The Curi­ous Case of Kiryas Joel

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

The Curi­ous Case of Kiryas Joel exam­ines a case involv­ing the ultra-Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty of Kiryas Joel, a vil­lage adja­cent to the town of Mon­roe in Orange Coun­ty in New York. It is a curi­ous” case because, as its authors note, it involved indi­vid­u­als who had cho­sen to iso­late them­selves from the temp­ta­tions of mod­ern Amer­i­can life while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly insist­ing on gov­ern­ment accom­mo­da­tion to and finan­cial sup­port of their unique lifestyle.

Kiryas Joel was found­ed in 1975 by the Sat­mar Hasidic sect and was named for its reli­gious leader, Rab­bi Joel Teit­el­baum. Kiryas Joel grew rapid­ly because of its res­i­dents’ high birth rate and the influx of Sat­mar Hasidim from Brook­lyn. It soon had a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties requir­ing spe­cial edu­ca­tion services. 

Ini­tial­ly these ser­vices were pro­vid­ed by the Mon­roe-Wood­bury Cen­tral School Dis­trict, which sent pub­lic school teach­ers into the reli­gious schools of Kiryas Joel. This was dis­con­tin­ued, how­ev­er, after the 1985 Supreme Court deci­sion in Aguilar v. Fel­ton for­bade the use of fed­er­al funds for edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams held in parochial schools, requir­ing stu­dents in need of these ser­vice to enroll Monroe’s pub­lic school’s pro­grams. Kiryas Joel par­ents feared that send­ing their chil­dren to Mon­roe schools would lead to the accul­tur­a­tion of non-Jew­ish val­ues and prac­tices. On one occa­sion they were shocked to learn that their chil­dren were par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Christ­mas program. 

Kiryas Joel’s prob­lems were seem­ing­ly solved in 1989 when Gov­er­nor Mario Cuo­mo signed a bill cre­at­ing a sep­a­rate school dis­trict for the vil­lage, there­by mak­ing it eli­gi­ble to receive funds from the state. Lit­tle thought was giv­en at the time to the like­li­hood that cre­at­ing the Kiryas Joel Vil­lage School Dis­trict vio­lat­ed the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, or that it might cre­ate a prece­dent for oth­er reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties to demand sim­i­lar school dis­tricts of their own.

The Kiryas Joel Vil­lage School Dis­trict was unique. While elect­ed munic­i­pal offi­cials in the cities of New York, Buf­fa­lo, Rochester, Syra­cuse, and Yonkers con­trolled edu­ca­tion, this was not true in the hun­dreds of vil­lages and towns of the state, where edu­ca­tion was the respon­si­bil­i­ty of school dis­tricts. The ratio­nale for this sep­a­ra­tion of edu­ca­tion and munic­i­pal over­sight was to pre­serve the inde­pen­dence of those respon­si­ble for mak­ing edu­ca­tion­al deci­sions. As a result of the 1989 law, how­ev­er, Kiryas Joel because the only vil­lage or town in the state whose bor­ders were iden­ti­cal to that of a school dis­trict. This ran counter to the log­ic of sep­a­rat­ing edu­ca­tion from munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment, since the rab­bi of Kiryas Joel deter­mined pol­i­cy in both areas. 

The 1989 law was imme­di­ate­ly chal­lenged in court by Louis Grumet, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the New York State School Boards Asso­ci­a­tion. He has now co-authored a fas­ci­nat­ing account of the his­to­ry of Kiryas Joel Vil­lage School Dis­trict v. Grumet. Grumet appre­ci­at­ed the finan­cial bur­dens placed on Kiryas Joel par­ents with spe­cial needs chil­dren, but, he argued, this did not jus­ti­fy breach­ing the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state. The law, Grumet said, enabled a polit­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful group to deter­mine that gov­ern­ment funds could be spent to ensure that a reli­gious group could be seg­re­gat­ed from the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty.” It sub­si­dized a theoc­ra­cy of reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists despite a pro­vi­sion in the Con­sti­tu­tion of the State of New York — specif­i­cal­ly the Blaine Amend­ment, which states that Nei­ther the state nor any sub­di­vi­sion there­of shall use its prop­er­ty or cred­it or any pub­lic mon­ey[…] direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, in aid or main­te­nance[…] of any school or insti­tu­tion of learn­ing whol­ly in part under the con­trol or direc­tion of any reli­gious denom­i­na­tion.” The 1989 law, in Grumet’s view, did not involve mar­gin­al church-state issues, but was instead a direct chal­lenge to the First Amendment’s cat­e­gor­i­cal ban on the estab­lish­ment of religion.

