THE CHASSIDIC PRESENCE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN THE HUDSON VALLEY.

Author:Benjamin, Gerald
Position:ARTICLES
 
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Two bills opposed by separate Chassidic-run Hudson Valley local governments met their demise in the closing days of the 2015 New York State legislative session. In the State Senate, majority Republicans declined to pass a measure giving the Board of Regents power to appoint a special monitor to oversee the operations of Rockland County's East Ramapo School District. (1) On the executive side, Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have made it harder to annex additional territory to the Satmar Chassidic Village of Kiryas Joel. (2)

In East Ramapo, the conflict was internal to the school district. In-migration and rapid population growth gave a fast-growing Chassidic community control of a long-established school board; (3) notably, Chassidic children do not attend public schools. (4) Governance practices of the Board persistently diminished educational opportunities for public school children, many of whom were members of other racial or ethnic minority groups, while providing resources in support of Chassidic children in private schools. (5) With no hope of gaining control of the school district, critics of the board and its practices sought state intervention. (6)

With the second bill, the dispute was between the Village of Kiryas Joel, explicitly created to be entirely Chassidic, and non-Chassidic neighbors outside its borders. (7) The village population was growing exponentially, (8) and it sought more land through annexation. (9) Neighbors feared a Hobson's Choice--having to move out of their homes or becoming a minority in a community in which Chassidic religious authority was conflated with, and dominated, local governance. (10) Annexation required agreement from the Town of Monroe, but it, too, had become largely politically controlled by Chassidic votes. (11) With no power in Kiryas Joel and little in Monroe, opponents to annexation sought passage of a state law--general in language, specific in effect--that would make harder the extension of the village's boundaries. (12)

Though decided at the state level (in itself interesting), these appear to be parochial disputes, only locally important. But in fact, they raise fundamental questions of governmental structure, system, and process in New York's suburban and rural areas: should the creation and dissolution of local governments be an available tactic for use in intra- and intercommunity disputes? Where Chassidic populations are growing rapidly, and have become or likely will become a local political force, may we still rely upon the validity of the assumptions about community and democracy on which the state's arrangements for local self-governance are based?

  1. CLASHING IDEAS OF COMMUNITY

    Understanding clashing ideas of community and community membership is fundamental to approaching this question. Local governments are geographically defined. (13) The boundaries of a "place" may have been initially drawn for administrative convenience, but over time become central to defining the "community." (14) People come to be regarded as community members by living and engaging within those boundaries, in those places. (15) And they have, or ought to have, standing as citizens in those places. (16) Some places have populations that are demographically homogenous, others are heterogeneous. (17) Whatever the level of diversity, there is a normative presumption--however imperfectly realized--that all in a place are part of the community. (18)

    For Chassidic people, place is either irrelevant or incidental to the definition of community. (19) The essence of their lives is religious communalism. (20) An explicit goal of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the movement in 17th century Eastern Europe, was to have the entire "Jewish community... recognize and joyously participate in God's actual presence in the entire world." (21) Community members are those who adhere to an extensive, strictly-defined set of inter-generationally transferred religious norms and standards. (22) They share an understanding of the manner in which they must live in accord with those standards, conduct relationships with others who choose to live in that manner, and adhere to the authority of the community's leader--the Rebbe--whose defining authority with regard to those standards they embrace in all elements of their lives. (23)

    Communal boundaries are therefore social, not geographic. There are community members and "others;" for the latter category, the norm is exclusion, not inclusion. (24) One cannot claim community membership by virtue of simply by being in a place. As a result, the place-based governmental jurisdiction serves the community; it neither defines nor delimits the community. (25) Local government is one means for extending religious authority, and is a conduit for maximizing external resources available to community members. (26)

    The manner in which emergency medical response is delivered in Orange County nicely illustrates these two contrasting ideas of community. Once regulatory requirements are met, the New York State Department of Health authorizes the provision of ambulance services within geographically defined "primary area[s] of operating authority." (27) The Kiryas Joel Emergency Medical Service ("KJEMS") provides paramedic services both within the Village of Kiryas Joel and for the Orthodox Jewish population outside the village--members of the Chassidic community as that community defines it. (28) This is ostensibly done as "mutual aid" to other local community-based emergency services. (29) But according to one recent study, "those responses are not always clearly communicated to the home ambulance service. Local EMS officials indicate that there is a tacit understanding that KJEMS is willing to respond anywhere in Orange County to provide ambulance [service] for residents of Kiryas Joel or other Orthodox Jews." (30) Unlike for other EMS organizations, geographic boundaries do not define community for KJEMS's delivery of this service. It sees itself as serving the entire Chassidic community, as it defines itself. (31)

    The case of the "New Square Four" offers another example. Kalmen Stern, David Goldstein, Benjamin Berger, and Jacob Elbaum, all of the Village of New Square, were convicted of stealing more than $40 million in government funds through "a massive conspiracy to obtain by fraud... student financial aid, rental subsidies, social security benefits, and small business loans." (32) In support of their successful effort to obtain clemency for these men from President Bill Clinton, Rabbi David Twersky and other community leaders argued that most of the funds were not used for personal enrichment, but to benefit the community. (33) In short, federal crimes were justified on the basis of a greater good--the Chassidic community's interests. (34)

  2. CHASSIDIC COMMUNITIES AND THE CREATION OF NEW HUDSON VALLEY LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

    Led by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Chassidic movement arose in 18th century Ukraine. (35) Insular and mystical, it persisted in Central Europe for centuries. (36) Most European Jews, including most Chassidic Jews, were murdered by Hitler's Germany during the Holocaust. (37) Remnants of several Chassidic communities reestablished themselves in Brooklyn. (38) Beginning in the 1950s, settlements were sought in the Hudson Valley, proximate to New York City, to maintain communal character and cohesion while accommodating the needs of a fast-growing population. (39) Over the years, because of extraordinary differences between the lifestyle, values, and culture of Chassidic community members and those of their surrounding suburban neighbors, tensions and communal conflicts arose. (40) There were two results: the creation of some local governments to accommodate Chassidic needs, and the establishment of others to contain the Chassidic community's growth and influence in the region. (41)

    1. Local Authority to Create Villages in New York

      New York's first general law authorizing the creation of villages was passed in 1847. (42) The use of special laws to organize individual villages was constitutionally banned in 1874. (43) The goal of general village legislation was to facilitate the delivery of a more extensive array of public services than towns were authorized by law to provide in more densely settled enclaves in New York's rural hinterland, while relieving the state legislature from the burden of acting annually on dozens of matters significant to only a single locality. (44) An important concomitant was to diminish the temptation for corruption for legislators required to cast votes on matters of no importance to themselves or their constituents. (45) The use of non-partisan elections to select village leadership--and the conduct of the village elections at a different time and with different procedures than those used for other general purpose governments--suggests that these entities, like later-designed school districts, were conceived as "service delivery" entities distinct from those staffed through ordinary partisan politics. (46)

      Under current New York law, a vote to create a village may be held in a place populated by five hundred persons or more on the petition of twenty percent of resident qualified voters or owners of more than fifty percent of the assessed value of property. (47) The territory of the place may not include all or part of an existing village. It may be no more than five square miles in size, except if coterminous with:

      [T]he entire boundaries of a school, fire, fire protection, fire alarm, town special or town improvement district; or... with parts of the boundaries of more than one [such district]... all of which are wholly contained within such limits and within one town; or... with the entire boundaries of a town. (48) The referendum process is overseen by a town supervisor or supervisors. (49) But beyond determining the legal sufficiency of...

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