This post is a direct continuation of the previous post (Book Review | Unchosen).
Over Pesach, the NY Times featured a front page article about Kiryas Joel, the Satmar enclave in Upstate New York. See: Kiryas Joel, N.Y., Lands Distinction as Nation’s Poorest Place.
It received minimal attention on the blogs because of its timing. Had it been during a peak blogging season I am sure it would have been the talk of the town. As it was, the article raised some very important issues about Kiryas Joel, welfare in Chassidus, welfare in general and Chassidus in general.
First, the facts. The poorest place in America with a population of more than 10,000 is Kiryas Joel. KJ is a community that is exclusively chassidic and overwhelmingly Satmar. The second poorest place is a distance speck in the rear view mirror statistically. KJ claims a nearly 70% poverty rate and the second poorest place, Athens Ohio has a 56% poverty rate. The distance between the two is astronomical.
However, KJ is more like suburbia than a typical poverty stricken neighborhood. Nice late model cars are parked in front of upscale stores, women push nice new strollers and there is virtually no street crime. The more affluent members of the community help their poorer neighbors out with free loans and charity. No one goes hungry. The funds are funneled through the religious leadership of the community as are almost all communal matters.
On the one hand, the generosity is admirable. The sense of trust and connection between members of the community is special and should be commended.
On the other hand, some of the ex-chasids in Unchosen see it differently. It is their belief that the leadership of KJ and similar enclaves purposely keep their communities poor. The leadership uses it as a way of asserting their control over the community. People who are uneducated, making little money and with little transferable skills make for good zombie soldiers.
The leadership of the community maintains control over the services for the community so if you want a bite of the apple you need to walk the walk. Not only are financial benefits tied to good standing in the eyes of the leadership of the community, but their opinion of you will determine many other social benefits that are bestowed upon members of the community in good standing. Good recommendations for potential spouses requires their approval as well.
One is not permitted to question the system, the leaders or the ideals. The leaders set the rules and there is no room for question or dissent. One opinion, one set of rules, one way of life period.
I believe this kind of leadership is fascist. This is not democracy. It is a dictatorship. It is a communist regime. It is a stark reminder that absolute power, absolutely corrupts.
Oppressing people so that they will be obedient is downright evil. Requiring them to live by an arbitrary set of rules and regulations and cutting them off if they don’t is a travesty.
If these allegations are true, the leadership of these communities is responsible and reprehensible. That is the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that the leadership does not realize that this is the result of their choices. But that makes the situation no less dire.
For most people living in these communities there is no way out. They rely on their neighbors and friends for everything and they are severely limited in their ability to earn a living outside the community. They speak english as a second language and have below high school level educations.
The sad irony is that chassidus was created to give everyone an opportunity to connect with the spiritual and religious. It was the everyman Judaism. Today , in some places, [and let me be clear, this is about specific isolated enclaves,] it has been relegated to a cult of blind adherence to leaders who inherited their positions from their fathers or pay the price. This is not what chassidus was supposed to be.
That is something even a non-chasid like me can get upset by.
(Tomorrow this will be discussed in the context of the recent arson incident in New Square)