Kiryas Joel is an enclave of ultra-orthodox Jews who belong to the Satmar Hasidic sect. Members of this group believe in separating themselves from others – they’d rather not be around non-sect members. Thirty-four years ago, they won the right to create their own village from the surrounding community of Monroe.
The village’s founders might have envisioned an idyllic community where people of a shared faith lived in harmony. It hasn’t worked out that way. As often happens when people live in insular communities, factions emerge. Dissidents in Kiryas Joel don’t like the way the town of about 20,000 is being run. The dissidents, who by some accounts now make up 40 percent of the community, say religious discrimination is rampant. They say if you don’t belong to the right synagogue, you’re a second-class citizen.
A local newspaper, the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., reported, “The case alleges discrimination against dissidents…in various facets of public life, from tax exemptions for synagogues to election improprieties to selective enforcement of village noise ordinances. Among the most serious allegations is that Kiryas Joel’s Public Safety Department, a quasi-police agency, has acted as enforcers for the main congregation and tolerated acts of violence and intimidation against dissidents by unruly crowds of young supporters of Satmar Grand Rebbe Aron Teitelbaum, the leader of Kiryas Joel’s majority faction.”
...visitors to Kiryas Joel might be forgiven for believing they have stepped into a mini-theocracy. A sign at the village entrance admonishes visitors to dress modestly. Cleavage-revealing tops for women are verboten, and both sexes are told to cover arms and legs. Couples are advised to “maintain gender separation in public places.”
The sign was erected by the town’s largest synagogue. Its wording is tough, but in fact the village can’t legally enforce rules like this. Still, women who dare to visit the community while wearing skimpy summer outfits have reported scowls and glares. (Imagine the reaction from the Religious Right if this were a town of fundamentalist Muslims and they erected a sign reading, “Women are welcome to visit if accompanied by a male relative. Please respect our values by wearing a burqa.”)More.