Kiryas Joel and Monroe: Turf War

Christina Knight | August 27, 2020


City of Joel (2018), by director Jesse Sweet, premieres Tuesday, September 1 at 9:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN and Wednesday, September 16 at 9:30 p.m. on WLIW21; it airs Thursday, October at 8 p.m. on NJTV. Stream the film now.

A documentary on PBS stations THIRTEEN and WLIW21 follows a tense, existential conflict between townspeople in a commuter haven in Orange County, NY, 50 miles north of the George Washington Bridge. Monroe is where that American staple, Velveeta cheese was invented, but the area’s bigger lures are the Woodbury Commons shopping outlet and the Storm King Art Center.

This is where I grew up watching THIRTEEN. Sesame Street taught me although people are different, we can all get along. But can we? The film City of Joel (2018) reveals the answer to that question by observing angry town hall meetings and difficult conversations on park benches and by sharing the voices of those trying to protect the futures they envision.

Map showing village of Kiryas Joel within Monroe and areas proposed for annexation.

The village of Kiryas Joel is part of the Town of Monroe and the film captures the age-old power struggle that arose: the control of land and politics. The insular, close-knit religious group of Satmar Hasidic Jews in Kiryas Joel seek more room for their rapidly growing population. Monroe residents have unified to form an equally powerful bloc vote and oppose the Satmar’s plans to annex land.

This is not Wild, Wild Country, though anyone who saw the Emmy Award-winning Netflix documentary series will recognize the “us” versus “them” aspect to this true story. In both documentaries, a population in a rather unremarkable area must come to terms with a cohesive community whose culture and way of life are very different. It is their difference that gives otherwise diverse Monroe residents a sense of unity.

The film’s edginess comes from witnessing a civic situation in which some feel the American system of democracy is being twisted. We also watch people challenge each others’ sense of entitlement and rights, from freedom of religion to reproductive choice.

Hasidic men walking in Kiryas Joel.

Yiddish is the first language of the Hasidic community (City of Joel is a translation of the Kiryas Joel). The village’s ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect has its roots in Eastern Europe, where it was founded by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) in 1905. After the devastating genocide of the Holocaust, the group immigrated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1946. Teitelbaum sought more seclusion from the secular world for his followers, and in 1974, bought pastoral land for Kiryas Joel, where the first 14 families settled.

This once rural area has become increasingly suburban. By the time Jesse Sweet began filming City of Joel, Kiryas Joel’s population had grown to 22,000 and was in dire need of more housing and other facilities. The Satmar organize their lives to follow Jewish law in the Talmud. Hasidic couples have as many children as possible. In 2010, 83% of the population was under 18.

“Every child born is a defeat to Hitler,” says Chaya Wieder, a compelling Hasidic woman featured in the film.

At the time of the film, more than 50% of the population of 22-square-mile Monroe were living on one square mile of overcrowded multi-family buildings. The area meant to be an alternative to life in Brooklyn is crowded, and taxing on the town water supply, county social services and the environment. The 2010 Census revealed the Kiryas Joel tract to be the poorest area in all of the United States.

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My family also moved to the area in the mid-1970s. We left an apartment in Suffern, NY, for a large house in a development four miles from the center of Kiryas Joel. Because the Satmars use their own religious schools, work for their own business and keep to themselves, I knew little about them. Our lives didn’t intersect, except rarely at a dentist or doctor’s waiting room.

It is those in Monroe who own property, pay taxes, and have children in the public school district of Monroe Woodbury who are concerned as Kiryas Joel seeks to annex 500-plus acres for the village. They are not only losing a largely bucolic landscape to high-density development; more significantly, they worry that all elections and votes will be decided by a bloc that votes according to their religious leader’s guidance.

Emily Convers, founder of United Monroe, at a town hall meeting. Still from film.

In response, Democrats and Republicans in Monroe double down to create an opposing voting bloc, building on the group United Monroe, which was originally formed to protest the town of Monroe’s purchase of a theater, and is led by Emily Convers. The About section of the United Monroe Facebook page includes that they “promote candidates who reflect the interest of the citizens of the region for the preservation of the rural character, environment and school districts.”

There is political opposition, and then there is anti-Semitism. The latter rears its ugly head, well documented in comments on local social media pages. This does not go unnoticed by the Satmar, who otherwise avoid modern technology other than for business purposes. Angry Monroe residents express frustration at the many children the Satmar’s have, and reliance on welfare. They criticize their community as filthy and much worse.

What fascinates me is the implied unfairness of democracy when a group decides to cast its vote as one. It is not un-Constitutional. Women have the right to bear or not bear children in this country, and Hasidic couples are criticized for not being able to support their families through their personal income. The Hasidic community has experienced the worst persecution imaginable – genocide – and wants to not only to restore their population, but thrive in the place they live. Are the Monroe residents who express a desire to keep the quiet, undeveloped area intact being unreasonable in the face of a multicultural country?

One can look up the result of these elections and lawsuits that determined the future of Kiryas Joel’s growth, but I won’t spoil it here. There is no narrator of this film. Residents of Kiryas Joel and Monroe speak eloquently for themselves.

As to my family, my parents no longer live in Monroe. They sold our home several years ago to a younger Hasidic family who were looking for room to grow, and willing to live outside Kiryas Joel.

Monroe town hall meeting to discuss Kiryas Joel annexation plan.