Sep 10, 2023

The Satmar Option


The Satmar Option

Hasidic Judaism and the Future of Religious Liberty

The Hedgehog Review

Rita Koganzon

 Members of the Satmar community observe the anniversary of the rescue of Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, founder of the Satmar dynasty, from the Holocaust; Lev Radin/Alamy Stock Photos.


Rita Koganzon is assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston. She is the author of Liberal States, Authoritarian Families: Childhood and Education in Early Modern Thought.

Although few Americans have personally encountered a Hasidic Jew, if they have read the New York Times recently they might recall being treated to an ongoing series of front-page exposés accusing the Hasidic community of a whole range of offenses, from defrauding federal and state welfare programs to coercing unwilling parents into keeping their children in schools run by fanatics to operating a failing and abusive shadow school system, all right under New York City’s nose. The current burst of aggressive reporting regarding Hasidic Jews could be seen as a revival of a campaign that began during the COVID-19 pandemic, or even earlier, to hold to account—or to malign, depending on your view—this strange community. Their specific crimes, according to the “newspaper of record,” are basically twofold: miseducating their children and stealing from welfare programs. But their deeper offense—older, less rectifiable, and much less forgivable—is their refusal to assimilate to secular modernity as their coreligionists have.

These two crimes are intimately connected in the Times’s presentation, so much so that the headline of the debut article in its series links them immediately: “In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money.” The article’s subhead is more specific: “New York’s Hasidic Jewish religious schools have benefited from $1 billion in government funding in the last four years but are unaccountable to outside oversight.”1 Every subsequent article is quick to remind readers of the raw deal they are getting as taxpayers: Hasidim take your money, but they don’t follow your laws.

The reality is, as always, more complicated. It is not entirely clear to anyone what exactly the law in question means—including to the state government tasked with enforcing it. The state law requires private schools to offer a “substantially equivalent” education to that provided by public schools. This couldn’t mean an identical education, or there would be no rationale for private schools. So how much deviation from the public school standard is permissible? Is it permissible to spend half the school day on religious studies? Three-quarters? All of it? Can private schools offer their instruction in a foreign language? Do they have to post test scores comparable to public schools, and if so, comparable to which ones—the successful public schools, or the failing ones? Any of these standards of “substantial equivalency” could set problematic precedents for other private or even public schools. But what confirmed Hasidic Jews’ guilt for the Times writers was that, unlike other insular groups who repudiate mainstream educational norms, this group has the gall to accept government benefits while shirking adherence to government regulations.

The Amish Paradigm

To reason this way about religious liberty is to think within what I will call here the Amish paradigm. Since the 1972 decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin’s compulsory schooling law did not apply to Amish children because attending high school would interfere with their religious education and imperil their sect’s survival, the Amish have stood in the American political imagination as avatars of religious liberty. As a tiny minority holding to a peaceable if nonconformist way of life, they understood their only hope for survival in an increasingly centralized, regulated state lay in limiting their exposure, culturally and politically, to the secular mainstream of American life. This approach in turn became a kind of ideal for American religious dissent in the second half of the twentieth century.

In a sense, the Amish cut a deal with America: Allow us to do as we please, and we promise not to become a burden to you. In keeping with this bargain, they received exemptions from Social Security taxes and compulsory schooling, and in exchange, they avoided public office and eschewed public benefits. Much of Chief Justice Warren Burger’s majority opinion in Yoder centered on this implicit compromise: “The Amish alternative to formal secondary school education has enabled them to…survive and prosper in contemporary society as a separate, sharply identifiable and highly self-sufficient community for more than 200 years in this country.”2 Self-sufficiency came up half a dozen times in the decision, buttressing—if not ultimately constituting—the justification for the Amish exemption.

The Amish themselves were too few to pose a political threat after Yoder. But what might happen, legal and political theorists worried (and evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders strategized), when much larger religious groups dissatisfied with secular modernity followed the Amish precedent and challenged such seemingly generally applicable laws as those mandating compulsory schooling? How far could such groups go in eluding the reach of mainstream culture and state oversight to develop insular, perhaps even theocratic countercultural communities and indoctrinate their (inevitably numerous) children in illiberal principles? Even the most resonant dream of religious dissenters in the past decade, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” is only the Amish model of religious liberty dressed in monastic robes, a restatement of the Amish formula that relative geographic isolation and economic self-sufficiency could permit the rejection of state benefits in exchange for the suspension of state oversight.3

The Amish paradigm was a true compromise in that it satisfied neither side’s demands. Conservative Christians have not historically wanted to withdraw from public life. Rather, they want religion to be more prominent within it, particularly through public prayer and public funding for religious activities. Secular liberals, for their part, have protested the shielding of insular religious communities from public oversight, which they view as liable to lead to indoctrination and abuse. Instead, they have historically sought to enforce a uniform minimum of (ideally public) secular education, to deny public funds to religious activities, and to relegate religious observance strictly to the private sphere. The Amish paradigm, in satisfying no one, satisfied everyone that at least his enemy was dissatisfied. It is the broad appeal of this logic, that a religious group can, in a sense, “earn” its freedom from state control by attaining a degree of economic self-sufficiency that in turn frees the state from an obligation to financially support it, that underwrites the Times’s case against the Hasidim.

