How Monsey Became a Center of Hasidic Life in America

The hamlet is among several in Rockland County that boast thriving, highly visible ultra-Orthodox communities – making them potential targets for hate crimes like Saturday's stabbing

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Members of the Jewish community gathering outside the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, New York, on December 29, 2019, after a machete attack took place in the rabbi's home on Saturday.
Members of the Jewish community gathering outside the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, New York, on December 29, 2019, after a machete attack took place in the rabbi's home on Saturday.Credit: AFP

Monsey was the scene of a stabbing attack on Saturday that left five people wounded, two seriously. This hamlet is one of several in Rockland County, not far from the New Jersey border, to have seen an influx of Hasidic Jews in recent decades.

Indeed, Rockland County – situated north of New York City and on the western bank of the Hudson River – now has the largest Jewish population per capita of any U.S. county, with 31.4 percent (90,000) of its residents identifying as Jewish. The area’s Hasidic hubs include Monsey, New Square and Kiryas Joel. But how did this area become such a mainstay of Hasidic life?

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It began back in the 1950s, when New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jews were seeking affordable real estate for their quickly growing communities. They started moving out of their Brooklyn strongholds – Borough Park, Crown Heights and Williamsburg – and heading north to the suburbs of Rockland County.

These spaces offered the possibility of moving en masse and establishing enclaves where they could lead lives based on halakha (Jewish religious law) without coming into regular conflict with their non-Orthodox neighbors. Such a dynamic is a familiar one in Israel, where young ultra-Orthodox families from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak have relocated in recent years to settlements in the West Bank, such as Modi’in Ilit and Betar Ilit, which were built with their particular needs in mind.

The first Hasidic community to make the move from New York City to Rockland County was led by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky (1899-1968), the grandson of the founder of the Skverer Hasidic dynasty that had its origins in the Ukrainian town of Skvera (or Skvyra).

Twersky survived World War II in Romania and arrived in the United States in 1948. Almost immediately, he began making plans to leave Williamsburg for a 130-acre (526-dunam) tract of land purchased by his community in Ramapo, a town about 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of New York City. They named their settlement New Square – an English-language nod to the birthplace of their sect.

Principal language: Yiddish

In 1961, New Square became incorporated as an independent village, which made it possible for this “self-governing Torah community” to rewrite the local ordinances to reflect its needs. The result was something of a New World shtetl whose principal language was Yiddish. Population density was high, and zoning regulations were rewritten so as to allow small workshops to open in the basements of homes. By 2010, some 70 percent of the population there was reportedly living below the poverty line.

In 1974, a group of Satmar Hasidim also left Williamsburg – this time for Monroe in Orange County, some 40 kilometers north of Ramapo. It was there that 14 Satmar families established the housing project of Kiryas Joel, which is named for Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (who led the community until his death in 1979). Earlier this year, Kiryas Joel formally separated from Monroe and became its own town following tensions between the local municipality and its Hasidic residents.

Monsey itself is a hamlet of some 22,000 people, situated to the west of New Square. Its name comes from the Munsee group of Lenape Indians who once lived in these parts – although today, according to Marcin Wodzinski’s “Historical Atlas of Hasidism,” it is home to such sects as Berditschov, Vizhnitz, Spinka Monsey and Lizensk.

It is also home to a small group of Koson Hasidim, who are led by Rabbi Chaim Leibish Rottenberg, in whose home Saturday’s attack was carried out. The suspect, whom police named as Grafton E. Thomas, will face five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary.

An onlooker standing outside Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg's residence in Monsey, New York, following a stabbing attack Saturday during a Hanukkah celebration, December 29, 2019.
An onlooker standing outside Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg's residence in Monsey, New York, following a stabbing attack Saturday during a Hanukkah celebration, December 29, 2019.Credit: Julius Constantine Motal,AP

While Brooklyn has been at the center of most anti-Semitic attacks over the past year, ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents of Rockland County have been targeted online, with other community members blaming them for overdevelopment, public school budgets and zoning.

Last summer, for example, a video released by the Rockland County Republican Party was slammed as anti-Semitic and “deeply disturbing.” Titled “A Storm is Brewing in Rockland,” the video – which was eventually removed – featured menacing music, the slogan “If They Win, We Lose” and a warning that “they,” referring to ultra-Orthodox Jews, will “change our way of life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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