Hasidim leaving Brooklyn for Orange County
Part of the Hasidic population moving into homes in the towns around Kiryas Joel comes not from that village but from Brooklyn, signifying an upstate shift by families priced out of New York City or seeking suburban comforts.
The Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council has been charting this trend through enrollment data for Orthodox schools in two states, which have shown little or no annual increases in Brooklyn in recent years and steep hikes in Orange and Rockland counties and in Lakewood, N.J.
The council found a 35.6 percent enrollment jump over the last five years in the yeshivas in and around Kiryas Joel, which have 14,019 students in kindergarten through 12th grade this school year.
By comparison, enrollment in Rockland’s Orthodox schools rose 30.4 percent to 28,808 during that period, while the total students in Brooklyn yeshivas had climbed by only 6.1 percent to 83,546, according to OJPAC’s analysis. (Lakewood’s yeshiva enrollment had jumped by 57 percent to 32,902 over six years.)
One of the groups representing Kiryas Joel’s Satmar Hasidim posted a message on Twitter last summer to celebrate the addition of 500 students whose families had moved to the Kirays Joel area from New York City and enrolled their students in the United Talmudical Academy, the largest of three local yeshiva systems.
The Aug. 31 tweet from Satmar Headquarters (@HQSatmar) read: “Close to 100 new Satmar families have ‘Immigrated’ from New York City and moved to the scenic Village of Kiryas Joel (Soon to become Town of Palm Tree) with a combined 500 new children registered for the new School year at UTA Kiryas Joel’s School system.”
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.
Mike Egan, a United Monroe leader, strongly disputes Szegedin’s view, arguing that what really caused people to move out of Kiryas Joel was its crowding and insufficient housing, and some families’ preference for a more suburban lifestyle.
“The lack of housing for these new families wasn’t caused by the annexation battles,” he said by email. “In 2014 and 2015, there was undeveloped land already in the village of KJ, and in Monroe, that could have already been developed and accommodated families searching then. Instead, it sat vacant.”
Many of those families “didn’t want to live in KJ’s crowded, high-density housing,” he wrote. “They wanted single-family homes with lawns and quiet streets for their kids to play on” - the same desire that had led Hasidic families to settle in areas adjacent to Kiryas Joel for years.
Egan also argued that annexation opposition led to a reduction in the size of the expansion and to the formation of the Town of Palm Tree, which he said freed Monroe from the control of Kiryas Joel’s voting blocs and spared it from becoming “the new Lakewood” - the New Jersey town with a booming Orthodox population.
“Instead, Monroe is now fully independent and responsible for managing and protecting its lands, just like its neighbors in South Blooming Grove and Chester,” Egan wrote.
Several housing projects now being built or under review, including Smith Farm in Monroe and Clovewood in South Blooming Grove, originated years before the first annexation petition, suggesting that developers had long anticipated Satmar families settling outside Kiryas Joel.
Still, Barshov, the attorney who represented the annexation petitioners, contends the annexation impasse was “one of the principal catalysts” that drove developers to seek properties elsewhere. Even though that conflict is now over and construction has picked up in Kiryas Joel, those developers are proceeding because they want to make back their money, he said.
Barshov, who now represents the Greens at Chester developers and a group that has petitioned to form a new village next to Kiryas Joel, said it was sad that there was so much opposition to growth in and around Kiryas Joel, which he said has made rational planning impossible.
“It speaks to the need for cooperation, as opposed to fighting,” he said.
A vestige of the annexation battle lingers in court. Though United Monroe withdrew its court appeal, a group of municipalities that teamed up with Orange County on a similar challenge continued its appeal, and their lawyer pleaded his case before a panel of skeptical judges in Brooklyn one day last month. The judges wanted to know the point of contesting the annexation of 164 acres if that land is now part of the new Town of Palm Tree.
Philip Karmel, the lawyer for the county and municipalities, stuck to the original rationale for the case: that Kiryas Joel’s environmental review for the annexation petitions failed to take the required “hard look” at the potential impact of “the massive new development that Kiryas Joel is planning for the 164 acres.”
Life in the spokes
For Joseph Waldman, who had lived in the same house for four decades as Kiryas Joel grew up around him, the lure of moving to Woodbury was the relief of a “not-congested retirement home” a few miles away, surrounded by family members already living in a walkable neighborhood.
For Shia, a 28-year-old real estate broker and father of two who moved to South Blooming Grove two years ago, it was the “crazy” housing prices in Kiryas Joel. He and his wife had been renting an apartment and decided to look outside the village borders to buy a home, as a wave of families had already begun to do.
“This happened because there was no place to live, and prices started going up,” he said of that wave, speaking in his driveway one recent morning as his car idled.
Shia, who asked that his last name not be used, said the initial trickle out of Kiryas Joel during the annexation conflict “broke the ice,” opening the eyes of couples who otherwise might not have left the security and convenience of their all-Hasidic village. The only real hurdle, it turned out, was mustering a minyan of 10 men for daily prayers.
“People started realizing it’s not so bad,” he said. “All you need is 10 people to pray with you.”
Shia now lives in a blended neighborhood, like others in the new greater Kiryas Joel. “I have a lot of non-Jewish neighbors, and I get along with them very well,” he said, pointing across the street to where two neighbors let him connect their fences with chicken wire to help form an eruv — a symbolic border that enables Orthodox Jews to carry things and push strollers outdoors on the Sabbath.
“If you treat them nice, they treat you back nice,” he said.
John Allegro, a United Monroe leader, gave a similar description of the semi-rural neighborhood where he has lived for 21 years and which has a growing number of Hasidic residents. “Nothing’s changed,” he said. “If anything, some of the people that have come here from KJ have improved their properties. They’re really nice.”
He said the interaction of neighbors across the cultural divide tends to dispel any previous tensions.
“When people get face to face with one another, you learn that we’re all human beings,” Allegro said. “We have common goals, to take care of our families.”
But the influx and neighborhood changes in some places also have caused friction and stirred resentment.
A group of Hasidic residents in Highland Lakes Estates, a 168-home development in Woodbury with about two dozen Hasidic families, sued the homeowners association last year, accusing its board of harassing them and trying to discourage more Hasidim from moving there. The board then counter-sued them, leveling similar charges of bullying and harassment against its accusers.
Jim and Ellen Huebner, who live down the street from Shia in South Blooming Grove, say they have pressed the village in vain for answers about two nearby houses, both undergoing extensive renovations since being sold. They had heard that both houses were being converted into schools - an unlikely prospect for such small buildings - and were frustrated by what they viewed as unchecked construction by the newcomers and poor communication by village officials.
“I have a right, I have a say in what I want my community to look like,” Jim Huebner said, adding that he wouldn’t oppose a school opening in a more appropriate location but was upset by what he felt was a lack of transparency.
“My point is, let us know what’s going on,” he said.
Despite their frustration, he and his wife are determined to stay put.
“I was going to put up a sign out front,” Huebner said. “One word: ‘Never.’”
Some skirmishes with local governments have arisen during this transitional period for Kiryas Joel’s neighboring towns.
Late last year, the Village of Woodbury proposed a law regulating objects in public rights-of-way that would have affected eruvs, requiring owners to get permits and prohibiting the lines from crossing streets. Hasidic residents poured out to a village board meeting in November to protest, and a law firm threatened to sue the village for what it cast as an unnecessary and discriminatory law.
The Village Board set aside the proposal but may take it up again, said Mayor Michael Queenan, who sees nothing unusual about it.
“We regulate decks, we regulate signs, we regulate fences,” he said. “I don’t see why this should be any different.”
Queenan said the recent home turnover in Woodbury seemed to have slowed a bit, though he expects the village’s Hasidic population to continue growing. He noted that a few Hasidic families had bought homes on his street, which is almost four miles from the center of Kiryas Joel and deeper into Woodbury than where much of the turnover has occurred.
He said he advises residents against selling their homes out of panic, and to stay until they are ready to move.
“I’m not really sure why people are freaking out,” he said.
In Monroe, several developers have pending lawsuits against the town in federal court, arguing that recent zoning changes the town enacted would reduce the number of homes they could build and are discriminatory against Hasidic families. The Town Board recently updated its peddling law to restrict unsolicited home shopping, and it passed a resolution last month declaring adherence to the Fair Housing Act with its protections against discrimination in home sales based on religion or other factors.
Monroe Supervisor Tony Cardone said his main issue with new developments being marketed to the Hasidim was the possible violation of that federal law.
“What gives anyone the right to build a development that is sold to one particular religious group?” he asked.
In Chester, the developers who bought the 431-home Greens at Chester project in 2017 and have prepared the site for construction asked a federal judge last month to reopen a past court case against the town because of a dispute over how large the homes can be. Before any houses have been built there, Chester residents voted in November to create a ward system for their Town Board to try to preserve power in other parts of town in future elections, just as Blooming Grove has done.
Herman Wagschal, a Monroe resident who petitioned for annexation to Kiryas Joel and is now leading an effort to create a second Hasidic village, compares the recent suburban migration to what happened where he grew up in Rockland County. His family had moved there from Brooklyn in the 1950s, and when his area of Rockland got too congested he moved to near Kiryas Joel, he said.
That cycle is now repeating itself in Orange County.
“You can’t stop growth,” he said. “Or if you want to live in the suburbs, you have to keep moving.”