Neighbors riled as insular Hasidic village seeks to expand

AP News
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Posted: Feb 27, 2017 5:09 PM
Neighbors riled as insular Hasidic village seeks to expand

KIRYAS JOEL, N.Y. (AP) — A quickly crowding Hasidic Jewish village that is working to expand its boundaries faces opposition from neighbors who fear more urban-style development by the insular community could overrun their slice of suburbia.

"It's going to become like New York City, like the Bronx or Brooklyn," said Michael Queenan, mayor of the neighboring village of Woodbury, about 50 miles north of New York City. "People moved up here because they wanted a different kind of lifestyle, they wanted a little elbow room."

Kiryas Joel is a 1.1-square-mile village of nearly 22,000 markedly different from the surrounding suburban sprawl. Sidewalks are crowded with bearded men in heavy wool coats and brimmed hats. Women in long skirts push baby carriages into bustling stores where Yiddish is spoken. Schools teem with children. And streets are lined with one tightly packed apartment after another.

Followers of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum began coming here from Brooklyn in the 1970s, hoping to create the sort of cohesive community some recalled from Europe, with large families a big part of it. Under tradition, Kiryas Joel girls marry young and start having children immediately, fueling long-term population growth. While the average Kiryas Joel family has six people, it's not uncommon to see couples with as many as 10 children. An average of three babies are born in the village each day.

"For us, family is part of faith. It's not something we choose," said Malka Silberstein, a principal of a girls' school who settled here with her family 35 years ago.

Kiryas Joel is among the fastest-growing places in New York state, nearly doubling its population since 2000. It also has made headlines in The New York Times and elsewhere as the poorest place in the nation. Current data show more than half the population living in poverty, a function of modest salaries supporting large households.

On a recent tour, Kiryas Joel administrator Gedalye Szegedin noted that the zoning allows for denser housing than the surrounding town of Monroe. He pointed out a 200-unit housing project under construction, a plot where 1,500 units will go and a single-family home replaced by 24 units.

Szegedin said the village's natural growth requires 300 or more units a year, and he predicted that in as little as seven years Kiryas Joel will simply run out of land for young families.

"If we're not going to provide for it, they're going to live doubled up with their parents, they're going to live doubled up with their siblings," he said. "They're going to live in subhuman conditions."

Kiryas Joel has backed three boundary-expanding solutions, all of them contentious.

Hasidim living outside the village created two separate petitions to have their land annexed by Kiryas Joel, which would allow for denser housing, sidewalks and other services. The Monroe town board in 2015 denied a petition to annex 507 acres but approved a separate 164-acre annexation plan.

With both board actions being litigated, the village last year proposed a new solution: adding 382 acres to the village and making it a new town called North Monroe.

Kiryas Joel officials say creating a new town would erase long-festering village-town conflicts, like the complaint that Kiryas Joel dominates town politics.

John Allegro, of United Monroe, a community group that has been critical of Kiryas Joel, sees the North Monroe proposal as another path to the same unsustainable growth pattern in annexation.

"Where is the water going to come from? Where is the sewage going to go? What's going to happen to the wildlife?" he asked.

Conflicts with the village have flared up occasionally for decades, with some accusing critics of being motivated by anti-Semitism. And critics, in turn, have stressed that their issues revolve around heavier traffic, infrastructure strain and a neighbor aggressively pursuing its agenda.

An appeals court this month denied opponents' request to place a stay on the 164-acre annexation, clearing the way for rezoning in the coming months. The parallel effort to create a town still needs to be considered by the county legislature.

Szegedin said it would allow suburbanites and Hasidim to live in peace.

"We don't question their desire to live in a rural area, and we hope that they won't question our desire to live the way we live," Szegedin said. "We understand that there are two ways of living."