All the Young Jews: In the Village of Kiryas Joel, New York, the Median Age Is 13
Abandoned toys litter the village. Tricycles are toppled on lawns. Red wagons rest beneath mailboxes. Big Wheels are strewn across apartment-complex courtyards. Hundreds of toys are sprawled over these 691 acres, but there’s not a child in sight. It’s midmorning, and all the kids are in school.
There’s no need to secure the toys behind locked doors, because this is a safe place. It’s the poorest municipality in America if you go by poverty rate and food-stamp use, but it’s a place of order and community. There are strict rules, as a sign along the road that leads to the village alerts outsiders passing through:
Welcome to Kiryas JoelA Traditional Community of Modesty and Values
In keeping with our traditions and religious customs, we kindly ask that you dress and behave in a modest way while visiting our community
Wearing long skirts or pants • Covered necklines
Sleeves past the elbow • Use appropriate language
Maintain gender separation in all public areas
Thank you for respecting our values and please enjoy your visit!
When a group of Yiddish-speaking Satmar Hasidic Jews carved the Village of Kiryas Joel out of the woods in the 1970s and named it after their leader, Grande Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, they intended for it to be a peaceful and isolated place. It was tiny then — about 500 people — but it grew quickly; within three generations, the population has topped 23,000. The founders had had lots of children and their children had lots of children, and these new families needed homes of their own, so the village built more. The homes became smaller and the buildings became taller and the trees disappeared. Now four-story apartment complexes with corrugated walls and bare-wood exterior staircases line the roads. It is as though inner-city housing projects have been dropped along the winding streets and cul-de-sacs of a suburban subdivision. On weekday afternoons a dozen minivans wait at stop signs. The shopping center’s parking lot is full from morning till night. Men wearing wide-brimmed black hats and long beards and white dress shirts beneath black coats shuffle past the storefronts. Women in long-sleeve knits and skirts that reach to their shins push strollers across busy intersections.
With growth came industry and jobs. Locals turned basements into clothing shops and jewelry stores. Outsiders came in search of work. Now Hispanic men unload moving trucks and labor at the many construction sites. West Indian housekeepers commute two hours by bus from Brooklyn. White men in blue Kiryas Joel Public Safety uniforms make rounds in patrol cars. At the kosher poultry plant, 200 gentiles gut chickens.
As the village grew, it did not remain peaceful and isolated. Growth brought development and money and registered voters for politicians to please. Growth brought trouble: divisions and tensions, loyalists and dissidents. There were the years of fires and stonings and beatings and excommunications — the War Time, some locals call it. When the loyalists banished the dissidents from the village schools and from the cemetery, the dissidents built schools and a cemetery on land just outside Kiryas Joel’s boundaries.
Kiryas Joel became overcrowded. The median age is 13 — it’s the only place in America with a median age under 20. Satmar families spilled onto the surrounding, unincorporated property. In December 2013, village leaders put forth a proposal to annex more than 500 acres of wooded land. The townspeople of Monroe resisted with protests and petitions. And so the village that once sought to isolate itself began to battle its neighbors.
Every afternoon, a parade of school buses rumbles along the winding roads. The children step out and the toys come to life. Big Wheels race down sidewalks. Boys pull wagons filled with younger boys. Girls sit on staircases and on swings. Teenagers huddle in conversation. Parking lots are roped off. The entire village has become a playground. The mothers sit in plastic patio chairs in groups of three or four, watching the children playing. “What do we do for fun?” one mother says. “Take care of our kids. We’re not busy with computers or anything. We just enjoy our families.”
Laughter and shouts fill the air. The sun is low, but darkness and dinnertime are hours off. At times the village looks just like the isolated utopia the grande rebbe envisioned all those years ago.
