New York Hasidim Challenge Constitution in Bid to Forge the First ultra-Orthodox Town in America

The village of Kiryas Joel, 50 miles from New York City, is seceding from the town of Monroe, unless champions of the separation of church and state put a stop to it

Residents lining up to vote on Election Day in Kiryas Joel, November 2, 2010.
Mark Lennihan / AP

NEW YORK — Palm Tree may sound like a good moniker for a topical vacation resort, but it’s actually the name of the first new town being established in New York State in 35 years. The community is earmarked only for Satmar Hasidim — a move critics say will be closely scrutinized for possible breaching of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

And that legal scrutiny might happen even though both sides of the issue, the Satmar Hasidim and other area residents, are delighted with the Hasidim’s secession — the latter because they want to keep their town semirural and are tired of voters turning down tax increases that would fund public schools and other local services, like a library.

After decades of legal fights between the Town of Monroe and other parties against Kiryas Joel, the Satmar village that is part of Monroe, both sides claimed victory after a November 7 referendum in which Monroe residents voted overwhelmingly to create the new town.

Palm Tree is a translation of Teitelbaum, the family name of the Satmar rebbes — Teitelbaum means date palm tree in Yiddish. The new town will replace Kiryas Joel, which is about 50 miles northwest of New York City. One branch of the warring Teitelbaum rebbes is based in Kiryas Joel, and the other branch of the anti-Zionist sect is centered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Since before its establishment in 1977 bitter legal battles raged between the Satmar Hasidim and other residents over zoning. The Satmar prefer high-density development, the better to accommodate rapid growth, while others are eager to maintain the area’s semirural character.

To make room for its burgeoning population, Kiryas Joel has for years attempted to annex surrounding Monroe acreage. This was the crux of the fight that led to the split.

But while locals on both sides of the issue seem pleased, not everyone agrees.

Boys stand outside a school in Kiryas Joel, New York, July 1, 2014.
Mike Groll / AP

“Leaders of both sides decided to just separate and build a ghetto,” said Louis Grumet, who in the mid-1990s sued Kiryas Joel over a public-school district created to provide taxpayer-funded special education to the Satmar community. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Grumet, who is Jewish and at the time headed the Association of New York State School Districts, won.

Pleading the First Amendment

But victory was short-lived as the New York State Legislature created new laws again and again until it was able to create the special school district without breaching the Constitution’s prohibition on government establishment of religion.

“They think as long as there’s a wall between them that they won’t have to deal with each other,” said Grumet of the split between Monroe and Palm Tree, which recently has also been marked by legal battles over access to water.

“I believe this whole thing is unconstitutional,” Grumet said. His 2016 book, “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel,” is about the lawsuit. Of the new town he said, “it’s a theocracy.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which in 2013 sued Kiryas Joel over a sex-segregated public park, will keep a close watch on Palm Tree, said Executive Director Donna Lieberman. Her organization this week sued the nearby East Ramapo Central School District for infringing the voting rights of black and Latino residents in school board elections.

“Creating a town as a religious enclave is incompatible with the principles of separation of church and state,” Lieberman told Haaretz. “Like many others we are looking at this and trying to get the facts and think about whether this will ultimately pass muster.”

A voter casting a ballot in Kiryas Joel, New York, November 2, 2010.
Mark Lennihan / AP

Palm Tree officials could spur lawsuits “if they prohibit of sale or rental of property to people who are not of the faith, if they refuse to hire government staff who are not of the faith, if they create public schools that are teaching religion,” Lieberman said. “Those are things we’ll be looking at.”

Palm Tree’s legality will rest on what its leaders choose to enforce, agreed Marc Stern, general counsel to the American Jewish Committee and an expert on church-state issues.

“These people will be under a microscope,” he said.

“It might be illegal for them to not allow someone to buy a home there, but that’s different than saying they can’t have a town,” Stern said. Establishing a town for their needs isn’t illegal per se. “It depends what they do with it.”

Kiryas Joel’s leaders are celebrating the vote to split. “Today is a truly historic day that will usher in a new era of peace and stability for all the residents of Monroe,” Gedalye Szegedin, village administrator of Kiryas Joel, told The New York Times.

Szegedin and Kiryas Joel Mayor Abraham Wieder did not return multiple phone messages left by Haaretz. Nor did Don Nichol, the attorney who has represented the village in many of its court cases. Officials at Agudath Israel of America, which often represents Haredi communities in legal matters, said they did not know enough about the Kiryas Joel-Palm Tree issue to comment.

As part of the settlement with Preserve Hudson Valley and Monroe United, civic groups that sued against the Hasidic village’s attempts to expand, Palm Tree gets 56 additional acres added to existing Kiryas Joel. “That means over 12,000 acres of Monroe stay in Monroe and KJ takes 56,” said Emily Convers, a leader of both opponent groups, in a pre-referendum video.

The Hasidic village earlier annexed 164 acres of Monroe but sought to take over 500 more. Village leaders then reduced it to about 300 acres, finally settling for 56.

The threat to Monroe was dire if it did not vote to split from Kiryas Joel, Convers warned in her video.

“If KJ does not separate now, in the next election KJ will have the numbers to win all future Town of Monroe elections,” she said. “That means KJ will have control over 13,000 Monroe acres forever, which will be rezoned and it would lead to the demise of the school district.”

A question of property tax

Convers was obliquely referring to nearby East Ramapo Central School District. In 2005 Orthodox Jews, who send their children to yeshiva rather than public school, won a majority of seats on that school board, which is near Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox enclaves of New Square and Monsey.

Since then, according to community activists and a New York State-appointed special monitor, the school board has dramatically cut public-school district budgets, eviscerating educational resources for the students who attend public schools in order to lower taxes for local property owners.

Similar issues have arisen with increasing frequency in Monroe because of Kiryas Joel, said some people familiar with the community.

Mourners in Kiryas Joel, New York, after the casket containing the body of Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum arrived, April 25, 2006.
Stuart Ramson / AP

Frieda Vizel, one of 15 siblings, was born and raised in Kiryas Joel and got married at 18. As soon as she was old enough to vote “we were told to vote against an increase in the library tax. At the time I didn’t understand what it meant because we didn’t use the library,” she said, though she eventually realized that the community was instructed to vote against a property-tax increase that would have funded the local public library.

Vizel, who is now 32, left Kiryas Joel and the Satmar community when she was 25. For those running the village, the vote to split means “more autonomy. That always benefits the leadership, which wants to be able to make decisions without running into problems with the Town of Monroe,” said Vizel, who now leads tours of Hasidic Williamsburg.

The Satmar community grows quickly. With Hasidim marrying young and prioritizing large families, it nearly doubled in size between 1995 and 2010. Kiryas Joel takes up just 10 percent of Monroe’s geographic area, but with more than 20,000 residents it has more than half the town’s 39,912 people, according to the 2010 census.

Vizel, meanwhile, says that every time she visits Kiryas Joel to see her parents, 14 siblings or dozens of nieces and nephews — almost all have stayed in the village — she can’t believe how fast it has expanded.

“Every time I return I feel like it’s grown twice the size and it takes twice as long to get around,” she said. “The town was not built with an eye to becoming a city. The traffic is a nightmare.”