The problem is that this equilibrium is breaking down, and the Hasidic model is already superseding the Amish paradigm even as opponents of the Hasidim attempt to constrain them with Amish logic. Since the 1990s, the courts have been expanding public funding for religious activities, as in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995) and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), and permitting more religious expression in public life, as in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022). In the law at least, religious conservatives are gaining ground against secular liberals.4

Moreover, few religious communities have ever attained the level of Amish communal self-sufficiency that persuaded an admiring Chief Justice Burger that they merited exemption from state compulsion. Whatever dreams of purification through a communal return to the land some religious Americans may harbor, most don’t live in anything like isolated agricultural communes. After Yoder, most religious efforts to challenge generally applicable laws and state regulation did not come attached to any promise to forgo state benefits in return. The Amish paradigm was never well suited to the American situation to begin with, and that situation has only grown more distant from self-sufficient rural life in the intervening years.

The reality of religious life in the twenty-first century, and of the controversies around it, is that religious dissenters from secular modernity remain embedded in cities and suburbs and entangled in the same web of civic and cultural institutions that shape the lives of everyone else. And they aren’t trying to escape them. To the contrary, even those who previously sought complete independence from state oversight, like religious homeschoolers, now seek rights of participation instead—for homeschooled students to join public school sports teams, for example, or, in the case of religious schools, for the state to cover costs with “secular purposes,” like busing and technology.

The Satmar Sect

It is therefore worth examining what it is about Hasidic communities that has propelled them to the front pages of the New York Times and the forefront of religious liberty battles, and why their situation, despite its strangeness and apparent marginality, might be more representative of the religious liberty battles to come than the Amish ever were of the battles past. Their insularity opens them to easy demonization, but considered from another angle, they offer a model of social cohesion and civic participation in an increasingly fractured, alienated age. The publication of several illuminating new studies of Hasidism in New York, particularly about the Satmar sect, which is both the largest and the most implicated in the conflicts over schooling and welfare fraud, is especially timely. The books in many respects complement each other in filling out a picture of contemporary Hasidic life—Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers’s American Shtetl offers a legal and ethnographic history of the autonomous upstate village of Kiryas Joel, while Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Caspar’s A Fortress in Brooklyn is a postwar political history of the Satmar in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.5

The first misunderstanding both books—indeed, every account of Hasidism—must correct is about what Hasidism is. This is not easy because Jewish observance does not fit easily into Christian ecclesiological categories. Hasidism is sometimes referred to interchangeably with “ultra-Orthodoxy,” meaning roughly the form of observance of those whose adherence to the Jewish law is so strict as to prevent extensive contact with the secular world. In practice, this means they reside in geographically tight-knit communities (governed by the need to live within walking distance of the synagogue, since driving is prohibited on the Sabbath), are educated in private religious schools, marry early, have large families, and rarely attend college or pursue professional training. But not all ultra-Orthodox Jews are Hasidic, and few call themselves ultra-Orthodox. Hasidim are the descendants of something like a mystical-charismatic revival movement in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe that gradually grew opposed to the secularizing or at least secularism-accommodating movements of post-Napoleonic Europe, embodied today in the United States in Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Judaism. In the America, the Hasidim are the Jews who follow rebbes and wear big hats. But even this description is imprecise.

Despite their insistence on rigorous degrees of ritual observance and their penchant for nineteenth-century dress, Hasidic Jews are not practicing an ancient or even medieval form of Judaism. The movement dates back about two hundred years; Satmar in particular was founded in Hungary in the 1920s and only came into full fruition after it was reconstituted by Holocaust survivors in New York City in the 1950s. Although some Hasidic sects like Satmar are deeply opposed to changing or updating ritual observance, it is neither premodern nor antimodern. Rather, as Ayala Fader put it in her own recent study, ultra-Orthodoxy is “better understood as part of an alternative religious modernity…. It could only exist in a place and time where religious difference was tolerated, where the structure of the state provided support like food stamps or subsidized housing…and where participation in democracy made the ultra-Orthodox a powerful interest group.”6

Liberal modernity was supposed to be an acid bath for religion, but it turned out to be corrosive only to some forms, while others gained strength from the new institutions and principles it inaugurated. Indeed, as Stolzenberg and Myers argue, Satmar has been remarkably successful in using American liberalism for its own ends, in pursuit of a strategy they call “liberal illiberalism.”7 The protections of the Free Exercise Clause allowed the Satmar sect to establish a network of private institutions and schools to sustain and pass on its beliefs. Federalism and localism allowed them to create an independent municipality in 1977, the village of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York, inhabited and governed entirely by Satmars. Welfare policies allowed them to support large families without devoting their lives to the education and time commitment required for professional advancement.

