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The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State

The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State


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Twenty years ago, in the middle of the night and on the last day of the legislative session, the New York State Legislature created a publicly funded school district to cater to the interests of a religious sect called the Satmar, an insular group of Hasidic Jews that objects to, among other things, female school bus drivers. The rapidly growing sect had bought land in rural Upstate New York, populated it solely with members of its faction, and created a village called Kiryas Joel that exerted extraordinary political pressure over both political parties. Marking the first time in American history that a governmental unit was established for a religious group, the legislature’s action prompted years of litigation that eventually went to the US Supreme Court.

As today’s Supreme Court signals its willingness to view a religious viewpoint like any other speech and accord it equal protection, the 1994 case, Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, stands as the most important legal precedent in the fight to uphold the separation of church and state. In The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel, plaintiff Louis Grumet opens a window onto the Satmar Hasidic community, where language, customs, and dress have led to estrangement from and clashes with neighboring communities, and details the inside story of his fight for the First Amendment and against New York’s most powerful politicians.

Informed by numerous interviews with key figures such as Governor George Pataki, media accounts, court transcripts, and more, The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel not only tantalizes with a peek at cynical power politics driven by votes and Supreme Court justice squabbling and negotiation; it also provides an important demonstration of how a small, insular, and politically savvy religious group can grasp legal and political power. This story—a blend of politics, religion, cultural clashes, and constitutional tension—is an object lesson in the ongoing debate over freedom of versus freedom from religion.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613735008
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Louis Grumet is the former executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. He has previously held various positions including special assistant to then New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo. John Caher, Senior Advisor for Strategic Communications with the New York State Unified Court System, is a former senior reporter with the New York Law Journal, State Editor of the Albany Times Union and the author or coauthor of five books including King of the Mountain and A Time for Reflection. Judith S. Kaye was the first woman to serve on New York’s highest court, the state’s chief judge for 15 years, and, at the time of her death in January 2016, of counsel to the Manhattan law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Leagher and Flom

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The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel

The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State

By Louis Grumet, John Caher, Rick Kopstein

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Louis Grumet and John M. Caher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-503-9



* * *

The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of the clergy.

— George Washington

WHEN ANN KRAWET and her husband, Dave, moved from New York City to Monroe, New York, in 1968, they weren't looking for anything unusual — just a nice, safe home and a smaller, more manageable community. Ann and Dave, a Reform Jewish couple expecting their third child, had been living in a one-and-a-half-bedroom walk-up apartment in Brooklyn and were desperate for more space.

Upstate in Orange County, they found a classic cedar-shingle home in a little subdivision that had been neatly cut into a tree-covered hill so that all of the homes remained surrounded by woods. Ann thought the small round windows on the second level — just under the eaves — were "darling." A living room at the far end of the house had huge sixteen-pane windows that looked over a large lawn bordered by trees. They had found their paradise in a town named in honor of our fifth president, James Monroe, officially a Virginia Episcopalian but more likely a deist.

Monroe, an old colonial town west of the Hudson and about an hour northwest of the Bronx, had approved several subdivisions in the 1960s, including the one where Ann and Dave found their home. They had been attracted to Monroe for a few reasons. First, it was about equidistant between Dave's job at the old US Custom House in lower Manhattan (a two-hour commute) and Ann's parents' home in Sullivan County (west of Orange County, on the border between New York and Pennsylvania); second, since Monroe necessitated a long commute to Manhattan, the prices were cheaper than in closer suburbs (Ann and Dave were able to buy in a subdivision with two-acre lots); finally, the presence of the old town of Monroe added a touch of authentic "small-town" feel to the benefits of good public schools and bucolic splendor offered by such bedroom communities.

Orange County was named after the Dutchman William of Orange, who took over England at the end of the seventeenth century. Originally owned by the Dutch, New York was called New Netherland until the British kicked them out and, in keeping with the reign of King Charles II and his family, renamed it after the Duke of York, brother of the king. About fifteen years after taking over New Netherland from the Dutch, Charles's family lost control of England to the Dutch leader, William. This occurred as part of the "glorious revolution of 1688," when the Protestants took England back from the Catholics one more time. William was married to Mary, daughter of the English king, and invaded successfully. Religious disputes have always weighed heavily in the area. Although William didn't change the name back to New Netherland, he didn't protest when some appreciative Dutch colonists named the southwest area of the Hudson Valley "Orange County."

