Journal News Story on Rockland Presentation
Man at center of Kiryas Joel suit to speak in W. Nyack
It used to be said that there were two issues you didn’t talk about in polite society: religion and politics.
Louis Grumet tackles both in the 2016 book he wrote with John Caher: “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State.”
And he’ll tackle both, again — and The First Amendment, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman and anything else anyone wants to talk about — in person on Nov. 1 in West Nyack, as the JCC of Rockland County kicks off its 2016 Festival of Arts, Books & Culture, a month-long celebration of the written word.
Grumet clearly knows his subject cold. Festival organizers asked if he wanted the Nov. 1 audience to submit questions in advance, but Grumet said he fears no questions.
The book is a clear-eyed examination of Kiryas Joel, the Orange County village established by Satmar Jews in 1977.
“Kiryas Joel” translates to “Joel’s Village,” named for Grand Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, the sect’s spiritual leader who led them to the promised land near Monroe, where they have created a powerhouse of political influence.
Grumet’s book tracks the progress of the land, from the Dutch to the Germans to the onion fields to the invention of Velveeta cheese (really) and the outlet malls that draw visitors by the thousands.
Grumet has his bona fides. His lawsuit and its appeal went back and forth until it became the subject of a landmark 1994 Supreme Court case — The Board of Education of the Village of Kiryas Joel v Grumet.
In its decision, the high court struck down the creation of the Kiryas Joel school district, ruling as unconstitutional the creation of a separate religious school district to get state and federal financial help to educate children with disabilities.
He was an unlikely plaintiff in the original case, a Jew from West Virginia suing over legislation signed by Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Grumet considered Cuomo a mentor, and was a special assistant to Cuomo when he was New York’s secretary of state before being elected governor.
But Grumet insists the case was not about any particular religion, but about the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, about “freedom of” and “freedom from” religion.
“The First Amendment was written by two different guys, Jefferson and Madison, close friends but with two different views and it was a compromise between them,” Grumet says. “Madison believed in freedom to worship and as long as everyone has that freedom – whether you believe or not believe that’s good enough. Jefferson believed in freedom from worship, that there had to be a total wall of separation between church and state.”
Grumet, who was executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, sued in 1990, after the state Legislature passed and Cuomo signed a bill creating the Kiryas Joel Village School District, making it the only village in the state with the power and authority to operate its own public school system.
“It was a vampire bill,” Grumet says, “one that cannot stand the light of day.”
His argument — one he took all the way to the Supreme Court, thanks to the donated services of attorney Jay Worona — was with the state, not with the Satmar community in Kiryas Joel.
“I didn’t sue the Hasids,” he said. “I didn’t think they did anything wrong. I thought they were just doing what they wanted to do. I thought the State of New York was the one who did something wrong. And I sued them.”
Having been snubbed by the Supreme Court, Kiryas Joel sought relief in Albany, where legislators including George Pataki, drew up bill after bill to satisfy the Satmar and the courts. The fourth bill, passed in 1999, was broad enough to pass judicial muster, as it could be applied to more than just the Kiryas Joel district. The separation of church and state was affirmed, thanks in large part to Grumet’s suit.
Kiryas Joel isn’t getting smaller. It has grown from 525 in 1977 to more than 22,000 as of 2014.
“They make no bones about it,” Grumet says. “They mean to have a city, or whatever, of 100,000 up there, eventually. They mean for it to be very large.”
As for neighboring public school district Monroe-Woodbury’s concerns about the impact of all those new students, Grumet has little sympathy.
“Monroe-Woodbury should grow up and stop acting like babies,” he said. “They had more of an influx of students from New York City over the past 25 years than they’re going to have from Kiryas Joel in the next five years. And they handled all those kids without complaining. What’s the big deal? It’s that kind of attitude that caused Kiryas Joel.”
There are still legal battles raging over the annexation of land, and there’s a move to press the Orange County Legislature to create the town of “North Monroe” for the Satmars. Grumet points out that, unlike creating a village, creating a town requires action from the New York Legislature, “something they haven’t done since 1919.”
Who: Louis Grumet, author of “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State.”
When: 7 p.m, Nov. 1.
Where: JCC Rockland, 450 West Nyack Road, West Nyack.
Tickets: $18, $25 at the door.