Albany Times Union: A Sect’s Political Clout
After the Holocaust, the Satmar Hasidim followed a charismatic leader and concentration camp survivor, Grand Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, originally from Satmar, Hungary, to the United States. They settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Their numbers grew over the decades and they became a powerful voting bloc in New York City. Since Brooklyn is the most populous Democratic county in New York, this made them one of the most potent pressure groups in the state. There is no loyalty to any political party, or politician, only to their spiritual leader.
Despite their relatively small numbers, the Satmar can, and do, determine the outcome of close elections. On select issues, and when they choose to mobilize the collective power, the small, insular group is a political wrecking ball — but only to the extent that they can maintain their unique identity and their leaders can govern with authority unchallenged by outside influences.
In the 1970s, Grand Rebbe Teitelbaum, increasingly skeptical of his ability to keep American culture at bay in New York City, suggested the Satmar establish their own community in upstate New York where their children would not be distracted by American culture. They bought land in the Orange County town of Monroe. Once they had the requisite 500 inhabitants to legally form their own village, they did so. The village of Kiryas Joel (“Joel’s Village,” named for the grand rebbe) was established in 1977.
The village was governed largely as a theocracy. The children were educated in private yeshivas, and Jewish law, not the laws of New York, was cited to resolve many of the civil disputes.
They generally spoke Yiddish, not English. Television, radio, and newspapers were eschewed if not outright banned. There was no baseball, no blue jeans, no sneakers and no private interaction between males and females prior to marriage, which was arranged and within the sect.
“We want isolation,” said Rabbi Elliott Kohn, who was dean of the religious school for girls. “That’s why we have no TVs or radios. We don’t want to expose our kids to the entire society, to the entire world. We want to keep our tradition.”
In 1989 the state Legislature created a public school district for the exclusive use of one religious group for the first time in American history.
This column is excerpted from “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State” by Louis Grumet with John Caher. Grumet, a former executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, was the plaintiff in the 1994 Supreme Court decision that ruled unconstitutional the state law that created a school district to educate children with disabilities in Kiryas Joel Village. John Caher, a former Times Union legal affairs reporter, is senior adviser for strategic communications at the state Office of Court Administration.