When the town of Monroe was chartered in the early eighteenth century by Queen Anne, the area of mostly high, rocky hills and swampy valleys was sparsely populated, and the situation wasn't much different eighty years later when the American Revolution was sweeping the colonies. The region saw a fair amount of action during the wars at the end of the eighteenth century. Along with the Mohawk's great chief Joseph Brant, Claudius Smith and his "cowboys" were particularly active in the area around present-day Monroe, defending loyal British from the "American" paramilitary operations. In fact, during his retreat toward Pennsylvania after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn, George Washington stayed in a farmhouse in Orange County. With its tactical advantages and commanding plateau overseeing the Hudson River, Orange County has been home to the US Military Academy at West Point since 1802.

Monroe was built on a relatively level raised plain in a region of marshy farmland that few farmed because nobody knew how, until some Poles and Volga Germans showed up at the turn of the twentieth century, found it familiar terrain, and immediately began to grow onions. Before the arrival of these hardy farmers, this part of Upstate New York had clung to a way of life that would have been recognizable to Diedrich Knickerbocker. These days, bridges have replaced ferries, bringing the west bank of the Hudson within easy reach of Manhattan; the empire of the automobile bought out the onion farms, and the landscape has become a patchwork of suburbs and outlet malls, interspersed with the few remaining colonial towns and a large regional airport.

When Ann and Dave Krawet arrived in the late 1960s, agriculture still dominated a landscape that was ever so slowly evolving into rural suburbia. Cow crossings continued to bring traffic to a standstill on Highway 17, the major east-west corridor, as the cattle were ushered to the milking barns where Velveeta cheese, the 1917 invention of a Swiss immigrant who had settled in Monroe, was still made. The Krawets loved the charm of the area. It seemed they had arrived just at the right time.

Ann resigned her job as a social studies teacher to concentrate on raising the family's three children but soon found she had time on her hands. She started volunteering for a variety of activities at Temple Beth-El, the local Reform synagogue. The temple had been founded during the days when Monroe was just a vacation rental area for people on their way to the big resorts in the Catskills (known as the Borscht Belt because of the primarily Eastern European, Jewish clientele). It was during those first few years volunteering at the temple and for school activities that Ann made lasting friendships in town and was introduced to the whole panoply of local government and community issues with which any vibrant town buzzes. Things were going great: the older kids loved the schools, Ann felt at home in the community, and Dave, despite the long commute, was proud that he could provide his family a lifestyle that, in comparison to the postwar Brooklyn where he had grown up, was one of pastoral luxury.

Then one day a mysterious real estate developer from Montreal purchased about three hundred acres of a recently cleared wasteland north of Highway 17, in Monroe Township. The land near Stewart Air Force Base had been deemed suitable for industrial use. When those plans collapsed, the land was on the market, and relatively cheap. Rumors spread, one of the more accurate beginning at the local Lions Club, where a member who was a state trooper let it be known that he had inspected several different vans that week that had been parked illegally along Routes 44 and 17. In each case, he said, the van had been full of strange men with big beards and some kind of religious cult outfit. The trooper's account was soon confirmed by someone at the chamber of commerce, who knew someone whose nephew worked at the county records office.

Who were these people, with their odd appearance and customs, and what did they want with such a large parcel of land?

Many people understand Hasidic Jews to be "ultra-Orthodox" or some other label that indicates rigid adherence to (even preoccupation with) divinely designated rules for Jewish living. That is not wholly inaccurate, but it is simplistic and unfair and does rather miss the point of Hasidism, which began as a reform movement in Eastern European Jewry in the eighteenth century.

The Hasidim follow a kind of religious life advocated by Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, a man who lived in Eastern Europe in the late 1600s. The Baal Shem Tov, though quite a brilliant scholar himself, felt that the benefits of Judaism, the benefits of that special relationship with God, belonged to all Jews — not just great scholars. He wanted to shift the focus of Jewish devotion from scholarship and asceticism to prayer and rejoicing. Of course, this was still Judaism, so study of holy scripture and strict attention to the laws laid down in those scriptures remained central to the life of the community, but what changed was the goal of the religious life: for the Jewish community to recognize and joyously participate in God's actual presence in the entire world.

