MANHATTAN (CN) – Self-described dissidents of the Hasidic Jewish village of Kiryas Joel, in the upstate town of Monroe, say the village is run as an unconstitutional “theocracy” and should be dissolved.
Kiryas Joel is named after the Joel Teitelbaum, the founder of the ultraorthodox Satmar Hasidic sect of Judaism. Residents follow strict Jewish observance, speak primarily Yiddish, separate the sexes in public and marry and raise large families at a young age. In 2009, the U.S. Census reported that Kiryas Joel was the poorest place in the nation.
After Joel Teitelbaum died, his nephew Moses became the next grand rabbi. When Moses died, most Kiryas Joel residents followed his son Aron, but the dissidents disapproved of his leadership.
Many of the dissidents, who say they now make up 40 percent of the village population, follow Aron’s brother Zalman, who leads the largest Satmar congregation in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
A dozen dissident plaintiffs, including a synagogue, a nonprofit group, a rabbi and several residents, say that village leaders have brutally and unconstitutionally harassed them because of their religious differences.
They say the village leaders rig elections and intimidate voters to exclude dissidents from village government, and selectively enforce laws to oppress the minority population.
In one incident, they claim the village selectively enforced zoning laws to justify bulldozing a dissident synagogue, and arrested and pepper-sprayed a congregant for standing on the property.
One plaintiff, Isaac Srugos, said he was walking home from a post-wedding religious celebration on Aug. 20, 2010 with more than 10 family members, including his pregnant daughter, when a “mob of about 300” boys followed them. Srugos says his family hopped into a car, but the boys surrounded it.
“The family was literally surrounded by hundreds of screaming boys during their journey home, which lasted about 45 minutes,” the complaint states.
“As the family tried to escape, the boys were hitting and kicking them, throwing bottles and eggs, and calling Mr. Srugo’s daughter, Miriam, a ‘Zoina,’ a Yiddish term roughly equivalent to ‘prostitute,’ but carrying an even more negative religious connotation.”
Srugos says that two Kiryas Joel police officers ignored the incident, but the boys disbanded after two state police arrived. He says he decided not to press charges until he received several harassing phone calls.
Another “mob” pushed a man down the stairs, and attacked and robbed him on the streets of Kiryas Joel, while the police did nothing, the dissidents say.
The dissidents seek a jury trial to force New York Secretary of State Cesar A. Perales to dissolve Kiryas Joel.
“Dissolution of the village is warranted because of the inherent and unwavering conflict that exists in the village, as set forth with particularity in this complaint, between the rule of law in a secular democratic society and theocratic rule, which gives primacy and credence to the edicts of a single religious leader,” the complaint states.
The plaintiffs – nine individuals, two congregations and lead plaintiff the Kiryas Joel Alliance – are represented by Michael H. Sussman with Sussman and Watkins, of Goshen, N.Y.