Religious Minority Status Upended: The Tale of a Hasidic Town

By Zalman RothschildFebruary 17, 2022

Religious Minority Status Upended: The Tale of a Hasidic Town

American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York by Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers

KIRYAS JOEL IS one of the more unique villages in the United States, with a population of 99 percent Hasidic Jews aligned with the Satmar sect. The Hasidic neighborhood at the edge of Monroe, New York, looks like an ordinary working-class subdivision within an easy drive of Manhattan, but it has one of the greatest per capita poverty rates in the country, along with the lowest ratio of playground space to children. And its crime rate is astoundingly low.

This combination is reflective of Hasidism writ large. Adherents typically receive little to no secular education (including no mathematics, science, or English) and enjoy few employment opportunities as adults; the vast majority marry young, often at age 17, and have many children. (A single set of parents may have as many as 18 children.) Hasidim also tend to live in isolated communities. One might assume that such a unique ecosystem as Kiryas Joel has been extensively studied, but that assumption would be wrong. Aside from a smattering of law journal articles, there was no book-length academic study of the village that defies so many stereotypes — until now.

A new book co-authored by law professor Nomi M. Stolzenberg and Jewish historian David N. Myers — American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York — now fills that void. The book describes in arresting detail the trajectory and triumph of arguably one of the most paradoxical villages in the United States. But the fact-intensive story Myers and Stolzenberg captivatingly tell also permits the astute observer to extract an important insight of constitutional significance: religious minorities do not always lack the political power to protect their interests, as is often assumed. Kiryas Joel may not be rich, but it has clout.

The story of Kiryas Joel begins after World War II when visionary Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum concluded that the Holocaust had come to Europe as divine judgment for assimilation and spread a separationist ideology among his fellow Jewish refugees in Brooklyn. The message caught on. In 1974, a group of Satmar Hasidim moved from Brooklyn to a desolate part of Monroe. Two years later, after heated zoning disputes with local officials over multi-unit homes, the Satmars, as they are called, opted to secede. In petitioning to incorporate its own village, the Hasidic leadership took care to ensure that the new village boundaries would include only Hasidic families; indeed, when the surveyor’s first draft accidentally left three non-Hasidim inside the village, a Hasidic leader instructed him to immediately correct his error. The Satmars had an easy time securing permission from the state: their petition to incorporate Kiryas Joel — in Hebrew, “Town of Joel,” named after the late Satmar Grand Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum — was quickly approved by New York authorities.

There was no public school in the new village, and the Hasidic leadership had no intention of establishing one. Given that nearly all the village residents sent their children to village yeshivas (religious private schools), there was simply no need. To satisfy federal education law requirements to accommodate the small number of Hasidic children with disabilities, the school district provided public special education in one of the girls school’s annex.

That arrangement did not last long. In 1985, the United States Supreme Court held that no public education of any kind could be provided in parochial schools. An easy solution would have been for the Monroe public school district to move the classes to mobile homes right outside the Hasidic school (as many religious schools began to do), but the district understood federal law as prohibiting such an arrangement. The only option extended to the Hasidic parents of children with disabilities was to send their children to a neighboring public school that could accommodate them.

Kiryas Joel’s leadership sprang into action. With the help of state officials, including future governor George Pataki, village leaders petitioned the New York legislature to designate the village of Kiryas Joel as a separate public school district unto itself. Although the trend was moving in the opposite direction — toward enlarging public school districts to include much larger populations — the Hasidim got what they wanted with relative ease. Within months, a separate school district for the tiny village was established. Louis Grumet, a secular Jew who was staunchly devoted to separation of church and state, filed an Establishment Clause challenge in state court. In response, the Hasidic leadership of Kiryas Joel assembled a formidable team of lawyers, including respected constitutional lawyer Nat Lewin. When the highest court in New York held against Kiryas Joel, the team unsuccessfully petitioned the United States Supreme Court to overturn that decision.

But they still won. As Myers and Stolzenberg explain, with a series of stays (temporary “legal wins”) and the state legislature’s ready willingness to redraft the legislation carefully so that it would not offend the Supreme Court, the Hasidim of Kiryas Joel ultimately kept their district and now collect at least well over double and according to one government estimate over five times as much funds per child as compared to the average state expenditure for special education.

The elaborate story Myers and Stolzenberg tell about the formation and success of Kiryas Joel throws into question a long-held assumption about religious minorities in the United States: that given their vulnerable political status, they are in need of special constitutional protection. Because they lack the political power to fend for themselves in the halls of the legislatures, the Constitution — and the courts interpreting and applying it — must protect religious minorities. As Justice Douglas explained in one of the foundational cases on free exercise of religion, Sherbert v. Verner, the principal purpose of free exercise is to safeguard “people [who] hold beliefs alien to the majority” and who “could easily be trod upon” — an understanding of the underlying purpose of the First Amendment that is widely accepted.

By any measure, the Hasidim of Kiryas Joel would appear to be a religious minority. Kiryas Joel’s Hasidim live apart from mainstream Americans, in an isolated village in Upstate New York. Many Hasidim in Kiryas Joel speak little English and cannot read or write in English. The majority live beneath the federal poverty line. If religious minority status for the purposes of constitutional analysis is closely equated with lacking political heft, the Hasidim of Kiryas Joel would appear to be a textbook example of such a community.

But American Shtetl offers a different view of powerlessness, suggesting the need for a more nuanced metric to measure minority status of religious communities. At every turn, the Hasidim of Kiryas Joel succeeded — one might say wildly — in achieving their political goals. Although they are a numerical minority whose way of life is at odds with mainstream American culture, the Hasidim have not proven themselves to be politically impoverished and vulnerable to the whim of majoritarian will. To claim otherwise is to confuse modest dress with modest tactics, financial poverty with political poverty, lack of fluency in English with a lack of fluency in political machinations, and self-isolation from mainstream society with a lack of interest in and ability to enter the public sphere when doing so would be advantageous.

In a book that is more centered on facts than arguments, this lesson may not be easy for the reader to divine at first glance. But the extensive facts that the authors engagingly relay — the fruit of their ability to penetrate a zealously guarded community, pore over numerous court records, and interview lawyers, politicians, and community leaders (often in Yiddish) — provide fodder for this instructive insight about the potential for isolationist religious communities to deftly navigate American politics and defy long-held assumptions at the heart of First Amendment constitutional law.

If the political and legal saga of Kiryas Joel tells us anything, it is that some “minority” religious communities — perhaps especially those that self-segregate and command voting blocs — are anything but politically weak. Insularity and distinctiveness may not be liabilities; these features may in fact enable minority religious communities to wield the kind of political power that many highly educated and affluent secular towns would envy.


Zalman Rothschild is a nonresident fellow at the Stanford Constitutional Law Center and adjunct professor of law at New York University School of Law.

LARB Contributor

Zalman Rothschild is a nonresident fellow at the Stanford Constitutional Law Center and adjunct professor of law at New York University School of Law.


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