When he moved to Satu Mare, Romania, in 1905, Joel Teitelbaum was 18 years old. He was serious and confident, and charismatic too. He studied scripture. He washed himself before every prayer. At his bar mitzvah five years earlier, he had lectured for hours about the sanctity of the sabbath. His father had been grand rabbi of the Siget Hasidic movement in the Kingdom of Hungary, and when he died in 1904, Joel’s older brother inherited the title. Some believed Joel was the more fitting leader, and when he left for Romania, they followed.
“Satu Mare” translates in Yiddish as “Satmar,” and shortly after his arrival Teitelbaum proclaimed himself Rebbe of Satmar. There were many other rabbis in the city, all of them more prominent than Teitelbaum, but he didn’t care. When the locals began to build a mikveh, a ritual bath, for the women, Teitelbaum deemed the location too close to the men’s mikveh and asked community leaders to build elsewhere. They refused. One night Teitelbaum and his followers tore down the partially constructed building.
Over the years, his following grew larger. By the 1930s, his rabbinical seminary was the largest in the city, with more than 300 students. His hard-line piety had attracted the more religious Hasidim. He spoke out against leaders who pushed to modernize the faith. He denounced the Zionist movement as heresy and declared that there should be no Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah.
“Joel added mystical dimensions to his opposition to Zionism,” says Allan Nadler, director of Jewish studies at Drew University in eastern New Jersey. “He argued that Zionism is the manifestation of demonic forces in the world. He went so far as to say Zionism was the cause of the Holocaust.”
The German army reached Satu Mare in 1944. Teitelbaum escaped by train. He settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, two years later, and a group of his followers joined him there. In 1947 he registered his movement as a religious corporation and named it Congregation Yetev Lev, after his grandfather. Teitelbaum saw opportunity for the Satmars in America. He hoped to re-create the shtetls of 19th-century Hungary — traditional Jewish communities that were tight-knit and insular.
Samuel Heilman, a Jewish studies professor at Queens College, says Teitelbaum believed that “it was possible to live in this country in a way that was resistant, in the most scrupulous way, against any kind of assimilation.”
By the 1960s Teitelbaum had concluded that this would not be possible in Brooklyn. His congregation had multiplied, and the community’s boundaries pushed up against the surrounding secular world. But he had seen that there was another way for the Satmars to live. In 1954, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky had bought 130 acres of land upstate in Rockland County and built a community for his followers. He named the place New Square, after the Ukrainian town where the Skver Hasidic movement was born. Teitelbaum began to search for a new home for the Satmars.
“Preserving the purity of the Satmar way of life was a paramount goal,” says David Meyers, a Jewish studies professor at UCLA. “They wanted to create a site of insularity, where they would live according to their communal norms.”
The land had to be past the suburbs but still close enough for a daily commute into the city. Teitelbaum selected Mount Olive, New Jersey, a small, wooded town of fewer than 4,000 people. In 1962 he and some of his followers tried to buy a parcel of land. The locals pushed back, and the Satmars were not able to complete the purchase. They could not buy land on Staten Island, either. Teitelbaum decided to continue the search in secret.
By now he had built a team of advisers to help oversee the congregation, which had grown to more than 40,000 members. The leadership circle included rabbis, businessmen, and Teitelbaum’s nephew Moses Teitelbaum. The grand rebbe’s most trusted adviser, though, was his second wife, Faiga Shapiro Teitelbaum. (His first wife had died young, his three children even younger.) He was 50 when he married Faiga; she was 25. But she was smart and compassionate, wise beyond her years. When a stroke left Teitelbaum nearly paralyzed in 1968, Faiga took over his leadership duties. The congregation’s members and advisers trusted her judgment. She was in charge when the Satmar leaders made their play for land in Monroe Township, 50 miles north of Manhattan in Orange County.
The land was cheap: Years earlier, state leaders had drawn up grand blueprints to turn the area into a bustling suburb, and speculators bought up many lots. But the development never transpired and the speculators were happy to cut their losses. They saw little value in the densely wooded acres miles away from the nearest commercial center. It was perfect for the Satmars. They found a Canadian businessman to make the purchases for them and began building homes in 1974. Twelve families moved in.
Tensions with the town leadership surfaced immediately. Monroe’s zoning regulations allowed only one single-family home per acre, but the Satmars had built three-family homes. They argued that the town’s zoning policy restricted their ability to practice their religion. The two sides battled in court.
Then, in 1977, the Satmars petitioned to form a new village. According to state law, 600 residents on connected properties could incorporate into their own municipality. A municipality sets its own zoning rules. The 300 or so acres in the plan comprised land owned entirely by Satmars. The state approved the petition. The Satmars named the new village Kiryas Joel, which in Hebrew means “Village of Joel.”
The locals built a towering stone synagogue, but besides that and the homes, there wasn’t much else. There were few places to work. Every morning the men of Kiryas Joel would board a bus bound for jobs in New York City. The children were schooled at home. There was only one grocery store, in the basement of somebody’s house. “It was a struggle,” says Abe Schnitz, one of the men who commuted into the city. “But we knew eventually we need to expand.”
Grande Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum died in 1979. He was 92. His body was the first buried in the village cemetery. The Satmars mourned their founder for a year. Then they had to name a new leader. Teitelbaum had no direct heir. Faiga could not be grande rebbe, because she was a woman. So the title passed to his nephew, Moses Teitelbaum, and that’s where the troubles began.
During the turmoil of the 1990s the loyalists and dissidents buried their dead in separate cemeteries.
Most Satmars had no problem with Moses Teitelbaum. He was the rightful heir. He was a community leader. But there were detractors. These dissidents believed Moses was more interested in money than in faith, and that the welfare of the village wasn’t his top priority. They cited an old rumor that Moses spent much of his days in his office, obsessively watching the stock ticker.
“People felt he was just using Satmar for his personal financial gain and didn’t really have the religious and ethical chops to be head of Satmar,” says Shmarya Rosenberg, who has covered the village for years on his muckraking Jewish blog, FailedMessiah.com.
Moses set to work consolidating his power.
“The minute it goes to Moses, all of the people, including the widow, who were in under Joel’s regime are out,” says Heilman, the Queens College professor.
Moses installed his loyalists into leadership positions. He appointed his eldest son, Aaron, presumed heir to the Satmar dynasty, chief rabbi of Kiryas Joel, granting him authority over community matters and the village’s yeshiva system.
The dissidents remained loyal to Faiga. She remained a prominent figure. She ran the village nursery and cared for young mothers and infants. But she had had no children with Joel Teitelbaum and therefore no blood ties to the Satmar dynasty. The dissidents split from the loyalists and formed a new Satmar congregation called Bais Joel. Faiga gave the dissidents the home she and her husband had shared, which they used as a synagogue.
Moses Teitelbaum responded with a heavy hand. In a Passover speech in April 1989, he called the dissidents “infidels.” In May he decreed that newcomers to the village must secure permission from the leaders before moving in. In June he ordered that developers must donate $10,000 to Yetev Lev before being permitted to build a new structure. On New Year’s Eve he proclaimed that any landlord who rented an apartment without first checking with the leadership “has to be chased as if he were a murderer.”
Moses and his allies had taken control as the village was experiencing its first baby boom. In need of more land, Kiryas Joel annexed 371 acres from Monroe in 1983. The yeshivas did not have the resources to serve special-needs children, so those children attended public school in the Monroe-Woodbury school district. This led to problems: Parents complained their children were picked on. There was an incident during a field trip when a teacher took the class to McDonald’s, which did not serve kosher food. More trouble arose when a Satmar child was cast in a holiday production as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Village leaders met with politicians, and the politicians agreed something had to be done. George Pataki, then a state assemblyman, proposed an idea: The legislature would create a Kiryas Joel Unified School District. This brought the village some benefits.
“A gold mine,” says Louis Grumet, who at the time was executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. A school district meant jobs. Meant an annual flow of federal and state funding. Meant publicly subsidized bus service for every child, including the great majority who attended private religious schools. And all of it fell under the control of a local school board that would be filled with the grande rebbe’s allies.