Not without controversy, but definitely with success, Eliezer's reforms swept through the Jewish enclaves of Eastern Europe. Dynasties of revered rabbis in the new Hasidic tradition exercised total control over the communities they led. Competition was fierce, with disaffected heirs taking adherents off to start new congregations throughout the pale of settlement in Eastern Europe.

One branch of the complicated Hasidic dynasty settled in the city of Satu Mare in Hungary, near the Transylvanian border. Satu Mare had been an important metropolis for centuries, and by the outbreak of World War II, more than fifty thousand Jews lived there under the rule of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, a Talmudic scholar who had become its rebbe in the early twentieth century, and later became grand rebbe.

The grand rebbe himself was saved from concentration camps and sent to Switzerland, where he survived the war, but the vast majority of his community perished in the camps. Not being a Zionist — in fact, Rebbe Teitelbaum became famous throughout the Orthodox community for his scholarly refutation of Zionism — the grand rebbe stopped only briefly in Jerusalem after the war before making his way to Brooklyn, where other Hasidim had preceded him, in 1946.

Although there was a thriving Hasidic community in Brooklyn before the war, popular culture and assimilation of the various strands of the Jewish community into the New York City melting pot had — at least in a very limited way — encroached on their customs, and the stricter devotees of the sect had, to some extent, given in to what might be described as moderate zealotry. Who could tell what would happen to the rich Hasidic traditions and way of life in a generation, or three? What was the long-term threat to the Orthodox hegemony?

Grand Rebbe Teitelbaum had one goal in later life: to rebuild in America the lost cultural community of Satu Mare. By virtue of his position, Rebbe Teitelbaum was something of an autocrat — a benevolent one to be sure, but an autocrat nonetheless — and he used that power quite effectively.

When Teitelbaum suggested that all Satmar relocate to New York City, they came from all over the world. When he taught that his followers should have absolutely nothing to do with American culture (no baseball games, no radio, no TV, no English-language newspapers, no hamburgers, no golf, no blue jeans), they fervently accepted that too. And when he suggested that, in order to repopulate, married couples should have as many children as possible, they conformed (the average Satmar family has more than eight children). When he taught that young Satmar boys should be trained the way they had been in Satu Mare — studying the Torah and Talmud at yeshivas from 7 AM to 7 PM, starting around the age of five and continuing until a few years after marriage — yeshivas sprang up all over the Brooklyn neighborhood.

But by the mid-1970s Rebbe Teitelbaum had grown increasingly skeptical that American culture could be kept at bay, especially with all the temptations in New York City. Because he feared ausgegrunt ("the green wearing off," or the lost zeal of younger generations that is endemic to devotional sects; witness the second generations of the Puritans in England and America) and lacked faith in the ability of any of his potential successors, he suggested that the community buy a large plot of upstate land and start building an even more isolated community of insular purity — unwittingly following in the tradition of American religious utopias upstate (including secular, socialist Zionist Jewish camps). On the way to the summer bungalows in the Catskills, the elders of the community had noticed a sparsely populated area off Route 17.

That would do nicely.

Monroe locals had a lot of fun arguing over whether the strange appearance of Satmar was a good or bad thing.

Many of the suburbanites had lived in New York City at some point in their lives, and these former New Yorkers fancied themselves sophisticates and sought to demonstrate their liberal open-mindedness by making an ostentatious show of their commitment to diversity, noting how nice it would be to get kosher meat and relating to anyone who would listen their worldly experience with Hasidic shops or neighborhoods in the city of New York. A fair number of those who had moved to Monroe from such "outposts" as Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester listened to the sophisticates with curiosity and anticipation.

The naysayers, on the other hand, were excited because they had something to complain about: it was the end of the "traditional community" as far as they were concerned. They feared the newcomers would destroy property values and ruin the school district, and they warned everyone about doing business with the untrustworthy Satmar.

Ann and Dave Krawet were certainly not fear-stricken, nor were they predisposed to dislike the Satmar. But they were nervously curious, because the area where the Satmar were building was near their own subdivision, and the Krawets remembered family members and other adults complaining about the Hasid as shanda fur die goyim: doing something embarrassing to Jews in the presence of non-Jews. They soon met a few Satmar and found them pleasant and interesting people. The Satmar claimed that they wanted to be good neighbors and the Krawets, with a shrug, were more than willing to give them a chance.

