Thoughts on Kiryas Joel: The Poorest City in America

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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)

  • Anonymous

    This is also not the Chasidus of pre-WWII Europe, per my father, the son of the last Psichinover Rebbe.

    • I am very interested to hear what he has to say about that. Can you give some more details?

      • Anonymous

        Well my father’s father ran the cheder in their city, he hired a female teacher to teach secular subjects (my grandfather taught the boys limudei kodesh).  Oh and the first time my father went to a chasidishe wedding in the US (the couple weren’t always chasidim), my father said they were doing some things to show off their acceptance of chasidishe minhagim; the extreme separation of men and women was not observed in Europe, at least not where my father lived. In the main shul in the city, the chazen tapped a tuning fork to get the note so the choir would be on key.

  • This is the way the arabs live. the rich sheik lives in the nice big house surrounded by his poor followers and he is both feared and loved (and followed).

    its not a new concept, but its not a jewish concept.

    I disagree that there is no exit, there is always an exit from anything anywhere and anyone…

    • It’s bad for them, it’s bad for us, and hopefully the winds of revolution from the mideast will find their way there as well.

      I wrote about that here:

      Of course there is an exit. It’s just even worse to leave than to stay. Which kind of makes it an easy decision not to leave.

      • Anonymous

        Revolution? I doubt it. Jews don’t act until external forces force them to act. Problem is, those external forces always destroy a lot of the Jews before they can act.

      • why is it worse to leave? this i cannot comprehend…

        • No friends, your family won’t have anything to do with you, you lose the benefits of the community, and as I will be writing about later today, the trump card – reputation.

  • “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.”

    Fascist? Dictatorship? Communist regime? Really? Are we getting carried away here with gross and dramatic epithets that have no bearing on the issues? What does ‘democracy’ have anything to do with a religious community and religious authority? (And why do people in America always invoke that word as the purist model for everything decent and fair?)

    Rest assured, if people did not have their reasons for following that particular way of life, they wouldn’t. We are not talking about nefarious cult leaders that enforce their mal-intent on mindless sheep. Please be reasonable. If you’d like to level a critique against a way of life where people seem to be suffering unnecessarily, please stay on point.
    Also, it is possible to leave. The human spirit is always capable of rising to freedom and self-actualization, and I suspect the ‘victims’ here are quite complicit. It sounds to me like you have made some sort of vague comparison between what goes on in an oppressive  Muslim fundamentalist society and a community of needy  people that have made themselves  totally dependent because of their backwards priorities. Have you spoken to anyone from KJ or visited  there before you wrote your piece?

    • @facebook-1372703565:disqus Democracy is the most fair system of government. It may not be idealistic or perfect, but it is the most fair. Most of all, democracy has an opt-out. These communities do not.
      Unfotunately, my experience has been that there are many mindless sheeple who blindly follow their corrupt leadership.

      It is POSSIBLE to leave but as I said above, there is a tremendous cost.

      • Fordham FedSoc

        Whether or not democracy is the most fair form of government, majoritarian decision-making is the proper halachic form of government.  The Rishonim wrote numerous Shailos and Teshuvos on this issue, and while they differed in detail and their understandings of what institutions majoritarian government implies, they almost universally held that majoritarian control of communal laws (takkanos and gezeiros), and of local leadership is a must.   

        I will, God-willing, complete a law review article on the subject in the near future.

        • I would love to read your article when it is complete.

  • sa fe

    I recommend you should go to visit kiryas joel before you make your grandiose observations

    • @google-8fd77c47887010c2cb55f02c7b01f4fc:disqus I grew up in Monsey. I have read extensively on the subject. Perhaps I will make a trip one day, but for now, observations from afar suffice to draw possible conclusions.

      I recommend that you read the comment left by Yeedle on the next post:

  • isterlass

    > This kind of leadership is fascist. This is not democracy. It is a dictatorship. It is a communist regime.
    Sorry to be pedantic, but it’s neither fascist nor communist, and certainly can’t be both. What it is is totalitarian. (Communism is a leftist economic theory, while fascism is a right-wing political ideology that Mussolini famously described as being, “whatever I say it is.”)
    > Requiring them to live by an arbitrary set of rules and regulations and cutting them off if they don’t is a travesty.
    I agree, but the Chassidic leadership didn’t come up with it themselves. Putting someone in cherem for not following community standards has a long and hallowed tradition.
    > The sad irony is that chassidus was created to give everyone an opportunity to connect with the spiritual and religious.
    Another irony is that Chassidus was the first modern reform movement. It recast Judaism as being about a mystical mission and connection to God. Yet Chassidus today is on the right wing of Orthodoxy, a sect that formed in opposition of the Reform movement.

    •  it’s neither fascist nor communist, and certainly can’t be both

      That’s the best part. It is both. Communist because they “tax” the more wealthy and give it to the poor keeping everyone on equal ground financially. Fascist because whatever the leadership says becomes the truth. See? It is both!

      Your last two points are great. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • streetrabbi

    growing up in KJ all my life all i can say is… you got it right, but wrong in a way,
    its mostly the same in all chasiduss should it be williamsburg or in any big chasidus in borough park, same goes for monsey, and in Israel,
    this all issue to see from the outside is difficult and completely out of touch,cus you have to live it to understand what is going trough there minds,
    KJ may be more controlled in a way as you mentioned as its isolated and stands out, and it all goes to SATMER.
    the rea;; issue is the system itself and goes back to post WW2 education and extreme leadership, the people running the show dont even know what wrong they do or why innocent victims suffer   from their rules and enforced regulations??? you should be like everyone else.. no? why cant you??
    but time will change as generations change i have lived trough lots of changes in the past 25-30 years.

    in any way thanks for the article!

  • ray

    To the author- I mimic your disgust with the KJ community. Regarding a general lack of freedom and the treatment of women, it’s horrible. Look into the correct usage of the word travesty.

  • sotiredofthebs

    Typical cult. They cannot see a world beyond their extreme limitations. Rape of women is very much seen in same way as Arabs. The woman is always the slut and I am referring specifically to the Nechemya Weberman’s rape case.
    Weberman, an unlicensed counselor in the Satmar hasidic community, was convicted of repeatedly and regularly sexually abusing the girl beginning when she was 12-years-old and continuing until she was 16. He is serving a 50-year sentence in state prison. Satmar community rallied around him, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense and labeling his victim a “whore,” a “prostitute” and a “slut.” Now Weberman can be someone’s slut in jail.