Religious Separatists to Political Players—A Review of “American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel”

Stolzenberg, Nomi M. and Myers, David N. American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by Bob Carey

This is a big, readable study about how Satmer Hasidic Jews became an influential Republican voting bloc in Orange County, New York. You must work through a lot of history to get there, but patience—this is quite a story.

First, the Satmers. The community takes its name from the town of Szatmar or Satu Mare, a part of East Central Europe which belonged to Hungary, then Romania, and back again, finally becoming Romanian in 1945. The Satmers were Haredim, meaning “those who tremble.” Their devotional goal was to be free from the contaminating influences of both contemporary culture and Jewish practices that were not sufficiently rigorous. 

The major figure was Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the founder of the Satmer Hasidic Dynasty. He survived Bergen Belsen while most of his followers in Northeast Hungary were deported or killed. After the war, he lived for a time in Switzerland and Palestine before arriving in New York on Rosh Hashanah, 1946. He founded the world’s first and largest Satmer community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

In founding of Kiryas Joel, Teitelbaum sought to replicate in somewhat mythic terms an Eastern European Jewish village, a shtetl that would stand as a place free from the temptations of urban culture and its contaminating dangers. Set within the village of Monroe in Orange County, this “Traditional Community of Modesty and Values” or  “Shtetl on a Hill” today serves a rapidly growing population, a beacon of devotional rigor, albeit one with the highest poverty rate of any community in the nation.

Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1958). Wikimedia Commons.

On the banks of that large stream that flows through American history, the authors locate Kiryas Joel amidst dozens of other communities which at one time or another represented the quest for religious perfection. In the fabled “burned over district” in central New York—mother lode for such initiatives—the Mormons, Millerites, and other perfectionists girded their loins as they prepared to storm the ramparts of heaven. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the secular “space” created by the First Amendment, they sought to build more or less perfect communities. 

This historical and explanatory material is a necessary prelude to what follows. As it grows and evolves, Kiryas Joel, despite the best intentions, becomes deeply enmeshed in American political life and culture. As religious purity demands that a confined and professedly intolerant community be set apart from others, Kiryas Joel must litigate to sustain its separatism and, when needed, engage in down and dirty politics.

In the story of how that happens—the chewy center of the book—the reader should savor the details of how a community struggles to segregate itself. As its rules conflict with the limits set by American law, and public order, the community’s notion of authority—rabbinic, hierarchical, and deferential—must be altered. The on-going question is to what extent do the Constitution and Bill of Rights allow for public support of an exclusively religious community?

Briefly, the quarrels: first, over land use, building codes, and the acquisition of land to accommodate a community with the nation’s highest birth rate; then, the fight over state and federal funding for schools, which for all intents and purposes appear intensely religious. Finally, will Kiryas Joel be allowed to break away and incorporate as the independent town of Palm Tree? (Yes, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo.) 

The main synagogue in Kiryas Joel, New York (ca.2005) Itzik18, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In addition to the legal and grievable issues which clog the court dockets, there are community divisions. Who is the rightful heir of the founder?  Which party shall control community institutions? How can a community said to be “secular” when the instruments of government are in the hands of the religiously elect? And, as with other seekers of religious perfection, there is a steady stream of the disaffected and dissenting who leave, even as the community grows and thrives thanks to its baby boom and, if not manna from heaven, then state and federal entitlements. 

As the dramas of dispute, division, and litigation play out, the ironies accumulate. Looking beyond Talmud to study the playbook of the white Christian Evangelicals, Kiyras Joel’s leaders, now skilled in the politics of religious grievance, become significant players in the Orange County Republican Party. Once pragmatically non-partisan, voting either Democratic or Republican to advance the community’s interest, Kiryas Joel now becomes a Republican enclave with 98.5 percent voting for Trump in 2020. As the authors explain, the long journey of the Satmers has “given way to assimilation into the present-day culture of right-wing libertarianism and anti-government conservatism.”

Is this a fable, parable, or Bible story? Whatever. We are grateful to Stolzenberg and Myers for an extraordinary tale.

Bob Carey did his undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (’61); read for degrees in theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (’66, ’68), and did his doctoral work in American history at Columbia University in New York City (’84). He served as an Assistant Pastor at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the 1960s and has been a faculty member of Empire State College since 1973, retiring in 2018. He served as an Associate and Graduate Dean in the course of his career with the College. His areas of interest in historical studies are America’s racial and religious history, the history of food and disease, and critical reading.

Featured image (at top): Kiryas Joel, New York (2006). Daniel Case, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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