Movie Moguls Frozen as Brooklyn Rabbis Won’t Go Hollywood

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

January 2002.

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.” Movie Moguls Frozen as Brooklyn Rabbis Won’t Go Hollywood