Seeking Peace With Neighbors, KJ Group Finds Confrontation at Home
KIRYAS JOEL—Members of a group of ultra orthodox Hasidic Jews living in Kiryas Joel who criticize the village’s annexation of Monroe claim they are being suppressed. Members of the Kiryas Joel Committee for Peace and Harmony spoke to The Epoch Times on Nov. 26 about their differences with village government.
Rabbi Joel Loeb, named after the founder of Satmar Hasidic Judaism, leads an informal group of Kiryas Joel residents who do not agree with how the present leadership has governed Kiryas Joel and has alienated the village’s neighbors.
He estimates at least 200 extended families actively support the goals of the group, which may be as much as 10 percent of a village population estimated to be around 22,000. “We know many, many people, righteous people who understand what we say,” Loeb said.
Kiryas Joel was founded in the 1970s by members of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jewry who were looking for a quieter environment than Brooklyn.
Loeb, however, said the present village leadership does not govern according to Satmar teachings. He said the leadership antagonizes KJ’s neighbors, approves the building of large housing complexes, and uses the power of the KJ voting bloc to install officials that help them achieve their goals.
While Loeb claimed the Committee for Peace and Harmony does not get involved in politics, it has attempted to speak out about village affairs. Loeb said his group’s voice has been suppressed by village leaders.
Rabbi Loeb says village leaders use several tactics to keep the committee from speaking out. Secrecy prevents the residents from hearing what happens in local government.
Loeb said there was no referendum about the annexation of a part of the Town of Monroe by the village. “They didn’t ask anybody,” Loeb said. “They do what they want.”
The annexation of 164 acres of Monroe, approved in September by the Monroe Town Board, has been a source of intense controversy over almost two years involving Kiryas Joel, the inhabitants of Monroe and other neighboring towns, and the Orange County government.
Kiryas Joel board meetings are held in secret, Loeb said. “We don’t know what they did behind closed doors.”
Committee member Shlome Katz said the results of an election held a few years ago that was unfavorable to the leadership were publicized for only two hours before the announcement was taken down.
The leadership holds voting in places that go against the beliefs of strict believers. An opposition party, the KJ Alliance, tried to vote out the mayor about four years ago. Voting booths were set up in a secular school building that many would not enter. “They have their tricks,” Loeb said.
Members of the committee once drove a truck around KJ with a megaphone to explain their dissent. “Then they [village government] came with a public safety van and they blocked us and took away the truck. They claimed this [the use of the megaphone] was a criminal [action].”
The Satmar sect has strict restrictions on television and the Internet. Many KJ residents have no phone. “That means that people don’t know what’s happening,” Loeb said.
The leadership mails three free newspapers to all residents, and the newspapers, Loeb said, tell people how well everything is going. Having little contact with the outside world, the KJ residents must rely on these papers written in Yiddish, which makes the papers a powerful tool for village leaders.
“They are brainwashing people and they are telling all that they want to tell,” said Shlome Katz, a committee member. “People don’t know how they [the leadership] act, what they do, and what’s happening,” Loeb said.
Loeb says it is an unrewarding task to speak meaningfully to the leadership. “It doesn’t look like they can hear us. Are they going to call me to ask what they should do?”
Chaim Marmelstein said that the village leadership does not hear the people of their own party. “If they [the leadership’s party] have complaints, they have just one option—to go along with the party and don’t make problems for them.”
Dissenters have been subjected to name-calling and screamed at by village officials, Loeb said. Village leaders have spoken publicly in the synagogue to shame and isolate members of the committee.
Marmelstein said they were called anti-Semites after they paid for a half-page ad in a local newspaper. Loeb said the leaders have tarred the committee with the same brush as is used against United Monroe. This political advocacy group that opposes the annexation of Monroe is accused by the leadership of being like Nazis, Loeb said.
Because most Kiryas Joel residents only get information from the officially provided Yiddish newspapers, they don’t know what United Monroe is or what it stands for, Loeb said.
“They try to isolate us,” Katz said. Moses Hirsch, another member of the committee, said “We are working against a big village power.”
The committee has been taking actions trying to change minds in KJ. The ad it ran in a local newspaper reads: “Many people of Kiryas Joel strongly oppose how the village leaders have been behaving and how they have antagonized our good neighbors. To ignore the highest ranking officials Orange County is in our opinion unacceptable to this committee and the righteous people of Kiryas Joel.”
The committee members say they are pained by the antagonism of their non-Jewish neighbors. “Hostility from the neighbors hurts us a lot,” Loeb said. He keeps regular contact with the activist group United Monroe to bridge the gap.
Committee member Marmelstein does not like the disagreements. “I don’t want to be in the fight. I don’t want the neighborhood should look at me that I’m a part of the fight against the neighbors.” He moved his family out of Kiryas Joel to Woodbury. “I have no problems here,” he said.
Emily Convers, the president of United Monroe, supports the work of the committee. “They feel very, very strongly that the leadership of Kiryas Joel is not acting in good faith. Rabbi Loeb feels from a religious perspective and from a Torah perspective that this is not the way that the Satmar people should be behaving towards the outside community.”
The group wants to “open the brain” of KJ residents, “to understand what’s going on here,” Loeb said. He has a telephone hotline that people can call. He uses the recorded message to explain what he considers to be falsehoods in the free papers. He said thousands in the village listen to the hot line.
Other rabbis have an interactive hotline which allows a discussion of issues and questions. One like-minded rabbi with a hotline told Loeb he takes about 2,000 phone calls in a normal week. If he has a special issue to address, he has many more calls. Another elderly rabbi who is a friend of Loeb claims about 10,000 listeners on a regular basis.
At press time, the spokesperson for the village leadership had not returned a call asking for comment.
The KJ Committee for Peace and Harmony can be contacted at [email protected] and 845-363-8894.
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