The first school-board election took place in 1990. Eight candidates ran for seven seats. Moses Teitelbaum endorsed seven of the candidates. The eighth was a dissident, Joseph Waldman. Waldman and his supporters believed that the creation of the school district was a blasphemous power grab. He cited scripture that ordered religion and politics to be kept apart. “Joe was a true believer,” says Grumet.
Waldman finished eighth. It wasn’t close, but he did get 673 votes.
A few weeks after the election, all six of Waldman’s children were expelled from the village yeshivas. The official reason: Their father had broken religious law by undermining the grande rebbe’s authority. Dissidents complained that loyalist children bullied their children. They complained that leaders removed their names from the lottery system for public housing. Some said they lost their jobs. Phone lines were tapped. Taped conversations between Waldman and his allies popped up in Williamsburg stores, priced at $2 apiece. One day a group of loyalists climbed to the roof of the village shopping center and hung a 100-foot banner stating that a dissident named Yusef Hirsh “should be banished from the face of the earth.” Another night one of Waldman’s advisers, Rabbi Judah Weingarten, was badly beaten outside his Brooklyn home.
“It’s taking revenge against those who step out of line, and it’s sending a message to everyone else,” says FailedMessiah‘s Rosenberg. “You don’t toe the line, you pay the price.”
The dissidents held rallies. Before the 1992 election, 150 of them signed a petition asking the Orange County Board of Elections to move the village polling place from the Yetev Lev temple because they were afraid to go inside. The signees’ names wound up on flyers circulated around the village, and on Election Day the flyer was posted at the entrance to the temple. The dissidents filed a complaint with the county: “Hundreds of [yeshiva students] were in there with the sole intent to intimidate everyone whom they suspected to vote against their rabbi’s endorsed candidate.”
The board of elections concluded that the dissidents “didn’t have solid evidence of intimidation.” Monroe’s town supervisor called the discord in Kiryas Joel a religious dispute, none of the town’s business. Orange County’s human rights commissioner said the county shouldn’t get involved because it didn’t understand the culture.
Few regional officials disagreed, but one, 24-year-old county legislator Rich Baum, was disgusted by the government’s failure to step in.
“We can’t deny that there is a problem in this village,” he said to his colleagues at a 1994 meeting. “This is the shame of this county.”
The grande rebbe declared that the families of the 150 people on the petition were barred from the village cemetery. When one widow visited the graveyard to mourn her husband, a group of young men threw rocks at her. The dissidents opened their own cemetery adjacent to the old one. They built new schools outside the village. Newly married dissident couples reported that young men threw eggs at them on their wedding day.
Aaron Teitelbaum told the Wall Street Journal the violence was caused by “a few youths who sometimes get out of control.” Deputy Mayor Abraham Wieder, a longtime grande rebbe loyalist, told the New York Times, “It’s a peaceful place, with just two or three or five people doing things.”
When a dissident rabbi visited to deliver a speech in the village, a thousand loyalists showed up to protest. Some threw rocks at state police officers dispatched to keep the peace. On another day, more than 100 yeshiva students gathered in front of Joseph Waldman’s house and threw rocks through his windows. Other dissidents found their cars and homes vandalized.
War Time had come to Kiryas Joel.
“Every day you got up in the morning, you wondered who got slashed tires, who got windows broken, who got stoned?” says Ben Friedman, a dissident of the era who says his tires were slashed three times. “Every day: What happened last night?”
The dissidents continued their rallies and marches. Some sued the village for religious discrimination. “We cannot allow a group of religious and unelected ‘leaders’ to use the instruments of state powers to suppress our growing minority,” Waldman wrote in an op-ed published in the region’s daily newspaper, the Times Herald-Record. He circulated a petition demanding that village leaders stop causing “anarchy and violence.”
