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Inside The Satmar Plan To Win Independence For Kiryas Joel

Once again, Kiryas Joel is in the news. The latest is that the Town of Monroe had voted overwhelmingly to agree to the secession of the Satmar enclave, which will form a new all-Hasidic town of Palm Tree.

On the face of it, this seems like a bold new phase in the political history of Haredi Jews in America. Long deemed to be averse to the glare of public attention, the Satmar Hasidim of Kiryas Joel have used their formidable power to create a town of their own, the first new one in the state of New York in 35 years. By all accounts, this town will grow at an astonishing pace, with estimates suggesting that its population will rise, from the current number of 22,000 or so, to nearly 75,000 by 2035.

And yet, what is unfolding now is the result of a decades-long process, and the repetition of some key patterns. The Satmars’ natural population growth and distinctive way of life (including their near exclusive use of Yiddish, private educational system and sharply demarcated gender norms) lead to tensions with surrounding neighbors that are sometimes, but by no means always, motivated by anti-Semitism.

These tensions can and often do escalate to threats of lawsuits at which point the Satmars mobilize their considerable political capital and sagacity to achieve their goals: the acquisition of more land for their expanding community and a further degree of separation from their neighbors.

None of this is illegal. Purchasing property is a basic American right; asserting political power by winning elections is a cherished tradition. Nor is any of this at odds with the Satmar way in America, including the creation of the new town of Palm Tree.

That name reflects not a displaced geographical fantasy, but rather the English translation of the last name of the ruling Satmar dynasty. Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Hungarian-born founder of the group, was the all-powerful leader of his community and the person after whom Kiryas Joel is named.

It was he who arrived in the United States in 1946 and began to build up a powerful and tight-knit community of strictly observant followers in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Shortly thereafter, he instructed his close associates to seek out a suburban site where a measure of spiritual purity and relief from housing congestion could be found. After decades of failed attempts, Teitelbaum’s confidants began to buy land in the early 1970s in Monroe, in Orange County, New York, where they went about the construction of a new neighborhood.

Unbeknown to Monroe residents, the new neighborhood was intended for Satmar followers of Rabbi Teitelbaum, who aspired to create a “shtetl,” or at least an idealized version of one that was far enough from the seductions of the city, but close enough for men to commute on a daily basis for work.

Almost immediately upon settling into their new suburban home, Satmar residents became entangled in disputes over zoning with town officials in Monroe. Town inspectors insisted that the new settlers were violating local code by placing unauthorized prayer rooms, ritual baths and matzo bakeries in their apartments, as well as by redefining the contours of what a single-family house was. Meanwhile, Satmar residents were intent on preserving the integrity of their way of life, including by discouraging outsiders who did not share their values from renting or buying in the settlement.

Threats of litigation between the two sides reached a boiling point in October 1976 when the Satmars threatened to bring a discrimination lawsuit in federal district court. In an all-night negotiation beginning on October 23, the two sides agreed to create out of the Town of Monroe an autonomous village of Kiryas Joel that would have control over its own zoning regulations.

Even though the creation of an officially recognized village was not Teitelbaum’s original aim, the Satmar Hasidim fought doggedly for their interests, through all available political and legal means.

It was a combative quality long associated with the Teitelbaum family, since its formative 19th-century Hungarian days, in which its members became known for their fierce adherence to Jewish law and an equally fierce opposition to all forms of modern innovation, especially the Zionist movement.

Following the Holocaust, Satmar Hasidim felt a particular sense of urgency to reinvigorate traditional Orthodox life, much of which had been destroyed in Europe. Their own zealous commitments met up with a sense of opportunity born of America. The Satmars learned to play the game of interest group politics, organizing bloc votes and using their political heft to elect officials who were prepared to advance their collective goals.

This willingness to play the political game — and to play it effectively — has not endeared the Satmars to their neighbors, especially in Monroe. On various occasions over the past 40 years, KJ has sought to annex additional land to the village in order to alleviate the ever-present housing shortage.

A visitor can readily understand how pressing the situation is by perusing the densely packed multistory apartments of Kiryas Joel – which is all of 1 square mile — that house families of up to 15 children.

One can also understand how neighbors across the border in neighboring Monroe might fear that their land, water and suburban tranquility were threatened by the Satmars’ ceaseless growth.

Tuesday’s vote to create Palm Tree was preceded by an earlier request by Kiryas Joel in 2015 to annex 507 acres of land for new housing developments. This proposal was vigorously opposed by a citizens group known as United Monroe, which has consistently sought to thwart KJ’s advance into Monroe. Meanwhile, the idea of removing the Satmars altogether from the jurisdiction of Monroe was raised on various occasions, including in 2014 by town supervisor Harley Doles, who recognized the different and perhaps irreconcilable ways of life of the two communities. Declaring both communities as American as apple pie, Doles nonetheless invoked the old maxim that “good fences make good neighbors.”

This brings us to the present scenario. Similar to the zoning dispute that gave rise to Kiryas Joel in 1976, the tensions over annexation prompted the creation of the new town of Palm Tree in 2017. And similar to that earlier decision, the recent election will buy a short-term respite from the deep-seated friction between the Satmars and their neighbors in Monroe.

And yet, the Hasidic community will continue to grow at a rapid clip. This will fuel the need for additional natural resources that may well bring Palm Tree into contact — and conflict — with surrounding towns. Meanwhile, the Satmar presence will continue to grow, perhaps eventuating in the first all-Hasidic city in the world.

David N. Myers is the president/CEO of the Center for Jewish History, as well as the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA. He is the author of “Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford) and the forthcoming “The Stakes of History” (Yale, 2018).


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