Weinstein, who were ousted
in October 1999.
Mr. Madigan and Mr. Hart may have vanquished the likes of
Mr. De Niro and Mr. Weinstein, but the rabbis are another matter. It is
entirely possible that the campaign against the studio will get entangled in
the politics of this year’s Mayoral race. The causes and battles of Brooklyn’s
Hasidic community often get caught up in the larger power dynamics of the city.
For example, Ed Koch’s support for a massive incinerator in Williamsburg led
the Brooklyn Hasidic community to support David Dinkins in the 1989 Democratic
primary for Mayor.
This year, the “hats and beards” (as they are known in the
refined parlance of New York’s politicos) will be particularly important in the
Democratic Mayoral primary, which is crowded with contenders scrambling for a
chunk of the factionalized primary electorate. The Hasidic community tends to
vote as a bloc, somewhat like unions and political clubs, and politicians
seeking citywide office are well aware of the power of bloc voting. And they no
doubt will be made aware of the community’s concerns.
The battle against the
studio could also roil the bewilderingly complex political world of the
Brooklyn Hasidim. The Satmar community of Williamsburg has been riven by a
struggle for succession between two sons of the aging Grand Rebbe. Until a few
years ago, Moses Teitelbaum’s oldest son, Aaron, the chief rabbi of the upstate
Satmar enclave of Kiryas Joel, was the presumed heir of the worldwide Satmar
movement. But in 1999, the Grand Rebbe stunned his followers by announcing that
after he dies, leadership of the Satmars would be divided between Aaron and his
younger brother, Zalman Leib, who returned from Israel to ascend to the role of
chief Satmar rabbi of Williamsburg. The ensuing feud between the two sons has
led to the torching of a car, a local newspaper war and a shoving match in a
In that charged environment, it remains to be seen whether
the rabbis can mobilize vast and unified opposition to the studio. The battle
will be fought by the Central Rabbinical Congress, a group of several hundred
rabbis in the U.S. and Canada. And Rabbi Niederman, the main voice of
opposition, wields considerable power among the Hasidim. He was a key force
behind the movement to block the incinerator, which was defeated amid massive
demonstrations in 1997. Rabbi Niederman remains one of the men to see for
politicians with ambitions for citywide or statewide office. In the waning days
of the 2000 U.S. Senate campaign, Rabbi Niederman arranged a conference call
with nearly a dozen community leaders for candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Still, the rabbis may
face an uphill battle. For one thing, some members of the Satmar community are
said to support the studio project. For another, it is not yet clear how a
lawsuit could block it. Attorneys for Giddins, Claman and Langs, the firm
retained by the rabbis, are examining the procedures that governed demolition
of structures on the site, as well as those that are supposed to govern
construction, with an eye towards filing a possible lawsuit.
But it has been more than a year since Mr. Madigan and Mr.
Hart’s company, New York Studios, signed a lease with the city to develop the
studio. The moment for launching a lawsuit may have passed. New York Studios
expects to begin construction this month and plans to open the studio in
Still, as any ambitious builder in New York knows, even the
most frivolous lawsuit can tie up big schemes for years and years-preferably
until the financing dissolves out from under them. Just ask George Klein, who
was supposed to build four skyscrapers in the heart of Times Square in the
1980’s; when he finally emerged from under a barrage of lawsuits, the economy
had gone south and taken his plans with it. Or ask the would-be builders of
Westway, who were forced to abandon the grand scheme for a superhighway on the
West Side when a judge ruled that their plans would interfere with the mating
habits of the Hudson River’s few remaining striped bass.
“When we started the
fight against the incinerator, everybody said, ‘You’re stupid,'” Rabbi
Niederman said. “But we succeeded, and we are confident that we will win this
one as well.”