Tensions between Jews and Christians have been steadily rising in the town of Monroe, just north of New York City, as a result of efforts of residents of the village of Kiryas Joel to annex lands belonging to neighboring municipalities.
Founded in the late 1970s by Joel Teitelbaum, the Grand Rabbi of Satmar, in order to recreate the insular nature of European shtetl villages, Kiryas Joel is now home to over 20,000 members of the hassidic sect. Together with the eponymous Monroe and Harriman, it is one of three villages comprising the larger town of Monroe.
Kiryas Joel’s population has expanded rapidly, and residents have of late turned their eyes on 205 hectares of undeveloped lands belonging to Monroe. Local residents have protested against the proposed jurisdictional change, claiming that allowing the expansion of the super-dense hassidic village would lower the quality of life and damage property values. In response, Satmar representatives have countered that their expansion is necessary, given the high local birthrate. The town is both one of the poorest and one of the youngest in the United States.
The radically divergent lifestyles lived in Monroe and Kiryas Joel also play a part in the tensions. Aside from the disparity between Monroe’s single-family homes and the hassidic village’s closely spaced town houses, Kiryas Joel does not have a downtown shopping district as such, and the presence of a local modesty squad and gender-segregated playground have only highlighted the vast chasm separating the communities.
According to The New York Times, the children of Kiryas Joel are mostly enrolled in parochial schools, but public money is used to finance both books and busing. Many of the town’s residents are on some sort of state assistance, and due to the tendency of hassidic sects to vote as blocs, the town has been the recipient of much government aid as well.
The town does not present a picture of poverty, however, the Times reported in 2011.
Due to the high levels of government financial assistance and widespread charitable infrastructure run by Satmar, the penury of its residents is hard to see at first glance.
The tensions have gotten to the point where Harley Doles III, the Monroe town supervisor, wrote to Kiryas Joel Mayor Abraham Wieder suggesting that the two municipalities split, and that the hassidic village “become its own town.”
“This would sever the municipal and our communities since neither would ever again vote in the other’s elections,” Doles wrote, according to a copy of the letter published on the website of The Photo News.
“The last election crystallized the deep divide that exists in the Town of Monroe and it is my job to address this issue head on,” Doles explained. “The divide stems in large part from the differing lifestyles of the communities.
While one prefers a rural lifestyle the other prefers a suburban lifestyle. While one is a vehicle friendly community, the other is a pedestrian friendly community. With this divide in mind we have two options, either we bridge the gap between our communities or we split the town and separate into two communities.”
According to United Monroe, a residents group opposed to the annexation, the local school district would be jeopardized by the proposed land takeover, “since the additional 30,000 people or more who will populate the 205 hectares will be able to vote in school board elections, and it’s likely that they will have no interest in maintaining the programs our district is known for, since their children will attend private yeshivas.”
There would also be, United Monroe asserted, a “huge impact on taxes, since Kiryas Joel residents are largely below the poverty level, receiving many government benefits which are paid for, in part, by Orange County.”
New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to render a decision within weeks as to whether Monroe or Kiryas Joel will be the lead agency in conducting a State Environmental Quality Review that would in large part determine whether Kiryas Joel will be able to annex the disputed territory.
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