State Police: fire was set on 35 infants hours before fund-raising for dissident Rabbi

Just one year after “1,000 at Kiryas Joel riot at dissident Rabbi’s arrival”

In the Ashes of Arson at Kiryas Joel, Tensions of Bitter Factionalism

The New York Times: By ROBERT HANLEY: Published: July 29, 1996

For Jewish mothers and their newborns from New York City and as far away as Toronto and Montreal, the Hilltop Maternity-Convalescent Center was a serene haven for recovery from childbirth. And for new mothers in this Hasidic village of 12,000 ultra-Orthodox Satmars, the center offered a few days’ respite from the nasty political and religious infighting that years ago split Kiryas Joel into two angry camps. It was a neutral sanctuary, open to all regardless of their loyalties in the squabble dividing the village’s neighborhoods.

Arson has now shut it down. The kitchen and main entry are destroyed. Three of the nine bedrooms for new mothers are a dark jumble of water-soaked bedding, soot-streaked walls and buckled floors covered with burned pieces of ceiling.

More symbolically, the crime has reduced the center to just another element in the angry, sometimes violent factionalism of Kiryas Joel, about 50 miles northwest of Manhattan.

Only the heroics of a maid and four overnight nurses, the center’s officials say, spared the village a tragedy. They roused 34 mothers in the center early Sunday and helped them flee, then managed to hand 35 infants in bassinets through windows on the ground-floor nursery to mothers outside. As they did, flames were devouring a meeting hall on the opposite side of the building, perhaps 50 yards away.

The state police say they believe the fire was set in a basement storage closet of the meeting hall hours before a fund-raising event was to be held there by a Brooklyn rabbi, Chezkel Roth, who sympathizes with a dissident faction of villagers who have clashed for years with the majority that runs the town government. As the police press their investigation, old animosities are surging again.

Members of the dissident faction who operated the nonprofit center said thugs in the majority had set the fire.

“They almost killed,” said Zalman Waldman, who is administrator of the center, Yeled Shashyim. “To burn up a center with newborn babies, to do such a coward thing, the Nazi Germans weren’t worse. Thank the nurses no tragedy happens.”

Some in the majority faction scoff. They contend that their wives and newborns stay in the convalescent center and that they would not jeopardize their lives.

The village’s Deputy Mayor, Abraham Weider, a lightning rod for dissidents’ criticism, said his daughter-in-law and newborn granddaughter were at the center when the fire occurred. How could he or his followers, he asked, be responsible for the blaze?

Kiryas Joel’s seething bitterness and tensions belie the village’s outward serenity. Children in brightly colored summer outfits played today in the quiet streets and tidy little yards outside the rows of two-story homes. The supermarket and the mini-mall on Forest Road bustled with shoppers.

But arguing abounded, as it has for years. Dissidents denounced the majority as a cult that controls the town government and the village synagogue and has for years smothered any dissent. They say they cannot build their own synagogue and have been barred from visiting the graves of their relatives in the village cemetery. Buses taking their children to their own yeshiva are occasionally pelted with stones, they say.

They insist that they are not the village dissidents because they remain loyal to the late Joel Teitelbaum, Grand Rebbe of the Satmars, who died nearly 17 years ago. His nephew, Moses, succeeded him as Grand Rebbe. The split in the town started then, both sides agree.

Those who remained loyal to Joel Teitelbaum and his widow, Feige, started encountering criticism. In time, they organized their own yeshiva, which now has about 400 students, they said.

New York Times.com

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