A group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis allegedly threatened to revoke the kosher certifications of two Brooklyn restaurants last week, after learning that the businesses had planned to host a comedy show featuring a lesbian performer. The "mafia-like tactics" were successful, according to event organizers, who say they've since been barred from both venues.
Leah Forester, a Flatbush-based comedian who grew up in the Orthodox community, says she was informed last week that Garden of Eat-In would be pulling out from their planned New Years Eve party. While owner Chaim Kirschner claimed to have no problem with Forester's sexuality, he says the Vaad Harabanim of Flatbush, which handles kosher certifications, had threatened to blacklist the business if they were affiliated with the show.
In audio shared with Gothamist, Kirschner can be heard explaining his decision to Forester, noting that he received a call from a rabbi who "said you're a lesbian and you represent that and we can't let this go on." On Facebook, Forester noted that she'd already signed a contract for the gig, booked talent, and paid to promote it. The comedian added that she'd never publicly discussed her sexual orientation before. Like many others, she was pushed out of the Hasidic community over rumors about her sexuality.
After news of the cancellation spread, the owners of the Borough Park restaurant Orchidea reached out to event organizer Adina Miles, offering to host the bash. But almost immediately, both of the restaurant's kosher certifiers threatened to remove their approval, forcing the business to reluctantly rescind the offer, according to Miles.
"The rabbis have definitely started to use these mafia-like tactics more often," said Miles, who goes by Flatbush Girl on Instagram and considers herself both a member of the Orthodox community and a "bit of a whistleblower." The rabbis have even threatened to crush businesses that play FM radio, out of concern for "westernized infiltration into the Jewish mind," according to Miles.
"They're basically on the level of the Department of Health around here," she added. "They're supposed to ensure that the food itself complies with kosher-ness, but they've gone a step further where they're invading the space and auditing what actually occurs there."
Frustration with the rabbis' overreach has led to an outpouring of support from some in the Orthodox community, Miles says. But others have ratcheted up their efforts to deny the women a venue in Flatbush or its surrounding neighborhoods. A widely circulated WhatsApp message denounces the event as going "against every moral fiber of our community," and urges community members to protest any venue that agrees to host the comedians.
As a result, the woman are now looking for spaces unaffiliated with the Orthodox community, though they're still planning to bring kosher take-out food into the event. "We will not be terrorized," Miles told Gothamist.
Attempts to reach the Vaad Harabanim of Flatbush, as well as both restaurants, were not successful.
A spokesperson for the NYC Commission on Human Rights wouldn't confirm whether they were investigating the incident, but noted that the law prohibiting employee discrimination based on sexual orientation would apply to independent contractors as well. Forester, however, says she's not interested in pursuing legal action. "I don't want to hurt my fellow Jew," she said. "I'm telling you: It's sad and it hurts."