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American Shtetl:
The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York
by nomi m. stolzenberg and david n. myers
princeton, 496 pages, $35

The sign at the border of Kiryas Joel is a distinctly American artifact. Welcome to Kiryas Joel, it says in boisterous script; then it gets down to business in block capitals. Within the town, visitors should MAINTAIN GENDER SEPARATION IN ALL PUBLIC AREAS. Below this and other warnings, the sign repeats its exhortation in Spanish, ending with por favor Disfrute de Su Visita (please enjoy your visit).

This Hasidic Jewish community of over 32,000 people in Orange County, New York, is within commuting distance of New York City, but can feel like a foreign country. In American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York, authors Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers make a compelling case that the village is far from an unreconstructed throwback to a European shtetl. Rather, it is a thoroughly American phenomenon. Over the years, the village's community has used the power of American law to defend itself from the intrusions of American culture. The history of the town exemplifies the tension experienced by many religious and ethnic communities who wish to be in America, but not of America.

Kiryas Joel was founded in secret during the 1970s by a group of Jews of the Hasidic Satmar sect. Their arrival was enabled by discreet land buys and obfuscated building plans. These tactics were necessary in order to gain a foothold in the larger municipality of Monroe, New York, which was predisposed to use zoning regulations to reject any major population expansion, especially if the new neighbors were religious Jews. As Kiryas Joel grew, its history could be chronicled by successive lawsuits. 

As Stolzenberg and Myers describe it, the village was shaped by a clash between “illiberal liberalism” and “liberal illiberalism.” The surrounding community took the approach of “illiberal liberalism,” paying lip service to pluralism but unwilling to tolerate the “wrong” kind of community. The people of Kiryas Joel took the approach of “liberal illiberalism,” mustering the distinctively American rights system to carve out a space free of individualist values and the aspects of American culture that conflicted with their faith. The fights between the two began over zoning and multifamily housing, but soon shifted to their natural battleground: the schools.

Schools lie on the border between the family and the wider world. Both parents and teachers see it as their job to shape character, not just convey sterile facts, and they are right to do so. But when the values of families and the values of a country diverge, the school is the place these clashes come to a head. And in Kiryas Joel, the importance of schools is magnified—not just by the gap between the community and the surrounding culture, but also by the town's demographics. According to the American Community Survey, Kiryas Joel has the lowest median age (twelve) of any municipality in America. More than 60 percent of residents are under age eighteen.

For the most part, the children of Kiryas Joel are educated in private religious schools, but students with disabilities are entitled to additional state-sponsored support under Title I. Mapping out how students at religious schools can exercise this right in accord with state law has been a legal mess. For some time, students with disabilities at religious schools had to meet with their teachers in trailers parked outside the institutions; they were entitled to state-funded aides, but these aides could not legally enter a parochial school building. No clear rules emerged from Supreme Court cases. For a period of time, it was legal to provide books to parochial schools, but not maps (atlases fell into a legal gray area).

Eventually, the larger municipality of Monroe, of which Kiryas Joel was then a part, decided that Satmar children with disabilities would need to come to the local public schools for remedial help. Their families did not agree. Kiryas Joel instead attempted to incorporate as a separate village from Monroe, with a separate public school system that, in practice, would exist solely to serve disabled Satmar children and provide their Title I services. 

The fight against the Kiryas Joel school district drew together a “Baptists and bootleggers” coalition of conditional allies. Some members of the Satmar community opposed the new district because they felt that this sort of entanglement with the public school system would dilute their way of life. That put them on the same side as secularists who came to the defense of Monroe. Louis Grumet, the one-time leader of the New York State School Boards Association, joined the case to advocate for a strong wall between church and state. 

Ultimately, the Satmar village amicably split from Monroe, and the separate school district was won after a series of constitutional law cases. New York passed four laws to support the new district, the first three of which were struck down as unconstitutional; the fourth survived due to the exhaustion of the litigants.

Throughout this conflict, the anti-public school contingent within the village increasingly relied on American legal theories and claims of individual rights to block entanglements with American culture. One dissident parent, Yosel Waldman, ran for school board in the Kiryas Joel public school district because he opposed its existence. He worried this merger with secular authorities would corrupt his religious community. After a series of escalations, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the community’s spiritual leader, expelled Waldman’s six children from their private religious school. In response, Waldman hauled the rebbe into court. 

Waldman’s appeal to secular authority to judge the rebbe was convulsive. As Stolzenberg and Myers write, “Never before had a Satmar religious leader been summoned to a secular court to defend his actions. The order to Aaron to appear in court sliced into the very heart of the Satmar system of religious authority, challenging the supposed autonomy of Jewish law embodied in the figure of the all-powerful Rebbe.” It was one thing to appeal to American laws and norms to mediate the disputes between the village community and its neighbors, and another to bring it to bear in an internal dispute.

Now, as Stolzenberg and Myers narrate, the community frequently returns to court. Throughout, the authors do a good job helping the reader follow decades-long suits with a repeating cast of players. But the cases are no longer primarily against outsiders; they are about internal fissures. The religious authorities in Kiryas Joel, originally threatened by Monroe’s zoning laws, now write the zoning codes themselves. They even used that power to shut down a rival synagogue. Another struggle, between two heirs to the founding rabbi, led to prolonged litigation over access to the Kiryas Joel graveyard.

The community succeeded in using American law to gain some protection from American culture, but the power of secular courts and individual rights has proven difficult to walk away from. Any proponents of “liberal illiberalism” are likely to face similar temptations. It is hard to adopt a system of values purely instrumentally—as a way to fend off the world—without letting that system enter into the culture you are trying to shield from the world. Some of the most tactically effective defenses of religious liberty rely on appeals to theories of rights or alliances with candidates who cut against the core of your faith. These strategies can win the battle but lose the war.

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.

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Photo by Dann Toliver via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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