Church-State Controversy Rattles Hasidic Enclave

By Mark Walsh — March 23, 1994 7 min read
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Kiryas Joel, N.Y.

In the mid-1970’s, Orthodox Jews from the Satmar Hasidic sect began buying land here, near the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, to create an exurban refuge about 50 miles from their overcrowded base in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

Malka Silberstein, a homemaker and mother of 12 who left the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn several years ago, said her family moved “for the same reason other people move to the suburbs’'--fear of crime, a desire for more space, and the chance to soothe frayed urban nerves.

But in its quest for an isolated enclave where members could maintain their religious and cultural traditions with less encroachment 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, because this community has made an effort to stay out of the news,’' Mrs. Silberstein said.

At issue in the High Court case is a 1989 law passed by the New York State legislature that created a public school district here 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.

‘Intractable Problem’

In signing the bill into law, Gov. Mario M. 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 children with disabilities who live in the village.

The new school district, which essentially consists of a single cinderblock building in the center of the community, has been “the liberator of all those children,’' said Abraham Weider, the president of the Kiryas Joel school board. “Those children have been neglected for years.’'

But the law was challenged almost immediately 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,’' said Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, who as a taxpayer filed the suit against the district.

State courts in New York have agreed, including the state’s highest court, which ruled 4 to 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 v. Grumet (Case No. 93-517). The High Court will hear oral arguments on March 30.

The streets that wind around the typical suburban houses and apartments of this community reveal little of the Satmar sect’s history.

The Satmar Hasidim are among the most conservative of several sects of Orthodox Judaism that have many members in the New York City area. The Satmar strictly follow the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud, the Jewish scriptures and book of laws and traditions.

The Satmar 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 Kiryas Joel men commute into New York City to work as bookkeepers or salesmen at jobs that do not require a college education. The Satmar forbid higher education as too much of an exposure to the secular world.

At Kiryas Joel’s single retail center, which includes two kosher groceries, mothers push baby carriages through the winter slush and chat with each other 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 originated in Hungary and Romania, and many emigrated to this country after the Holocaust and World War II, partly because the sect’s anti-Zionist stance kept them from going to Israel, said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College of the City University of New York.

While the Satmar 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,’' Mr. Heilman said.

“They want to be in the suburbs, but not of the suburbs,’' he said.

All of the Hasidic groups retain a political influence in the state that exceeds their numbers, Mr. Heilman added. That may explain the willingness of the legislature and Governor Cuomo to come to the aid of Kiryas Joel in 1989.

Below-Average Income

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 with the issue of how to help scores of children who have serious disabilities, such as Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida.

“The magnitude of cost for a community that is as poor as ours is impossible to bear,’' said Mr. Weider. The village’s median income is about $14,700, well below the statewide median of $33,000.

Teachers from Monroe-Woodbury used to provide special-education services to disabled village children in an annex to one of the yeshivas. But that ended in 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in another case that it was unconstitutional for public school teachers to provide services on the grounds of religious schools.

The Monroe-Woodbury district refused to provide special education at a neutral site within Kiryas Joel, insisting that the village’s children needing services 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 Monroe-Woodbury system, state lawmakers stepped in to create the separate district.

Facing skeptical state officials, the village hired Steven M. Benardo, the top special-education official for the Bronx in the New York City public school system, as its first superintendent.

A Wide Range of Services

As he took a visitor around the school, Mr. Benardo explained that it serves about 220 students with a wide range of disabilities.

In one room, therapists were helping a child with a traumatic brain injury learn to use a computer communications device.

In another classroom, teachers were showing several girls from the yeshiva how to care for younger siblings with Down’s syndrome.

“It’s very beneficial to have the babies’ sisters involved at the school, because they are often a primary care-giver at home,’' said the teacher, Barbara Boss.

None of the teaching professionals employed by the district are Hasidic, but several mothers from Kiryas Joel help out as teacher’s aides and clerical workers.

Although boys and girls are strictly segregated in the religious schools, Mr. Benardo said the Satmar have accepted that mixing must be allowed 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 Mr. 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. Some 350 children are taking advantage of Chapter 1 and English-as-a-second-language instruction.

The leaders of the boys’ yeshiva have not yet embraced such services, but Mr. Benardo is working on them. “We have needed to explain ourselves to the community,’' he said.

Mr. Grumet of the school boards’ association said that 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,’' he said. “There is no reason Williamsburg [in Brooklyn] couldn’t constitute one school district.’'

And the district faces criticism from within Kiryas Joel as well. A group of residents called the Committee for the Well-Being of Kiryas Joel has filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the High Court, arguing that the 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,’' said 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.

The school board president disputes that charge.

“Let me assure you that the grand rabbi has nothing to do with the school district,’' Mr. Weider said. “The real issue is the constitutional rights of these helpless children to get an education.’'

A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as Church-State Controversy Rattles Hasidic Enclave


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