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Them and Them

Peggy Hatton, activist
“They have not spent one day in the public schools to see what goes on in the lives of students. They have no idea what they are cutting.”  

By last spring, the atmosphere at school board meetings had become angry and bombastic. One activist parent had compared board members to Pontius Pilate; behind closed doors, one board member called another a “moral degenerate.” The chairman, an Orthodox family attorney named Daniel Schwartz, decided to escalate the fight by giving a speech denouncing anti-Semitism in the district. Elementary-school children, he said, were telling their teachers that they hated the Jews; high-school students were appearing before the board and questioning its moral authority. He cited St. Augustine’s instruction that Jews could be tolerated but not accepted, a sentiment that he said was alive in Auschwitz and “the crematoria of Treblinka” and that was alive in Ramapo today. The district’s demographics, he said, weren’t changing; the Hasidim could not be wished away. “You don’t like it?” Schwartz told the audience. “Find another place to live.”

This past winter, my wife and I flew to Miami for the long weekend with our infant daughter. Shortly after we got on the plane, a family in Hasidic dress boarded—a mother, a father, and nine children. Just a generation ago, secular Jews like my mother tended to regard the Hasidim as peculiar but unimportant, a discarded evolutionary branch. To be Jewish now, though, is to exist in some relation to the ultra-Orthodox. The Hasidic family filed into their seats, occupying one full row of the plane and spilling politely into two others. Here, in my family, was Judaism’s German-socialist strain, so relaxed about integration and intermarriage that it had reduced itself to a generation, my daughter’s, containing exactly 0.25 Jews. There, a row away, was the ultra-Orthodox strain, 36 times as successful. I felt a twinge of tribal guilt, that simply through reproduction I had abandoned an important fight. In some final accounting—in the accounting that has been rapidly transforming Israel—all politics is biology.

“I’ll give you your story in one word,” a Hasidic real-estate ­developer named Shaya Glick told me when we met in the lounge of a Holiday Inn in Ramsey, New Jersey, a few miles from Monsey. His companion, also Hasidic, rolled his eyes—he’d heard the shtick before. “One word,” Glick insisted. “Demographics.”

Glick moved here from Brooklyn when he was a boy, and he can trace the community’s transformation over the past three decades. Where there were once horse farms, there are now large townhouse developments all up and down Route 306. Each shopping center has been reoriented: Gone are bars and Pathmarks, replaced by Judaica stores and kosher supermarkets. Glick had recently looked at a commercial property for sale in downtown Monsey. During each weekday, 22,000 cars passed by the store; on Saturday, when Orthodox Jews do not drive, there were only 4,000. The area has been so completely altered that on Saturdays, Hasidim will simply walk to shul in the middle of the road because there is such little danger of any motor vehicle passing.

The few converts to Hasidism here are rare enough to be objects of community fascination: The beatific, blond German in the Satmar matzo factory, the Puerto Rican with payess. Mostly, the growth has come from within. Demographers estimate that Hasidic families average more than five children, and one 2011 study put the average at 7.8. Sometimes it seems as if everyone is making plans for the coming population swell. When I toured a new Orthodox yeshiva in Spring Valley, its administrator showed me the school’s vast, 8,000-square-foot ballroom, complete with ornate molding and chandeliers, that he hoped to rent out for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

One way to think about the villages of Ramapo is as a mature stage in an experiment begun a half-century ago, by a rabbi named Joel Teitelbaum. Before World War II, Teitelbaum had been the chief rabbi of a Romanian village called Satu Mare, and after he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he made his way to Brooklyn, where he started to accumulate followers among the other Holocaust refugees.

Teitelbaum had an acute sense of the demonic, a conviction that the world around him was abundant with false promises of salvation. Even in Romania, he had been an advocate of Jewish separatism, but in the aftermath of the Shoah, this message had a particular appeal. “Separatism was of such importance,” Teitelbaum would say, quoting an older rabbi, “that even if a city had no wicked Jews, it would be worthwhile to pay some wicked Jews to come and live there so that the good Jews would have something to separate themselves from.”

In the early seventies, Teitelbaum’s followers bought empty farmland in Orange County, half an hour north of Monsey, and then in 1977 petitioned the New York State Legislature to make their acreage a village, a discrete political unit named Kiryas Joel, after Teitelbaum. In a jurisdiction as small as this, with a community committed to voting together as a bloc, the Satmar could use local politics to control their own government, free themselves of outside interference, and shape a miniature society. Soon, small as it was, Kiryas Joel became a “powerful force” in state politics, according to David Myers, a UCLA historian who has studied the community extensively. The community that formed there was, “in many respects, more insular, more homogeneous, and more exclusive than the European shtetl.”