The night before his daughter’s wedding in September 1995, Waldman’s car was firebombed in his driveway. It happened again in December, and a third time in January. He began carrying a gun.
On July 21, 1996, a dissident rabbi was scheduled to hold a fundraiser at Faiga Teitelbaum’s nursery. In the early hours of that morning, the building burst into flames. Four nurses and a maid rushed the 35 newborns and 34 mothers outside before the nursery burned down. No one was killed.
Ben Friedman, a critic of certain village policies, had his tires slashed three times during the War Time.
Power is always tied to wealth, and the grande rebbe controls that too. “Many millions of dollars,” estimates Queens College professor Heilman. The money belongs to Congregation Yetev Lev. As the congregation’s undisputed leader, the grande rebbe holds the purse strings.
“Everything is in the hands of the rebbe,” says Shmarya Rosenberg.
Real estate holdings in Brooklyn and Orange County constitute a large portion of the congregation’s assets. In 2006 the New York Times pegged the total value of Satmar real estate in the “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Many of the properties are registered under the names of private companies, some of which aren’t hard to trace.
Vaad Hakiryah of Kiryas Joel Inc., for example, has owned several hundred acres of land in Orange County, as Times Herald-Record reporter Chris McKenna has chronicled over the years. A developer named Mayer Hirsch incorporated Vaad Hakiryah in 1989. He was a village trustee at the time, and over the years he was also chairman of the Kiryas Joel Municipal Local Development Corporation and chairman of the village planning and zoning boards. In the early 1990s Vaad Hakiryah’s president was Abraham Wieder, the village’s deputy mayor at the time. Wieder also was president of Congregation Yetev Lev and of the Kiryas Joel school board. Both Hirsch and Wieder were trustees for the United Talmudic Academy, a network of Satmar schools from pre-kindergarten through college. (Wieder was elected mayor in 1995 and won his fifth term in 2013. He did not respond to interview requests for this story.)
The village itself is a source of revenue. Families are big. Some men study scripture instead of holding paid jobs, and some women take care of their children full-time, all of which skews the per-capita income rate. More than two-thirds of residents live below the poverty line — a figure 16 percent higher than for any other municipality in America. No place in the nation uses food stamps at a higher rate. The State of New York gives Kiryas Joel about $1 million a year to fund a Head Start program that offers free pre-K for low-income families. For years the village charged families up to $120 per child for admission. The federal government has spent millions of dollars to fund subsidized housing in Kiryas Joel. The village sold landlords the rights to those buildings in exchange for $50,000 donations, and the landlords charged up to $500 per month in rent from low-income tenants. In 1990 the federal government awarded the village a $360,000 grant to build a medical center. A federal investigation later revealed that the village diverted $130,000 of that into other projects, including a swimming pool for a religious school.
All of this was illegal. None of it is secret. The Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal, and 60 Minutes covered much of it in the mid 1990s, and the Times Herald-Record continued the reporting into the next decade.
More recently, the U.S. Department of Education found that the village misused federal funding meant for school programs: A 2011 audit stated that the village used $276,000 for lease payments on its building, which is owned by the United Talmudic Academy. Another $191,000 apparently vanished from the books. “Kiryas Joel could not provide adequate documentation” to explain where the money went, the auditors wrote.
The money continues to roll in. That’s because the grande rebbe’s power is rooted in people. The Satmars are the largest Hasidic sect in the world. Despite their internal conflicts, they vote as a bloc, for whichever political candidates their leaders endorse. The day before Election Day, Kiryas Joel’s mayor announces his endorsement on a robo-call to every home and on flyers passed out at schools and on street corners.
Grumet, the former executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, calls the Satmars “one of the most powerful political forces in New York.” Nearly every major state politician has paid his or her respects. Pataki, Mario Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, Sheldon Silver, Andrew Cuomo — the campaign trail passes through Kiryas Joel.
