Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
On a sunny afternoon in June, Heshy Tischler showed up at Williamsburg’s Middleton Playground with bolt cutters. The local playgrounds had been closed for months, and because the peak of the pandemic had passed— although it was hardly over, and risk remained substantial—the large families of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods were frustrated. Videos showing lively playgrounds in other neighborhoods were circulating in Orthodox WhatsApp chats, and the prospect of a summer without sleepaway camps loomed. Tischler had been at protests calling on the governor to open summer camps for weeks, going so far as calling it “the Heshy Movement.” Now he was taking matters into his own hands.
Cheers rose as the lock and chain fell away. “Come on in, guys,” he said, in his trademark voice — Jackie Gleason by way of Moe from The Simpsons — as boys in yarmulkes and girls in long dresses milled around him. One man chanted: Hesh-y! Hesh-y! The next day, local elected officials—State Senator Simcha Felder, State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, City Councilman Kalman Yeger—were standing by Tischler’s side, opening up playground after playground in defiance of the mayor’s orders intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. They even posed on a swing set, Tischler standing behind the city councilman and state assemblyman, ready to give them a push. The brazen act of civil disobedience, amplified by the fact that Tischler himself did not wear a mask, resonated far beyond Brooklyn. Ted Cruz tweeted “Bravo.”
He had unlocked more than a playground. He was now well on his way to folk-hero status among the youth of Borough Park, who, as the neighborhood stepped up its refusal to abide by the restrictions that Andrew Cuomo announced to stem new COVID outbreaks, would become Tischler’s army, following him into battle against the governor, the media and members of his own community. This week, it all blew up in the streets, leaving a lot of people in his community appalled. “He’s an opportunist,” Yosef Rapaport, a publicist and podcast host who lives in Borough Park, said. “Every community has its crazy hotheads, and those people are attracted to him.”
“I’m willing to give my life for it,” Tischler told me on Wednesday, of his fight to keep the yeshivas and synagogues open and the governor out of his neighborhood. “I will not stand idly by while they’re doing lies. And I will stand before the holy maker and tell him that I tried my best to fight this. Because these people are lying.”
It’s all part of the Heshy show — the neverending stream of videos Tischler posts to his Instagram and Twitter feeds and which make the rounds in Orthodox WhatsApp groups that tell the story of Tischler’s ascent to hero status in young Borough Park. They were also promotional material for “The Just Enough Heshy Show,” Tischler’s radio program that airs Wednesday evenings, as he reminds his Instagram followers in most of the videos he posts. The real-life show and the radio show are one.
To the Orthodox Jewish residents of Borough Park, Tischler is their own Donald Trump. To those mothers and children who looked longingly at that playground until he stepped in, he’s the big guy—literally—speaking up for the little guy who feels powerless and alienated. To virtually everyone else, he’s a boor who whips up deadly behavior, one who puts his followers at risk of illness and death in order to further his ambitions. In the months following the playground event, he would threaten Cuomo that “if you touch my boy Trump, I’m going to put you over my knee, Cuomo, and smack you around like a little girl when you cry”; call Mayor Bill de Blasio an “idiot” (and sometimes “the fuhrer”); call Chirlane McCray, de Blasio’s wife, a “retard woman,” as well as an unclear epithet that was variously heard as racist or merely insulting. Earlier this week, he ginned up a mob to corner an Orthodox reporter, Jacob Kornbluh, calling him an informer.
Community members and those who grew up there and left declined to comment on Tischler on the record, some worried that giving him attention would only encourage him, others worrying that he’d come after them if they spoke out. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson declined to comment on Tischler’s behavior, although he retweeted condemnations of the attacks on Kornbluh. So did State Senator Brad Hoylman at first: “Our personal belief is that this kind of extremism is inflamed by attention and we’d prefer not to contribute to it,” his spokesperson said on Thursday. But Hoylman later changed his mind, calling for the Brooklyn district attorney to investigate the violence at Wednesday’s night’s protest, and saying of Tischler: “I don’t know the man personally, and I don’t know how much support he truly has among his neighbors. He does not speak for all.” Added Rapaport, “We need to avoid embarrassing people, but he embarrasses himself. I have no compunction denouncing his violence. He is responsible for instigating it and creating an uncontrollable scene.” For a lot of New Yorkers, this was the week they got more than enough Heshy.
The playground episode in June marked the beginning of his rise from an ex-convict and radio host to leader of an anti-lockdown protest movement that would rock the city and draw the bewildered attention of the mayor, the governor, and just about every other resident of the city who wondered what on earth was going on in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn.