The lifestyle of the Sat­mar ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the 1989 law also dis­turbed Grumet. Why, he won­dered, should New York­ers pro­mote the inter­ests of a reli­gious group that rel­e­gat­ed women to sec­ond-class cit­i­zen­ship,” reject­ed mod­ern sci­ence, and viewed out­siders with con­tempt? He also feared that leg­is­la­tion such as that of 1989 would encour­age the char­ter school move­ment, lead to edu­ca­tion­al ghet­tos, and divert state funds from the pub­lic schools. 

Grumet is cyn­i­cal regard­ing the moti­va­tions of the gov­er­nor and the New York leg­is­la­tors in push­ing through the school dis­trict leg­is­la­tion. It was done, he believes, to cur­ry polit­i­cal favor with the vot­ers of Kiryas Joel. The lit­i­ga­tion brought by Grumet result­ed in sev­er­al state and fed­er­al court cas­es between 1992 and 1994, includ­ing a hear­ing before the Unit­ed States Supreme Court. The state and fed­er­al courts over­turned the 1989 ini­tial law as well as two addi­tion­al laws which essen­tial­ly attempt­ed to do the same thing. Final­ly, in 1999 the state court accept­ed the fourth attempt by the New York leg­is­la­ture to assuage the needs of Kiryas Joel. This law was more gen­er­al and applied to any New York munic­i­pal­i­ty with a pop­u­la­tion between 10,000 and 25,000 inhab­i­tants. This sat­is­fied the Unit­ed States Supreme Court’s demand that the ben­e­fits result­ing from estab­lish­ing a school dis­trict must be offered in a neu­tral man­ner to all com­mu­ni­ties and not mere­ly to the Sat­mar res­i­dents of Kiryas Joel. Among these new dis­tricts was the Kiryas Joel Vil­lage Union Free School Dis­trict, whose only school ser­viced approx­i­mate­ly 250 spe­cial needs stu­dents. Grumet would have pre­ferred a law lim­it­ing the abil­i­ty of Kiryas Joel’s lead­ers to manip­u­late the polit­i­cal sys­tem rather than the 1999 law, which mere­ly opened the doors to oth­er reli­gious groups.

There is an ele­ment of irony in the fact that these per­sons, who live, by and large, on the mar­gins of Amer­i­can soci­ety, have been so suc­cess­ful in mak­ing their voic­es heard in Albany and Wash­ing­ton. Grumet is quite crit­i­cal of the polit­i­cal activ­i­ties of Ortho­dox lead­ers, includ­ing the theo­crat­ic” lead­ers of Kiryas Joel, for gam­ing the sys­tem to advance the inter­ests of their com­mu­ni­ties by per­fect­ing the long­stand­ing polit­i­cal art of lob­by­ing and log-rolling.Though pleased that his efforts tem­porar­i­ly strength­ened the Estab­lish­ment Clause, he is scep­ti­cal whether the courts will be able to with­stand pres­sures com­ing from reli­gious right. As I look back,” Grumet recalls, I see that Kiryas Joel was a cru­cial bench­mark at a crit­i­cal junc­ture. I am cer­tain both Jef­fer­son and Madi­son would applaud the bot­tom-line result of the case, and equal­ly cer­tain that they would be grave­ly trou­bled by what has occurred since.”

Relat­ed Content:

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions