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The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of…

The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the…

by Louis Grumet

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It’s not always the evangelicals

The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State by Louis Grumet and John Caher (Chicago Review Press, $27.99).

The New York village of Kiryas Joel has been a subject of controversy from its inception. The mostly Orthodox town has had the distinction of being the poorest city in the U.S., and the leader of the Hasidic boys’ school is under investigation for sexual abuse.

It’s the school district itself that is the subject of this book by Louis Grumet and John Caher.

Kiryas Joel, situated in upstate New York, is an expansion of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect of Jews, long established in Brooklyn. Normally, their children would attend private religious schools. However, with an especially large number of children with disabilities (many due to an inherited genetic disease), the community wanted public education–with a religious twist. This led to the creation of a special public school district for Kiryas Joel.

Uh, yeah, isn’t that unconstitutional? You’d think.

The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel relies as much on Grumet’s own memory of the 1989 law creating the special district and the resulting lawsuit, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994; Grumet was one of the litigants. That means that this book is less scholarly legal work and more personal memoir. It’s not necessarily a bad mix, but Grumet’s personal stake does affect the tenor of the book.

That said, it’s a good insider view of how New York state politics and the power of a large special interest group to lobby officials can circumvent what seem to be obvious barriers to using taxpayer money for a religious purpose.

What’s intriguing about this particular foray into erasing the line between church and state, though, is how the political power of the Satmar sect held sway over both Democrats (Mario Cuomo) and Republicans (George Pataki). And Kiryas Joel itself is an interesting situation, determined to remain separate from secular culture while getting every public dollar they can; a similar case exists among radical groups who seek to “bleed the beast,” drawing taxpayer-funded benefits while hating the government that provides them.

Reviewed on Lit/Rant: www.litrant.tumblr.com ( )
  KelMunger | Jul 14, 2016 |
A seasoned political operative, who ran the NY association of school boards, explains the political history behind the lawsuit against Kiryas Joel. The extremist Hasidic sect that populated the town votes in a bloc, with no Republican or Democratic precommitments, and thus exercises extreme power in New York’s political world. Though most children go to private religious schools, children with disabilities were entitled to services and initially got them from the surrounding public schools, but they were culturally and linguistically a bad fit—with their strange accents, clothes, etc. they suffered abuse from other children. To solve this problem and extract even more money from the state (unlike the Amish, the Satmar Hasidim have no problem taking public money, just obeying public laws), they got New York to create a special school district just for them, contrary to New York’s school policies in general. After the Supreme Court struck down this as an unlawful favoritism for religion, they went back to the legislature several times to get a school district created under “neutral” rules that, in practice, only applied to Kiryas Joel; eventually, and depressingly, this tactic succeeded, and now they’re back to religious segregation and denying female bus drivers the opportunity to drive school buses because they believe women shouldn’t drive. Although Grumet classes this a victory in principle, because of the Supreme Court case, it’s hard for me to see it that way—Kiryas Joel is growing fast, bolstered by “extremely low local taxes and incredible amounts of politically acquired state and federal aid.” Combined with another story about Ramapo, where the ultra-Orthodox took control of the school board and voted to strip the public schools of as much funding as possible (because they don’t send their children to public schools and didn’t want to pay), it’s another example of the I’ve-got-mine attitude that seems to infect so much of this country these days. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Mar 17, 2016 |
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Twenty years ago, on the last day of session, the New York State Legislature created a publicly funded school district to cater to the interests of a religious sect called Kiryas Joel, an extremely insular group of Hasidic Jews. The sect had bought land in upstate New York, populated it solely with members of its faction, and created a village that exerted extraordinary political pressure over both political parties in the Legislature. Marking the first time in American history that a governmental unit was established for a religious group, the Legislature's action prompted years of litigation that eventually went to the Supreme Court. The 1994 case, The Board of Education of the Village of Kiryas Joel v. Grumet, stands as the most important legal precedent in the fight to uphold the separation of church and state. In The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel, plaintiff Louis Grumet opens a window onto the Satmar Hasidic community and details the inside story of his fight for the First Amendment. Informed by numerous interviews, media accounts, court transcripts, and more, The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel tantalizes with a peek at cynical power politics driven by votes. This story--a blend of politics, religion, cultural clashes, and constitutional tension--is an object lesson in the ongoing debate over freedom of vs. freedom from religion.… (more)

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