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.