Although he’s a longtime Borough Park resident, Tischler himself is something of an outsider. In a community where most men wear a black suit every day, he stands out in his untucked, wrinkled white shirt, his signature press pass (really an advertisement for the radio show) slung around the collar. Unlike most of his Hasidic neighbors, he has a television at home, where he watches Fox News (his wife prefers CNN, which he hates). And unlike the established leaders of his community who operate through conventional channels, scheduling meetings with the mayor and governor and issuing measured statements, Tischler is unencumbered by all that, insulting politicians whenever he pleases. Even his detractors admit that he cares for his community, volunteering to pack boxes of food for the poor, visiting the sick in hospitals, making time to help formerly incarcerated residents find jobs. He gets calls from people in the community all the time: “Please try to refine your speaking, please wear a suit. Heshy, please try to use proper language,” he says they tell him. He answers to no one.
Except in 2013, when a judge sentenced him to a year and a day in prison for immigration fraud. Tischler and 11 co-conspirators had been charged with extracting fees from thousands of undocumented immigrants to pretend to employ them at jobs that didn’t exist. (“I love Trump but I still don’t agree with him on immigration,” Tischler says now. “I believe this country should be open to everyone.”) “It is clear in the case of Mr. Tischler that there is a wide disconnect between his acts of religious charity and his views about the need to conform to the laws of civil society,” said the judge, Naomi Reice Buchwald, according to a sentencing document. “Not only did he commit the crimes charged as well as an earlier immigration fraud, but he has built up literally pages and pages of debts and judgments that are recited in the presentence report which can only be understood as reflecting a dismissive view of the obligations of a civil society and perhaps worse.” He did his time in Otisville, an Orange County prison known for accommodating Orthodox Jewish practice.
Six years later, the obligations of a civil society have, in most people’s view, expanded to include mask-wearing and social distancing, the two changes that public health experts say make the most difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But inside Borough Park—where many believed the community reached herd immunity months ago, where the influence of right-wing media is strong, and where highly social habits run counter to distancing directives—those practices have relatively few adherents. By mid-May, the community had largely resumed normal life, with its synagogues and yeshivas that defined pre-pandemic daily routines reopened.
This presented a dilemma for the neighborhood’s political leadership. First, they fruitlessly exhorted residents to comply with the city’s public health rules. Then, they sought to get New York State’s overnight camps, extensions of the community’s education system, opened for the summer — and fell short there, too. By late summer, those leaders, previously prominent in the community response to the pandemic, had mostly vanished from the front lines. Into the void stepped Tischler, telling his followers that the city’s case numbers were spurious (“Their testing results are lies!” he said Wednesday); posting video of himself from a large outdoor wedding even after those very gatherings were blamed for rising COVID cases in August; and vowing not to let Cuomo crack down on Borough Park. “You’re not coming into my neighborhood, we’re going to do whatever we want,” Tischler said to Cuomo in the wedding video, guests mingling and violin music in the background.
“The Brooklyn Jewish community has had a void of leadership, it has a lot of frustrated residents who would like to see an active response to the declarations by the governor and the mayor,” Nachum Segal, an Orthodox radio host, told me. “So a guy like this comes along and says a lot of the things a lot of people are thinking and the things that are frustrating people, he’s going to get attention.”
The ultimate frustration was thrust onto the neighborhood a week ago at the beginning of Sukkot, the fall harvest festival. After an uptick in new COVID cases in late September, city and state officials had seemed to race to close businesses and, in an ultimate affront, limit synagogue attendance in response to rising COVID infections in the area. “One of the prime places of mass gatherings are houses of worship. I understand it’s a sensitive topic, but that is the truth,” Cuomo said at a press conference Tuesday.
Normally during Sukkot, when school is closed, thousands of teenagers fill the streets of Borough Park, roaming up and down 13th Avenue in front of kosher ice cream shops and bookstores selling religious texts. What would normally be a boisterous crowd in search of a concert or dance party this year turned into a ready-made assembly for protest. Depending on whom you ask, what happened over the course of the next two nights either ended Tischler’s rise or propelled it to another plane.
On Tuesday, the boys and young men burned a pile of face masks in the middle of the street. They blocked city buses from moving through the neighborhood. And Tischler, grabbing a megaphone told the crowd: “You are my soldiers! We are at war!” Angered by outside scrutiny, they chased a photographer away. Around 2 a.m., a community member taking video was chased and beaten. He was Berish Getz, the brother of Mordy Getz, a businessman who had spoken out in favor of mask wearing and social distancing back in April and been labeled a “moser”—one who informs on his fellow Jews to the authorities. Some Jewish legal texts suggest that a moser is subject to the death penalty, making it a particularly menacing designation.
