Published Online:

Law: Testing The Boundaries

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

But in its quest for an isolated enclave where members could maintain their religious and cultural traditions with less en- croachment by the modern world, the sect has been thrust into the national spotlight as the focus of a U.S. Supreme Court case about the separation of church and state. "It's all very ironic,'' Silberstein says, "because this community has made an effort to stay out of the news.''

At issue is a 1989 law passed by the New York state legislature that created a public school district with boundaries identical to those of Kiryas Joel. The village, which now numbers about 12,000 and is still growing, was incorporated in 1977 as a community separate from the nearby town of Monroe. In signing the bill into law, Gov. Mario Cuomo called the creation of the district a practical solution to an "intractable problem'' that had vexed Kiryas Joel residents and educators from the surrounding Monroe-Woodbury district for several years: how best to provide educational services to the many disabled children who live in the village.

The new school district, which essentially consists of a single cinder-block building in the center of the community, has been "the liberator of all those children,'' says Abraham Weider, president of the Kiryas Joel school board. "Those children have been neglected for years.''

But almost immediately, the law was challenged as an unconstitutional concession to the demands of a religious group. "This is the state of New York handing over the reins of government to a theocratic community,'' says Louis Grumet, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, who as a taxpayer filed the suit. One of the main arguments against the district is that the precedent it sets could lead to a proliferation of similar religious districts. "Within New York state alone, there are several other compact Hasidic communities,'' Grumet says. "There is no reason Williamsburg [in Brooklyn] couldn't constitute one school district.''

State courts in New York have agreed with Grumet, including the state's highest court, which ruled 4-2 last year that the law violates the U.S. Constitution because its primary purpose is to advance religion. Last fall, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District vs. Grumet, and in March it heard oral arguments.

The streets that wind around the typical suburban houses and apartments of Kiryas Joel reveal little about the history of the people who live there. The Satmar Hasidim are among the most conservative of several sects of Orthodox Jews that have many members in the New York City area. They strictly follow the teachings of the Torah and draw a border between themselves and the rest of society with their distinctive dress and the use of Yiddish as their primary language. Men dress in special black garments, and their sons wear yarmulkes and long side curls known as pais. Satmar women must wear hats or scarves, and their daughters must wear long dresses or skirts. Pants, makeup, and perfume are forbidden.

Many of the men commute to New York City to work as bookkeepers or salesmen at jobs that do not require a college education. The Satmar forbid higher education; it offers too much of an exposure to the secular world. While members of the sect may have begun migrating from Brooklyn for some of the same reasons other city dwellers move to the suburbs, the difference is that they "moved whole cloth,'' says Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College of the City University of New York. "They want to be in the suburbs, but not of the suburbs.''

On this early spring day, mothers push baby carriages through the remaining winter slush to the village's only retail center, which includes two kosher groceries. Several stop to chat outside a drugstore promoting a special on Pampers. Obeying a religious command to be fruitful, Satmar women typically bear as many as 10 children.

The Satmar have built several private yeshivas, or religious schools, for the education of the approximately 5,000 nondisabled children in Kiryas Joel. But the village has struggled over how to educate the scores of children who have serious disabilities, such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida. "The magnitude of cost for a community that is as poor as ours is impossible to bear,'' says Weider of the school board. The village's median income is about $14,700, well below the statewide median of $33,000.

Teachers from Monroe-Wood- bury used to provide special education services to these village children in an annex to one of the yeshivas. But that ended in 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for public school teachers to provide services on the grounds of religious schools. The MonroeWoodbury district refused to provide special education at a neutral site within Kiryas Joel, insisting that the village children ride buses to other schools in the region. A few Satmar parents complied, but most balked because they did not want to expose the children to the outside world.

Because so few Kiryas Joel residents were sending their disabled children to the MonroeWoodbury system, state lawmakers created the separate district. Facing skeptical state education officials, the village hired Steven Benardo, the top special education administrator in the Bronx, as its first superintendent.

As he leads a tour of the building, Benardo explains that the school now serves about 220 students with a wide range of disabilities. In one room, therapists help a child with a traumatic brain injury learn to use a computer communications device. In another, teachers show several girls from the yeshiva how to care for younger siblings with Down syndrome. "It's very beneficial to have the babies' sisters involved at the school because they are often a primary care-giver at home,'' says teacher Barbara Boss.

None of the teaching professionals employed by the district is Hasidic, but several mothers from Kiryas Joel help out as teachers' aides and clerical workers. Although boys and girls are segregated in the religious schools, the Satmar have accepted mixing in the public school, where boys sometimes are taught by women and girls by men.

By law, Kiryas Joel is a full-fledged public school district, so Benardo has tried to introduce the community to a variety of other educational services. For example, the district has established mobile classrooms outside the girls' religious school for Chapter 1 and other compensatory education services. The leaders of the boys' yeshiva have not yet embraced such services, but Benardo is working on them. "We have needed to explain ourselves to the community,'' he says.

If some local residents remain skeptical about the expanding role of the school district, others still need to be convinced that it should exist at all. One group of residents called the Committee for the Well-Being of Kiryas Joel has even filed a friend-of-thecourt brief with the Supreme Court, arguing that the local school board is under the effective control of the sect's religious leader, Grand Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, who lives in Brooklyn. "There is no democracy here whatsoever,'' says Joseph Waldman, a dissident resident who unsuccessfully ran for the school board in 1989, coming in last behind a slate that he contends was handpicked by the grand rabbi.

School board president Weider disputes that charge. "Let me assure you that the grand rabbi has nothing to do with the school district,'' he says. "The real issue is the constitutional rights of these helpless children to get an education.''--Mark Walsh

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented

MORE EDUCATION JOBS >>