As was Sotirios "Steve" Lagakos, owner of the classic Monroe Diner. A short, tough man with a deep Mediterranean tan and a razor-sharp triangular mustache, Lagakos had arrived in America in the late 1960s, fresh out of the Greek air force and able to speak only halting English.

After working tirelessly for a few years at a diner in Manhattan, saving every cent so he could eventually own his own diner, one night Lagakos found himself driving around upstate in the first automobile he ever owned, a destined-for-the-junk-heap Chrysler he got for twenty dollars. He was searching for a location for his dream diner but had no idea where he was going. His rather erratic driving caught the attention of two state troopers, who pulled him over on Route 17. Upset that he had embarrassed himself while searching for his place in the American Dream, Lagakos started crying. The officers initially suspected he was nuts or drunk and asked him to accompany them to the station (or, as he put it, "the brig"). With one trooper driving ahead and one following close behind, Lagakos made his way to the barracks. Along the way, he saw a shuttered diner with a For Sale Sign. He slammed on his brakes, causing the trooper to rear-end his Chrysler. He excitedly jumped out of the car — it was raining by this time — and hastily scribbled down the information from the sign. The troopers took this as further evidence that he was crazy, and when he tried to explain by pointing vigorously at the sign and shouting, "I buy diner! I buy diner!" they were convinced of it.

The troopers ("They treat me very nice") released him to his brother, after giving him a cup of coffee and an hour to "sober up." But Lagakos came back to Monroe a few days later. He walked into the local Chase Manhattan bank branch, announced he was buying the diner and dumped more than $70,000 in $100 bills onto the loan officer's desk. It was all the money he had in the world, a combination of his mother's life savings and the cash Steve and his brother had literally stashed under a mattress. He scraped and saved to afford improvements to the restaurant, sleeping on a blanket in the basement for a year.

It was the 1970s, the heyday of the American diner, and Steve did a brisk business. By the end of the decade he was well on his way to having five diners throughout the region, owning a large home, sending his kids to college, and employing his entire extended family.

Lagakos remembers welcoming the new Satmar residents and businessmen, wanting to give them the same chance that he had been given. After all, when he arrived in town, he was as foreign as the Satmar, but the community had fully embraced him, respecting his work ethic and the quality of his business sense. Didn't the newest arrivals deserve the same? Steve thought so — as long as they played by the rules, as he and other immigrants had done.

True to everyone's expectations, the Satmar quickly began to develop the big subdivision they had purchased, giving the streets Hasidic-sounding names and redeveloping a strip mall to serve their need for religious-oriented items. People were both a little surprised at the speed with which the Satmar were moving in and a little disappointed that they didn't see much of their exotic neighbors. After the first six months or so, however, rumors spread. The houses going up in the Satmar subdivision began to look strange — in fact, they were row houses! Some were three stories, and many of them seemed to be duplexes. One particularly large building looked like a condominium. Some of the local tradesmen who had worked on the subdivision told stories of supposedly single-family homes with four or five kitchens and as many bathrooms. Plumbers told of odd sewer hookups.


Excerpted from The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel by Louis Grumet, John Caher, Rick Kopstein. Copyright © 2016 Louis Grumet and John M. Caher. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Judith S. Kaye, Former Chief Judge, New York State Court of Appeals vii

A Note on Sources xi

Prologue: "Curious" Joel 1

1 A New Homeland 11

2 Who Moves In? 29

3 Who Governs? 45

4 Who Educates? 57

5 Who Is Worshipped? 73

6 Who Litigates? 87

7 Who Is Our Adversary? 97

8 Here Comes the Judge 109

9 Establishment 123

10 Reviewing the Decision 135

11 Does It Pass the Test? 149

12 Would the Supreme Court Care? 163

13 The Supreme Court Opens the Door 177

14 Strange Bedfellows 191

15 May It Please the Court 201

16 Judicial Deliberations 217

17 Supremely Decided 225

18 Déjà Vu 233

Epilogue 245

Acknowledgments 253

Chronology 257

Notes 269

Index 277

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