The next day, Wednesday, Tischler weaponized the label further. In a video taken in front of a cemetery and posted to Instagram Wednesday, he called Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider and himself a member of the Hasidic community in Borough Park, a “moser” and a “rat.” The night before, Kornbluh had texted Tischler and asked him to apologize to the community for inciting violence. When Kornbluh showed up to Wednesday night’s protest, Tischler cornered him against a brick wall, summoning a large crowd to surround him. “You’re a moser,” Tischler screamed in Kornbluh’s face. “Everybody scream moser!” Apart from the Jewish music and dancing, it was a scene very much like a Trump rally, from the TRUMP 2020 flags that protestors carried to the ease with which they could be turned against the media.
That was unsurprising to some who have watched the community’s attitudes shift in a way that dovetails with the country’s. “The community is driven and guided by a combination of paranoia and a desire for full personal autonomy while excluding outsiders, outsider point of view, and that which makes them uncomfortable. Trump validates a lot of their attitudes,” said Menashe Shapiro, a political consultant. “Trump is the cocaine, Tischler is one of the dealers (as are super-right-wing radio, blogs and podcasts). The community are the addicts.”
The violence at both protests was condemned widely by elected officials from former state assemblyman Dov Hikind — “I’m ashamed of what happened,” he said of Tuesday’s protest — to de Blasio, who said about Wednesday’s incident, “It’s absolutely unacceptable, disgusting, really.” Tischler wouldn’t take responsibility for it. In fact, he wouldn’t even admit it happened.
“There was no violence,” he told me on Thursday afternoon. “If there would have been violence, there would have been somebody arrested.” (Kornbluh says he was punched and kicked, and there’s video showing someone trying to hit Getz on Tuesday night with a traffic cone.) In an Instagram video that same day, Tischler announced that he had put on a suit and presented himself at the 66th Precinct for arrest, only to be told he was not under investigation.
But on Friday, rumors swirled in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community that Tischler would step back from public life. Some said he was considering dropping out of his run for city council before he’d even officially launched his campaign. In a phone call Friday afternoon, Tischler said he’d never even considered dropping out. If anything, he doubled down: “Whatever you’ve seen me do, you’re going to see bigger and better things,” he said. “I’m going after the governor and the mayor personally now. There’ll be so much, he’s not going to be able to control this city. He’s not going to know what hit him,” Tischler said. “You just wait for round two.”
And shortly after that, he posted yet another video to social media announcing that he would be arrested at 10 a.m. Monday at the 66th precinct in Borough Park. “I’ll be taken in for inciting a riot,” he announced directly to the camera, in a rambling speech. He said he would plead not guilty, called Kornbluh a “very terrible bad man,” and apologized to Chirlane McCray. “Heshy Tischler here will be walking into jail with Pastor McCaul” — a local minister who called for Tischler’s arrest on Thursday—“and a lawyer and turning himself in and I’m very upset about this…I’m hoping that I can be out for the ‘Just Enough Heshy’ show at 9 o’clock Wednesday night.” [Update, October 12, 2020: He was arrested on Sunday night and released on Monday.]
Even after all that, he seems to believe that this week is his ticket not back to jail but to City Hall. Three years ago, Tischler ran for City Council and, in a three-way race, drew just 670 votes out of nearly 17,000 cast. Now that Chaim Deutsch, the city councilman representing a host of Orthodox neighborhoods in South Brooklyn in District 48, is term limited, Tischler thinks he can win that seat. “It would be like bringing Trump in, something refreshing,” said Soya Radin, a longtime Borough Park resident who is Tischler’s radio co-host. “So we wouldn’t have the same people regurgitating, I’m going to make changes, I’m going to do this and then not doing it.”
Political insiders aren’t so sure. “I think the community would be deeply disserved because I don’t think any of his colleagues would take him seriously,” said Mark Botnick, a former advisor to Michael Bloomberg. “You need someone who can work with people and not just be a rabble-rouser.”
And, again like Trump, he knows exactly how to call attention to himself. He’s been getting so much press, he bragged to me, “that I don’t even have to spend any money … They never actually started listening to me until you guys started giving me the promotion, since the parks.”
Could he pull it off? On his home turf of Instagram, Tischler has earned a host of new critics, and it’s unclear whether he could win the support of local leaders or rabbis. But Borough Park mothers won’t soon forget how Tischler fought for their right to send their children to the playground — the hyperlocal, pandemic version, perhaps, of universal prekindergarten. “Kids absolutely idolize him, worship him,” said Rayne Lunger, a local mother. And it’s hard to discount the throngs of young men, many of voting age, following him through the streets, willing to wave any flag and shout any slogan for the man who promises to keep the yeshivas and synagogues open.
“I wouldn’t say he has a shot,” Kornbluh said, hours before Tischler turned the mob on him. “But Trump also didn’t have a shot.”