The Kiryas Joel Unified School District is a monument to the Satmars’ political might. In 1994 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the creation of the school district violated the separation of church and state. Four days later the state legislature passed a new bill, slightly different from the first, to legalize the school district. The New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the school district was still unconstitutional, and the legislature passed a third bill, slightly different from the second, to again legalize the district. By then the man leading the lawsuits against the district — Grumet — had moved on to a new job. No one has challenged the law since.
“They are extremely smart and sophisticated in grasping the rules of the game in American interest politics,” David Meyers, the UCLA Jewish studies professor, says of the Satmar leaders’ ability to successfully blur the line separating religious freedom from political clout. “And they have succeeded in playing American interest politics as well as any group has ever done.”
That is the power of the grande rebbe, a power vested in those who inhabit his inner circle. These secular leaders hold much sway at the top, and they hold much wealth. It is their livelihoods, not the grande rebbe’s, that are dependent on the decisions of politicians and bureaucrats.
And so as Grande Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum aged and his health declined, the men below him jockeyed for a slice of power in the regime to come.
Aaron Teitelbaum, presumed heir to the Satmar dynasty, made many enemies. For nearly two decades he was the second most powerful man in the sect, and his hard-line approach wasn’t universally popular. Those who liked Aaron called him a magnetic speaker and a savvy leader. Those who didn’t called him ruthless and cunning. The dissidents held Aaron most responsible for the violence of the War Time, and some believed it was his influence that pushed his father to turn Kiryas Joel into a near-totalitarian theocracy.
By the late ’90s, the village had calmed. The War Time was over. “They got the dissidents silenced,” says one of them, Ben Friedman. Joseph Waldman stopped speaking out. Perhaps the fires and threats had worn on him. Perhaps his family convinced him that his principled stance was not worth the trouble it caused them. Perhaps, as some villagers suspect, he was paid off for his silence. Perhaps he preferred the simple, quiet life running of a clothing shop in his basement. He chooses not to say. When asked about it one recent day, he stood behind the counter of his shop jotting numbers in a ledger and replied, “I’m sorry, I’m very busy.”
A new conflict arose to replace the old one. In 1999, 84-year-old Grande Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum announced he was splitting the Satmar dynasty into two branches: Aaron would head the Kiryas Joel congregation and his younger brother Zalman would head the Brooklyn congregation. The news shocked the Satmars. For years Aaron had effectively called the shots for his aging father. The Brooklyn congregation was more than three times the size of the Kiryas Joel congregation. The group’s most valuable properties were in Brooklyn. How could Zalman be granted more power than Aaron?
Aaron’s supporters theorized that his enemies had manipulated Moses in order to ensure that they wouldn’t be shut out of the Satmar inner circle: Because Zalman was friendlier than his brother and less familiar with the Satmar machine, a seasoned Satmar adviser could wield more influence with Zalman at the helm.
“They had an interest in bringing in another son who would be dependent on them and keep them in power,” says Queens College professor Heilman. “It wasn’t hard to persuade a man who was losing his marbles. He wanted all of his sons to be in the business.”
Aaron and Zalman stopped speaking to one another. When Moses died in 2006, both brothers claimed the title of grande rebbe. Two wills materialized, one declaring Aaron heir to the dynasty, the other naming Zalman. Each side presented witnesses claiming to have heard Moses anoint an heir on his deathbed.
“Followers each believe that their guy was the one Moses really favored and that the split was just to be political and generous,” says Ben Friedman, who claims allegiance to neither side.
The battle lines turned murky. The question of who was a dissenter and who a loyalist depended on where you asked it: Brooklyn or Kiryas Joel. Some of the War Time dissidents saw that the split had legitimized their faction. Others took a side.
“Some of the losers in the original battle of the widow and the nephew became Zalman supporters as a way of kind of replaying the original battle,” says Heilman. “They saw Aaron as the incarnation of his father.”
