“CITY OF JOEL”— A Town Divided


A Town Divided

Amos Lassen

“City of Joel”, a new documentary captures the conflict and drama surrounding Kiryas Joel, a village occupying a square mile within the town of Monroe in upstate New York that became one of the fastest-growing Hasidic communities in the US. When the secular residents of the larger township learn of Kiryas Joel’s desire to annex adjacent land to address its population growth it sets off a turf war. 

Direected by Jesse Sweet, we see two communities with polarized worldviews trying to protect their way of life. On the one side is KJ (or Kiryas Joel), a community of 22,000 Satmar Hasidim founded in the 1970s after the community was priced out of Brooklyn by rising real estate prices. Their Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, sought to establish a rural settlement in which the congregants could be secluded from the outside world. Many families left Williamsburg for Monroe, seeking a place to grow for a community (many of whose ancestors perished in the Holocaust).

On the other side are local activists who form a coalition called United Monroe. The activists want to protect natural resources, such as wildlife, trees, and water as well as their hold on political power, which has been significantly weakened by the Hasidim’s ability to act as a unified voting bloc. We meet strong personalities from both sides and each side makes valid arguments.

A leading member of United Monroe says that there’s no separation between church and state in KJ, while a Hasid activist counters that the founders had intended that provision to protect religion, not to protect the government.  

John Allegrosays he moved there for land, privacy, and quiet and that another 40,000 people would be problematic.

The secular locals are Democrats and the KJ Hasidim are Republicans but the source of their difference doesn’t map onto a standard partisan division. The Hasidim feel the opposition for an annexation for more land (507 additional acres) to accommodate growing families is driven by hatred and anti-Semitism. The locals say it has nothing to do with hatred towards Jews, that by opposing large multi-family units they’re just protecting their quality of life.

The film makes it clear that for the Satmars, religion is not just a private affair. A large sign greeting visitors in KJ lay out their traditions and customs, asking for others to respect their values, such as dressing modestly, using appropriate language and maintaining gender separation in all public areas. Therefore, one wonders if it was another group seeking to expand in the area that was less visible, less religious, less particular in their ways, whether the opposition would be so vehement. This is a particularly sore point for this community of survivors.  

The battle centers around a city board vote on whether to allow the petitioned annexation. The stakes and emotions run high as members of United Monroe try to gather votes and strengthen their position. All the while, the Hasidim maintain they have a constitutional right to practice their religion and grow as a community outside of the stifling city, where the other half of their congregants remains.

Harley Doles, an Evangelical Christian and elected supervisor for the town, is a staunch supporter for the KJ residents, trying to protect their faith-based democratic rights. “Monroe is where the clash of civilizations is taking place more here than anywhere else in America,” Doles says in the film. “Here was an opportunity for me to do good.” United Monroe supporters accuse Doles of being a plant recruited by the Satmars.

In one scene, Max Hauer, a Satmar and former KJ resident, meets with hot sauce-seller Allegro and argue that while the Hasidim make up fifty percent of Monroe’s population they would live in less than two square miles, even after annexation, in a town that consists of 22 square miles.  

Hauer says. “What I do believe is that the tensions that are caused by all these events translate into overt, explicit anti-Semitism.” As evidence of that, he reads off anti-Semitic comments made on the Internet by upstate NY residents about the Jewish community in Monroe. 

Nevertheless, “America has been the best thing that has ever happened to Orthodox Jews,” Hauer says in the film.

The members of Kiryas Joel originate from within the Satmar sect. The group was founded in 1905 by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum.  Hence the name, Kiryas Joel!  In the 1970s, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum moved the growing community to Monroe, N.Y.  The community, which started as 500 in 1977, grew to over 20,000 people as of the 2010 census.  The current grand rebbe is Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum and nothing happens without his blessing.  The Satmar rules are so strict that a person who is solely visiting the town must adhere to their rules.  Even if there’s no official law on the books, the custom is to dress modestly and “maintain gender separation in all public areas.”

This is a Satmar community that wants to part of American life.  They want to study Torah, cook, and just go about their day. Satmar is one of the sects that is firmly against Zionism because of religoius reasons. All while waiting for the Messiah to come.

With growing families, the Kiryas Joel community seeks to annex more land.  The citizens of Monroe unite in a “United Monroe” campaign in hopes of defeating this proposal.  Things get so heated that you almost think a fight will break out during the town hall meetings.

One Kiryas Joel resident agreed to go on the record but only if their identity would remain anonymous.  This is a person had a lot of things to get off their chest.  They talk about the strict community rules, which takes a harsh stance against computers and smart phones.  Let alone the fact that women must shave (I know Orthodox women who let their leg hair grow in the winter–hey, if it’s cold and our legs are covered by leggings, so be it!).  This is a guy who describes the schools as being the main instrument of enforcing the rules.  If you live in the community, you can’t even as much as send your children to private schools!

This resident brings up three categories of people that come from the community but have disagreements.  There’s the group of people who pick up and leave.  There are those who are miserable and stay but continue to curse the system.  Finally, there’s the group who make peace with staying.

Some of these people end up staying because of the fear of losing contact with their families.  This is a serious concern.  It’s sad to watch as all of this goes down.  There are those who end up leaving and have to change their whole outlook and way of life.

One young woman was forced to live with her boyfriend when her mom changed the locks on the doors.  This definitely isn’t my Judaism.  However, she says that right now, her life “is so much better” than what it could be if she stayed.  She turned away from a lifestyle that would have saw her barely talk to a husband while staying home to cook and raise a family.  The rules that the Satmar sect enforces on women are so strict that it’s no wonder that anyone would want to leave!

“City of Joel” culminates with the town hall meeting prior to the town board’s annexation vote.  The debate gets heated and people go over their allotted time to speak.  While the town board ultimately approves Kiryas Joel’s annexation request, they deny the request for larger land.  United Monroe comes to support Kiryas Joel’s secession if it means putting a stay on annexations for the next ten years.

The residents of Monroe have every right to speak out and be upset.  After all, America has an establishment clause that prevents the establishment of an official religion.  Nevermind just how much of the town’s money is being used for social services.  Many of the Kiryas Joel residents live in poverty.  There’s more to be said about this aspect of the community but the film’s bigger focus is on the annexation of land.

Jesse Sweet takes us inside the battle lines as the film is able to capture a clash between cultures.  One can only hope that differences have settled down when the next request comes up for annexing land.  The Satmar sect will surely grow too big for their current size during the next few decades.  Nobody knows what the future holds but City of Joel is a very fascinating and even-handed approach to the workings of the Kiryas Joel community.

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