“If you treat them nice, they treat you back nice” – the Expansion of Kiryas Joel into Mixed Neighborhoods

Quest for suburban lifestyle pushes Hasidic frontier farther from KJ

WOODBURY — Joseph Waldman was one of the first settlers in 1976 in a small enclave that would soon become the Village of Kiryas Joel, an upstate outpost for Satmar Hasidic families seeking a peaceful refuge from the congestion of Brooklyn.

Forty-three years later, Kiryas Joel is a densely populated community of 24,000 or more, and Waldman and his family have relocated again, this time to neighboring Woodbury.

Waldman and his wife, Sarah, bought a house last year on Schunnemunk Road in the Country Crossing development, following five of their daughters who already had moved to the same quiet neighborhood. He proudly showed a reporter the picturesque view of Schunnemunk Mountain from his kitchen during a recent visit, and recalled the sense of tranquility he enjoyed as a Satmar pioneer in rural Monroe decades ago.

“Moving here is exactly the same feeling that we had moving here from the city 43 years ago and building that new house,” Waldman said.

The Waldmans are part of a steady flow of Satmar families migrating to the towns abutting Kiryas Joel, where they can get a single-family house with a yard and privacy for the same price as a condo in the crowded village. The trend started in 2015 during a tense conflict over efforts to expand Kiryas Joel and has continued in its aftermath, with couples and investors from Kiryas Joel and Brooklyn now having bought hundreds of houses in Monroe, Blooming Grove and Woodbury over the last four years, according to Orange County property records.

The most striking example is South Blooming Grove, where at least 387 homes, or 44 percent of all single-family houses in the village, have changed hands. In neighboring Woodbury, Hasidic families have settled in neighborhoods like the Waldmans’, where about 70 homes have changed hands, and Woodbury Junction, where about 100 houses and lots have been sold since a Brooklyn developer bought the stalled 451-home project in 2016 and resumed construction.

New complexes are being built or planned in Monroe, Blooming Grove and Chester as well, like the 181-home Smith Farm project taking shape on a hill off Route 17M in Monroe. One proposal still under review, the 600-home Clovewood project, could bring as many as 3,800 new people to South Blooming Grove, more than doubling the population of 3,200.

The home buy-ups and new construction have extended the frontier for Orange County’s Satmar community, which for decades had lived strictly in Kiryas Joel and adjacent neighborhoods close to the synagogues, religious schools, kosher stores, ritual baths and wedding halls that anchor Hasidic life. Now, school buses roll through Worley Heights in South Blooming Grove to take children to Kiryas Joel’s yeshivas, and Orthodox boundary markers known as eruvs line streets in Woodbury.

For a fast-growing community with large families and a constant need for more housing, new opportunities abound.

The suburban migration from Kiryas Joel represents a cultural shift for the Satmar Hasidim and raises new considerations for the towns experiencing or facing that influx. Though the transition has been ordinary in some respects, as routine as one family moving in to replace another, it has also triggered sporadic conflicts over development plans, eruvs and other issues, and has stoked anxiety among some about the future power of growing Hasidic voting blocs.

A ‘KJ without borders’

One late spring night in Kiryas Joel in 2015, attorney Steven Barshov took the microphone in the ballroom of a girls’ school to make his case to a crowd of about 600, Hasidic and non-Hasidic alike, about why it made sense for Kiryas Joel to annex 507 acres from the Town of Monroe. Barshov, representing the property owners who had petitioned for that border change, talked about the scarcity of building space in the Hasidic village and posed a leading question about its future population growth.

“So where are the people to go?” he asked. “Would you prefer that they be spread all around Orange County, which is -”

“Yes!” annexation opponents in the audience roared back before he could finish.

What has happened in the intervening four years is a little of both.

Kiryas Joel did get more land, having annexed 164 acres in 2016 and gained another 64 acres when it separated from Monroe to form the Town of Palm Tree at the beginning of this year. Several thousand new homes are planned or under construction within its expanded borders, including a 1,600-condo complex now being built on land along Nininger Road that was part of the village before the annexation.

Yet the Hasidim have continued buying homes in a widening area around Kiryas Joel, if not “all around Orange County,” as Barshov suggested, and developers have forged ahead with housing plans in neighboring towns.

Kiryas Joel leaders hope to stem that migration. The village’s weekly Hakiryah newspaper published a multi-page insert on April 19 that touted what it said were 5,521 total new housing units coming to Kiryas Joel/Palm Tree, and urged readers to buy homes there to take advantage of the low taxes and what will soon be a buyer’s market.

That prompted a response from another Yiddish-language weekly called Vochenshrift, which ran its own real estate section on May 3 to promote thousands of homes in neighboring towns in addition to the expected housing surge in Kiryas Joel. The introduction celebrated the enlarged area for the Satmar community, calling it “a KJ without borders, with spacious homes and endless possibilities to accommodate the growth of the big city of Kiryas Joel for present and future.”

David Myers, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-author of a forthcoming book on Kiryas Joel, attributes the move to neighboring towns largely to the “density of life” in Kiryas Joel – several times greater than that of neighboring towns – and to the “impulse toward suburbanization,” a familiar gravitational pull for families living in cities.

“Not everybody wants to live in that dense, quasi-urban environment,” he said.

Myers also sees signs of an ongoing “crisis of authority” in the Satmar community since the death in 1979 of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the charismatic figure who founded the Satmar movement and led its survivors to the U.S. after the Holocaust. Teitelbaum envisioned his fledgling settlement in upstate Orange County as a self-sustaining shtetl, like those that thrived in eastern Europe before World War II, he said.