Zalman’s supporters, the “Zallies,” built new schools and synagogues in Kiryas Joel. Aaron’s supporters, “Aaronies,” did likewise in Brooklyn. Each side published a Yiddish-language newspaper: Der Blatt (the Aaronies), Der Yid (the Zallies). Each side held rallies protesting the legitimacy of the other’s claim to the dynasty.
For most Satmars, picking a side has little to do with faith. “They interpret the Torah the same,” says Abe Schnitz, who attends Aaron’s Kiryas Joel synagogue. “But some people have a preference. Like some people like chicken soup, some people like vegetable soup.”
Or to put it another way: Some people are employed by bosses who prefer chicken soup, some people pay rent to landlords who prefer vegetable soup.
There were skirmishes. Aaron and Zalman each made claims to the cemetery in Kiryas Joel and the summer camps upstate. Each tried to buy the Williamsburg armory in Brooklyn. Sometimes they endorsed opposing candidates in elections. They sued each other.
“This is a turf war, not a religious dispute,” says Rosenberg, the FailedMessiah blogger. “It is financial and political. You need to look at Satmar rebbes not as spiritual leaders but as kings in a monarchy. And their kids are princes, and the princes want the throne.”
The kingdom continued to grow. In 2010 Kiryas Joel’s population surpassed 20,000.
“When I was a kid, I knew most people, almost all,” says Yida, manager of the Yetev Lev synagogue, declining to divulge his last name. “Now we don’t know everybody.”
Industries had emerged. Businesses had multiplied. Traffic was an issue. “It grew out of proportion. I don’t think anybody realized how quickly,” says Jack Goldstein, a construction contractor who moved to the village in the 1970s. “Even 20 years ago, it used to be you couldn’t see any car in the road in the middle of the day. Everybody who worked went into the city. There was no work here. Now so many are working locally.”
The village needed more space. Some locals had already moved into homes outside the village. Some Satmar developers had already purchased lots outside the village. And soon Monroe townspeople living in the woods that bordered the village began hearing a knock on their door two, three times a week: How much did they want for their house?
The stone Yetev Lev synagogue was one of the first structures to go up after the village was founded in the 1970s.
Monroe is a live-and-let-live kind of place, a place with narrow roads that wind through forests and up mountains. Residents live in clapboard houses with long gravel driveways and sprawling grassy yards out back. It’s a place to live in solitude, and that’s why most people move here.
The townsfolk didn’t pay much mind to their Hasidic neighbors in Kiryas Joel. Sometimes they’d see them in town, at the hardware store or the shopping center. Sometimes they’d visit the village to buy a cake from the bakery or just to cut through during rush hour. The villagers were pleasant and happy to offer directions to an off-course outsider. Longtime Monroe residents had enjoyed three decades of neighborly relations with the Satmars. “Curious Joel,” some townspeople dubbed the village. They did their thing, we did ours, was the general mindset.
“Everything was pretty easygoing,” says Natalie Strassner, who moved to Monroe from Brooklyn in 1979. “There was never any tension.”
Most townspeople had no problem with Kiryas Joel until January 2014, when newly elected Town Supervisor Harley Doles, who’d won his seat thanks to the Satmar bloc, announced his support of a petition to annex 507 unincorporated acres of Monroe land into Kiryas Joel. All the petition needed, then, were signatures from landowners who represented a majority of the annexation territory’s property values. And that was no obstacle.
The townspeople were outraged. They imagined the wilderness around their properties clear-cut and supplanted by apartment complexes.
“They’re raping the mountain here to build those high-density buildings,” says Andrea Trust, who has lived in Monroe for nine years. “Kiryas Joel wants Monroe.”
The village had been plotting an expansion for years. Vaad Hakiryah purchased more than 100 acres of unincorporated farmland in the neighboring town of Woodbury in 2006, and Woodbury had responded by incorporating the farmland into the municipality so that its rural zoning policies applied there. Satmar developers had also bought unincorporated land in the neighboring town of Blooming Grove, and Blooming Grove officials countered by creating a new village, South Blooming Grove, for the same purpose.
