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Menachem Stark, Slumlord or Saint? Depends Who You Ask

January 15, 2014 By:
Talia Lavin, JTA
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Menachem Stark, shown with his wife and seven children, was hailed as a loving father and generous giver by his Hasidic community. Photo via JTA.

NEW YORK — The murder of Menachem Stark has sparked intense media scrutiny of the Brooklyn real estate developer’s troubled business record, prompting the New York Post to ask “Who didn’t want him dead?” on its front page.

But while mainstream media outlets scrutinized the Satmar hasid’s relationships with tenants, contractors and lenders, haredi Orthodox publications offered a decidedly different take — looking not for clues to why someone would kill Stark, but celebrating his many virtues.

Yated Ne’eman, a prominent haredi weekly, praised Stark as a “loving father and baal chesed,” or charitable giver. Hamodia, a leading haredi daily, called Stark a “greatly beloved member of the Williamsburg community,” citing anecdotes that showed his generosity within his Hasidic neighborhood. Another Hamodia article condemned the Post for publishing “a litany of untruths to malign the integrity of Mr. Stark,” though it made no mention of the nature of the tabloid’s allegations.

“It’s irrelevant if the allegations are true or not,” Yochonon Donn, the Hamodia editor who wrote the article, said. “Now is not the time to dance on the family’s blood.”

The haredi media’s approach to the case reflects its journalistic ethos, which aims to report the news while complying with traditional Jewish prohibitions against lashon hara, or “evil tongue,” a term that encompasses gossip, slander and malicious speech.

“The contrast between the haredi media’s treatment of the case and that of the general media reflects the chasm between how journalism is defined by each,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the haredi umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, wrote in an email. “Halacha-respecting journalism will always endeavor to shun the negative, particularly when it is sourced in innuendo and one-sided ‘interpretations.’”

Stark was abducted Jan. 2 outside his office in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Video footage from the scene showed Stark struggling in a snowstorm with assailants who forced him into a white van.

The following day, Stark’s partially burned body was found in a dumpster on Long Island. A medical examiner concluded he had died from compression asphyxiation. New York Police Commissioner William Bratton said police have “no significant leads” in the case.

Stark, who reportedly owned 17 properties in Brooklyn, was a prominent figure in Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidic community. At the time of his murder, however, he was deeply in debt. In 2008, Stark and his business partner, Israel Perlmutter, defaulted on a $29 million loan, and they declared bankruptcy the following year, according to The New York Times.

New York newspapers reported on numerous tenant complaints and building code violations at Stark’s properties. While some tenants criticized conditions in his buildings in online postings and elsewhere, other tenants have come to their late landlord’s defense. The Post’s controversial cover story called Stark a “slumlord” and cited anonymous law-enforcement sources who suggested he was a “scammer” with plenty of enemies.

But coverage in the haredi press sidestepped Stark’s business woes and allegations of improprieties. This is consistent with the high regard in which he was held in his community, where one of the Satmar sect’s two rebbes, Zalman Teitelbaum, delivered an emotional eulogy.

In a December 2013 editorial, Hamodia publisher Ruth Lichtenstein explained her publication’s general approach, noting that the paper’s concern not to “inadvertently embarrass or hurt an organization, individual, or child” plays a large role in editorial decisions.

“A crucial part of our mission is protecting our readers’ right ‘not to know,’” Lichtenstein wrote. “Far more difficult a task than providing you with newsworthy and ethical reading material is ensuring that you, our loyal reader, aren’t exposed to material you would find unfit to enter your home, your mind, and your heart.”

Meanwhile, the haredi community has rallied against the Postorganizing a Jan. 5 press conference with local elected officials at Brooklyn Borough Hall. Brooklyn’s borough president, Eric Adams, denounced what he called “hateful coverage.” New York City’s public advocate, Letitia James, accused the Post of having “given license to murder” and called on elected officials to stop placing advertisements in the paper.

Hamodia published an editorial Wednesday blasting New York City’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, for not joining other elected officials in condemning the coverage or publicly extending his condolences to the Stark family.

“The Jewish community must not feel, as they’ve felt several times in the past, that they are alone in this,” Hamodia wrote. “The mayor’s silence is a shocking blow.”

In a letter to the New York Post, the Anti-Defamation League called the Post’s headline “insensitive” and also took issue with the accompanying article for referring to Stark as a “millionaire Hasidic slumlord” in its lead sentence.

“Just substitute any other minority for ‘Hasidic’ in such an opening description and it would be understood how provocative it is, particularly associated with the descriptor ‘millionaire slumlord,’” wrote Evan Bernstein, the ADL’s New York regional director.

Yated Ne’eman staffers declined to discuss their coverage of the Stark murder. In lieu of comment, they forwarded a poem they planned to publish by the paper’s editor and publisher, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz. A Yated Ne’eman reporter said the poem was “indicative of the direction” of the paper’s coverage.

Titled “Who Didn’t Want Us Dead?” the poem describes Stark as a “Giving, loving/Holy soul/Snuffed out.” Accompanied by an image of the New York Post’s front page, the poem referenced historical anti-Semitism, mentioning Hitler, Stalin and Ferdinand and Isabella.

“Jewish blood has always been cheap,/nobody cared when they came after us,” Lipschutz wrote.

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