Today, that vision is evolving into a “shtetl and spokes,” with Satmar families living in neighborhoods radiating outward from the hub of Kiryas Joel. Reinforcing that pattern, Myers said, is the emergence of an upper-middle-class — affluent households that can afford expensive homes in new subdivisions like Woodbury Junction.

“They’re becoming part of that great American landscape in a way quite different from the original model,” Myers said. (“American Shtetl,” the book Myers is writing along with his wife, Nomi Stolzenberg, is expected to be released next year.)

The annexation fight

Did heated opposition in the surrounding area to Kiryas Joel’s proposed expansion trigger the migration? That has long been Kiryas Joel Administrator Gedalye Szegedin’s explanation for what he called the “KJ overflow.”

“I said it to every elected official willing to listen during the course of the four-year annexation fight, there is a saying: ‘If the horse gets out of the barn, there is no returning,’” he said in a recent email.

The push to expand Kiryas Joel began at the end of 2013 with the filing of an annexation petition by Monroe property owners, who asked to move 507 acres of Monroe land and homes into Kiryas Joel. After a contentious review, the Monroe Town Board wound up approving a reduced proposal for 164 acres in 2015, which prompted two court challenges that proved unsuccessful.

United Monroe, the citizens group that led resistance to the annexation petitions and brought one of the lawsuits against them, negotiated a settlement with Kiryas Joel officials in 2017 that led to the formation of a new town that removed Kiryas Joel’s giant voting blocs from Monroe elections.

As part of that deal, United Monroe withdrew its appeal over the 164-acre expansion, and Kiryas Joel dropped its own appeal to annex the full 507 acres and pledged to annex no other land from Monroe or Blooming Grove for 10 years.

Szegedin argues that the preceding fight and earlier clashes over Kiryas Joel’s water pipeline – an ongoing quest to tap New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct – created a housing crisis in the village, which he said encouraged real estate businessmen to “cash in” on residents’ anxiety by taking over projects like Woodbury Junction. Those new opportunities “made the ground very fertile and tempting to move out,” he said.

“Moving out was always considered extreme, but now it’s considered mainstream — a major change in mind-set and acceptance,” Szegedin wrote.

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10 thoughts on ““If you treat them nice, they treat you back nice” – the Expansion of Kiryas Joel into Mixed Neighborhoods

  1. “If you treat them nice, they treat you back nice” – the biggest nonsense I have ever heard! They indocrinate their children with the belief that the secular world and non-Jews (goyim) are evil! She is just saying that now but ultimately the entire area will be taken over by her people.

    What is happening in KJ will potentially happen in NJ pretty soon if towns do not buckle down. Bergen, Ocean and Monmouth are now all on alert. Lakewood cannot sustain the growth like KJ and the Haredi are looking for new frontiers (Toms River, Howell, Jackson and who knows where else!!). I was telling a neighbor today that the Hasidic seem to suffer from problems of the developing countries : too many children, illiteracy, ignorance and living in squalor! That is what all these Haredi enclaves look like. Disgusting.

    LM – Enough said for now. Thanks for giving me this forum to vent! It is not their religion I have anything against. It is their disrespectful behavior towards the secular society that bothers me and destroying towns!

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    • And LP, we do agree wholeheartedly. What we find concerning is that they vote in numbers equal to or greater than 100%. If the secular and non-Jewish communities of voters do not go out and vote FOR ALL ELECTIONS we will only have ourselves to thank when the towns you mention are no longer anything but ultra-Orthodox enclaves. And, you have our agreement that it is going to happen. The question is whether there is a way that people can work together to come to a set of guidelines and principles to which everyone can work without coming across as the anti-Semite? And there we don’t have the answers.

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      • Lost Messiah – thanks! Mark my words, there will be backlash at some point from mainstream communities who will not allow their school systems to be decimated, a building moratorium to control growth (NJ will have a land shortage soon), to not allow violation of zoning ordinances which can create hazards and degrade the community, and strict open space preservation programs. Not to mention, how can local towns sustain themselves economically with all these issues? Can NJ sustain a vibrant economy if the Haredi chase people out town after town? This will be coming to the attention soon to policy makers, state and local governments, etc. and it all ready has including local news media.

        Liked by 1 person

        • And their leadership of rebbes is not willing to compromise and work with mainstream communities with mutual respect, cooperation, and balanced growth. How much longer can they continue with such unsustainable growth and cry anti-Semitism when land runs out? Do they thing even with buying of politicians
          people at some point will continue to tolerate this? It will definitely disrupt local, county and state politics in NJ. A public policy professor has all ready stated this in a well respected NJ newspaper.

          Liked by 1 person

          • How come they have not expanded into Long Island, Westchester County, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania?
            Will that happen eventually too or are some of these places I mentioned to $$$ and have not land left to build on?

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            • They have expanded into Connecticut and Long Island, particularly the 5-Towns area. Don’t kid yourself. The people who have moved in to the 5-towns area are high net worth individuals and they don’t draw attention to themselves. They are moving in and they are taking over the neighborhoods.

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                • Well, the problem is when people rise up, they get sued or sites get taken down. Those of us who have tried need multi-pronged support to keep sites running and voices outspoken. Thanks for your comments.

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  2. Call it what you will, once the Satmar achieve critical mass in a community all non-Satmar may as well pack up and leave. Happens wherever they go.

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