But Monroe had made no such move. The townspeople believed their leaders had failed them. Many felt their elected officials had caved to the Satmar voting bloc, which had numbers and high turnout on its side. There were protests at the town hall. Petitions opposing annexation circulated. Town council meetings erupted into shouting matches. At a meeting in July, Doles told those present, “I think the vast majority of the public will appreciate some kind of a compromise — ” and the crowd cut him off with a collective “Nooooo!”
When the noise died down, Doles explained that there was not much anyone could do to stop annexation. Instead, he proposed, the township and village should split after the deal is done. “Maybe it’s time for the town of Monroe and the Village of Kiryas Joel to go their separate ways,” Councilman Gerry McQuade agreed.
“We know what’s gonna happen,” one resident said during the public-comment period, which lasted nearly two hours. “They’re gonna get their land, and then all of sudden they’re gonna say, ‘No, we don’t wanna be our own town.’ We know that’s what’s gonna happen.”
The crowd cheered.
“If they want to show good faith in this agreement, they must withdraw the annexation petition,” another resident declared. “Your resolution requires nothing of Kiryas Joel, and I think what will happen is that they will get what they want and we will get screwed.”
The crowd stood and cheered.
The Satmars weren’t blind to the shift in perception. In February, Steven Barshov, a lawyer who represents the village, wrote an open letter “To the Citizens of the Town of Monroe”: “So, tell me, what is it that causes such hatred when Hasidic Jewish families vote together? Although people will deny it, it is anti-Semitism.”
In August, village leaders hired an Albany-based public relations firm.
One recent evening, Monroe resident Strassner’s Satmar neighbor asked her, “Why does everyone hate us so much?”
“It’s not you,” she said to him. “It’s the way your group gets everything.”
“Well,” he said, “you give it to us.”
Like most Americans, most Satmars don’t spend much time worrying about the internal machinations of those in power. There are plenty of day-to-day concerns that take precedence. Kiryas Joel isn’t the stage for a landmark constitutional debate; it’s a solid place to raise a family. The villagers love Kiryas Joel for the same reasons the townspeople love Monroe.
“It’s much different from the city — not the noise, the crime, the drugs, and all the other bad things,” says Sam, an executive at the poultry plant who moved to the village 35 years ago. “We lived in the city. Nobody can afford anything in Brooklyn. And there’s more space here.”
(Like most Satmars who agreed to be quoted in this story, Sam declined to give his last name. Through the synagogue, the Voice requested interviews with both Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum. The request was denied.)
The Satmars do not believe in a Jewish state, but they have created an alternative.
“From a certain perspective, this is the Satmars’ counter-Zionism,” says UCLA’s Meyers.
Every year on the anniversary of Joel Teitelbaum’s death, Satmars from around the region converge on the village cemetery to celebrate their founder.
“In our Torah, we are not allowed to have our own state,” says Benzy Markowitz, a Brooklyn native who makes the annual pilgrimage. “We’re waiting in the state we’re living in, praying for the success of the state we live in.”
This has cultivated within the village a deep sense of patriotism. Only in America, many villagers believe, can Kiryas Joel exist. “In the United States everybody can be like they want to be,” says Yitz Farkas, a twentysomething resident. “That’s the U.S. That’s why it’s a great country.”
And it’s why Meyers calls Kiryas Joel a “decidedly American creation.” Like the Pilgrims and the Mormons before them, the Satmars found a place where they could practice their faith freely, so they built a community. They embraced the nation’s proud principles of liberty, and its darker stratagems as well. They mastered the American system of governance and the American system of political power. They fell into the American habit of partisanship. And they felt the American thirst for expansion.
“Thirty years ago Westchester County was farms, and 60 years ago Long Island was farms. And then they exploded,” says Goldstein, the construction contractor. “Cities grow. If you want to live isolated, move west, east, north: That’s how it works. That’s how democracy works. That’s the way it has been in America.”