As a scholar fascinated with the functioning and survival of unique Jewish communities, David Myers spent 10 years studying the municipality of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York. About 99 percent of the village’s 22,000 inhabitants are Satmar hasidic Jews.
Myers, chair of the History Department at UCLA, has written up his findings in a forthcoming book, American Shtetl: The Case of Kiryas Joel, New York. He spoke with NJ Jewish News from Los Angeles a few days before he was to speak on the topic at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. That talk has been postponed owing to inclement weather.
NJJN: What makes Kiryas Joel unique?
David Myers: It is a completely holistic, cradle-to-grave Jewish society that operates in the Yiddish language according to the norms of the Satmar hasidic movement, walking in the path of ancient Israel. It operates with a regime of strict ritual observance, and deviations from that are grounds for banishment or exclusion. It imagines itself as a shtetl.
NJJN: How do you define “shtetl”?
“Shtetl” means “little town” in Yiddish, and the most common image that comes to mind is the world in Fiddler on the Roof. A shtetl was a town in eastern Europe with a large Jewish population. But never outside Kiryas Joel have we seen anything this homogenous, this uniform, this hasidic, in the history of Diaspora Jews.
NJJN: How has Kiryas Joel managed to thrive for 20 years?
Myers: Chiefly by delivering a block vote. The founding rabbi of the Satmars, Joel Teitelbaum, was willing to engage local political authorities to advance the interests of his community. It has intensified considerably as Satmar hasidim have learned American interest-group politics very well. Their first community was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Then the leadership said to themselves, “It would be good to create a place of refuge from the seductions and lures of the city in order to live the life we want to lead.”
They purchased land in Monroe, NY. But conflicts with local authorities over zoning regulations and limits on the size of private homes for their large families led to the creation of their own municipality in 1977.
NJJN: Wasn't there a conflict over public schools in Kiryas Joel?
Myers: Yes. In the early 1980s, a problem arose about where and how to educate special-needs kids. One idea was to send them to the Monroe-Woodbury School District, but the exposure to the values of that school district was deemed too detrimental to the children in question. After a good deal of controversy within the community and without, the Kiryas Joel Public School District was authorized in 1989…. It is secular education in Yiddish and English. They are not teaching the Talmud. All of the teachers are Orthodox, and there is a distinctive feel to the place that would not be hospitable to a non-Orthodox Jew.
NJJN: The Satmar hasidim are such an insular community; was it difficult for you to gain access to them?
Myers: It wasn’t difficult. The Satmar community was quite open to me. I was told: “We are interested in having someone come in and hold up a mirror to us so we can look at ourselves.”
NJJN: Can you address the power struggle going on now for control of the Satmars?
Myers: The grand-nephews of the founding Rabbi Teitelbaum — Rabbi Zalman Leib in Williamsburg and Rabbi Aron in Kiryas Joel — are engaged in a quite bitter dispute that has made its way to many non-Jewish legal jurisdictions, breaking the taboo against appealing to gentile courts.
There is a lot of dirty laundry from the two competing sides being aired in the Yiddish press…. The two sides are split 50-50 in Kiryas Joel and that leads to a lot of tensions.
NJJN: How does Kiryas Joel deal with public safety issues?
Myers: They contract out for their police force. None of the Satmars are cops. They tried to have their own fire department but men's beards could not fit in the required oxygen masks and they had some newly purchased fire trucks they could not put to use.
NJJN: Is it a low-crime area?
Myers: Very low-crime. The crimes would be domestic violence or intimidation by one faction against another. The rates are not higher than in other communities, though the crimes are reported at a much lower rate. It is the poorest community in the United States. According to the 2010 census, 62 percent live below the poverty line. But there is a very extensive network of both private and public social services. That is where their political engagement pays off, with tens of millions of dollars in federal aid and a very substantial number of people on welfare. There is no homelessness in the community. There is no hunger in the community.
NJJN: Do many people in Kiryas Joel leave the community?
Myers: It is not a massive stream but it is a rising tide. The ultimate exit factor is the Internet. It provides the exposure to the outside world that the community has sought to prevent. It has the potential to be the ultimate leveler.