Satmar’s micro-society: Kiryas Joel is a mirror of the American people

Do New York State’s public school curricular standards for English, history, mathematics, and science violate Satmars’ religious freedom?

 SATMAR HASSIDIM crowd bleachers on Lag Ba’Omer in Kiryas Joel, New York, 2016. (photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
SATMAR HASSIDIM crowd bleachers on Lag Ba’Omer in Kiryas Joel, New York, 2016.
(photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)

In the mid-1970s, a group of hassidim, led by Joel Teitelbaum, the charismatic, virulently anti-Zionist founder and first grand rebbe of the Satmar dynasty, established a community in the town of Monroe in Upstate New York.

Far from multi-ethnic and multi-racial Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where most Satmars who survived the Holocaust had lived since the 1940s, Kiryas Joel, Rabbi Teitelbaum hoped, would be an insular, separate, Yiddish-language paradise devoted to Torah study, prayer and obedience to God’s Law.

By 1979, when Teitelbaum died, Kiryas Joel had built synagogues, mikvaot, schools and markets, often in basements of apartment buildings. Although about half of its residents lived below the poverty line (four times the national average), a large charitable Satmar network provided substantial support to the settlement. Its population grew steadily: from 2,000 in 1980, to 13,000 in 2000, to 25,000 in 2019.

Kiryas Joel succeeded in achieving a remarkable degree of social isolation and local sovereignty. In 1977, KJ became an incorporated village, with authority over housing permits and zoning regulations. Recognizing that state and federal funds could not go to private schools, and determined not to have Satmar special needs students take classes in Monroe-Woodbury public schools, KJ leaders subsequently persuaded the New York State legislature to establish the Kiryas Joel Union Free School District.

Combined with ongoing efforts to annex land, these actions embroiled Kiryas Joel in seemingly endless rounds of controversy with non-Satmar neighbors and dissident factions loyal to Alta Faige, Rabbi Teitelbaum’s widow, within the village and in Williamsburg. The conflicts, according to Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers, forced KJ officials to rely on secular and legal institutions they disavowed.

A Satmar wedding takes place in Williamsberg, breaking coronavirus restrictions. November 2020 (credit: Courtesy)A Satmar wedding takes place in Williamsberg, breaking coronavirus restrictions. November 2020 (credit: Courtesy)

In American Shtetl, Stolzenberg (a professor of law at the University of Southern California) and Myers (a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author, among other books, of Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction) provide an extraordinarily detailed and fascinating analysis of these conflicts and their relevance to religion in the United States.

Although Kiryas Joel self-consciously rejects the traditions and practices of American society, mandating, for example, that females do not drive cars and residents (and visitors) wear long pants and skirts, covered necklines and sleeves past the elbow, cover their heads and observe gender separation in public areas, the authors argue that KJ is also “quintessentially American.”

Like religious communitarians who preceded them, mostly notably the Mormons, the Satmars (despite their taboo on adjudicating internal disputes in secular tribunals) were instrumental pragmatists who “aligned their self-preservation” to external political authorities without “deeply internalizing their norms into their own self-understanding.”

Moreover, Kiryas Joel benefited from the political moment in which it arose, with conservatives endorsing the right of Christians to assert their own religious and cultural identity; progressives embracing identity politics for racial, ethnic and gender minority groups; disability rights advocates arguing for “a difference model of equality” instead of “mainstreaming”; and Americans across the ideological spectrum choosing to live in what are de facto neighborhoods segregated by race, ethnicity and class. And the US Supreme Court is increasingly sympathetic to claims that government must not suppress religious liberty.

As they dissect the dozens of court cases involving Kiryas Joel, Stolzenberg and Myers demonstrate that it is virtually impossible to resolve the contradictions in the first two clauses of the First Amendment of the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Do village officers who defer to religious authorities by, for example, denying building permits to non-Satmars and dissidents, refusing to allow female bus drivers to drive boys to school, and putting polling booths in the main synagogue, violate the establishment clause?

Do New York State’s public school curricular standards for English, history, mathematics, and science violate Satmars’ religious freedom? Can dissidents legitimately claim that KJ has denied their religious freedom? Is the rebbe’s authority limited or all-encompassing? Should secular courts sort out Satmar succession crises?

Although Stolzenberg and Myers maintain that strife and even physical violence “have sharpened, battle-tested and permitted the growth of the Satmar community,” litigation has subsided. In November 2017, the town of Monroe allowed KJ to annex 220 of the 507 acres Satmar residents had purchased, pending agreement of a moratorium on further annexation and permission from the legislature to make the enclave a town, the first new town in New York in 35 years.

In July 2018, governor Andrew Cuomo signed the law creating Palm Tree, English for Teitelbaum. And, the authors report, Satmars have come to terms with the existence in separate factions.

Kiryas Joel, Stolzenberg and Myers conclude, is a “shtetl on a hill” (though certainly not “a model of Christian charity,” like John Winthrop’s 17th-century Massachusetts Bay colony), a “distinctive micro-society on the American landscape,” without parallel in the Jewish Diaspora in the degree of self-governance it exercises.

Religiously and ethnically homogeneous, committed to religious purity, at odds with its neighbors, not without internal divisions, KJ also serves “as a mirror of American society, exposing deep roots and fissures in the animating ideals” of the United States.