The Satmars don’t reject these policies and principles, but they’re not fundamentally committed to them either. Unlike other illiberal groups within liberal regimes, Hasidic Jews have no ambition to take over the secular state or govern non-Jews; they want only to govern their own communities. But unlike the Amish, they do not understand self-government to be possible only through complete withdrawal from politics. Rather, they are thoroughly modern in accepting the tradeoffs of representative government. Running a self-governing municipality gave them an unprecedented degree of insulation from the secular world and “governmental power,” greater “than any Jewish community in Europe ever had,” but it also made them players in state and local politics, enmeshing them more deeply in political life than they had ever been.8 Like other racial, ethnic, and religious groups in the United States, the Satmars realized that participation in rather than withdrawal from politics was essential to both defending their rights and jockeying for spoils. So they lobby, turn out voters at high rates, and even field their own candidates where it’s tenable. Their exceptional political cohesion offsets their low numbers, resulting in what political scientists call “efficacy”—they often get what they want. In this respect, they play ball with liberalism while neither being absorbed into it nor undermining it.

But one aspect of American liberalism has been a problem for Satmar from the outset: the Establishment Clause. Did a town created by and for a religious sect, governed by the norms of that sect and populated exclusively by its members, violate the Establishment Clause? The Satmars in Kiryas Joel tried to preempt such claims by establishing a conventional local government and municipal institutions separate from the group’s religious leadership, though they remained closely tied. Having overcome a series of lawsuits challenging its existence in the 1970s, Kiryas Joel then embarked on a new project that ended up in the Supreme Court: the creation of a public school district exclusively to provide special education to Satmar children. (All nondisabled Satmars were educated in religious private schools.) This would require public funds to be spent for purposes that were ambiguously religious, or at least not wholly secular. Did that violate the Establishment Clause?

In their lengthy account of this 1994 case, Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet,9 Stolzenberg and Myers show how Kiryas Joel was involved in the transformation of Establishment Clause jurisprudence away from what they call the doctrine of “strict separationism” that prevailed for much of the second half of the twentieth century, which tolerated no government entanglement with religion, to a pluralistic doctrine of “neutrality,” whereby government could support religious activities so long as it refrained from discriminating among them in its support. Kiryas Joel lost in the Supreme Court, but after several revisions in the state’s authorizing language, the public school survived. More significantly, in Stolzenberg and Myers’s account, our understanding of the First Amendment itself has shifted in a direction more favorable to groups like Satmar.

Being Good at Being Poor

It was not only Satmar’s insufficiently secular schools that inspired the Times’s outrage but also their gall in using public funds to deliver such deficient schooling. Hasidic Jews’ reliance on various forms of social provision, from household welfare programs to state and federal educational funding, has long provoked political opposition. This opposition becomes especially interesting in comparison with attitudes toward other groups’ use of these programs, since the politics of poverty and welfare is so intimately tied up in the United States with the politics of race, a connection that A Fortress in Brooklyn nimbly teases out.

Liberals and conservatives alike tend to view the use of government aid to ease black Americans’ historically high levels of poverty as an unsurprising and perhaps even justified response to the country’s legacy of troubled race relations, but, as both whites and Jews, Hasidim are unexpected and highly suspect applicants for welfare. In reality, the combination of their large families and lack of professional training has always put a large proportion of Hasidic Jews in New York below official poverty thresholds. The New York Times reported in 2011 that about 70 percent of household incomes in Kiryas Joel fell below the federal poverty line, making it “the poorest place in the United States.”10 But who has heard a discussion of American poverty include even so much as a mention of Kiryas Joel or Hasidim? As Deutsch and Casper put it, since the inception of antipoverty programs in the 1960s, it has been “a widespread criticism…that unlike impoverished blacks or Latinos, who suffered from structural racism based on their phenotypes, Hasidim essentially chose to be poor and therefore did not deserve to receive government aid.”11

Classic racist tropes about both blacks and Jews lurk close to the surface in this liberal formulation, but the stereotypes illuminate important underlying assumptions. If the assumption that justifies welfare is that Americans must organize their entire lives around making a living—doggedly pursuing training that results in higher pay, reducing family size to minimize the number of mouths to feed, organizing their use of time around the demands of employer schedules—then it is true that Hasidim have chosen to be poor in a way that African Americans have not. Unlike blacks, who have historically been denied opportunities to advance, Hasidim have voluntarily rejected most of the choices Americans have to make to achieve that end. Should that disqualify them?12

As it stands however, the only qualifications for receiving their benefits are means tests, and Hasidim meet those thresholds in very large numbers. Indeed, as Deutsch and Casper emphasize, their socioeconomic trajectory during the period of New York City’s decline from the 1960s through the 1980s was much closer to those of their black and Puerto Rican neighbors than to those of non-Hasidic Jews or other white ethnics. They stayed put through the decades of white flight, sharing space in public housing and engaging in political turf wars for government aid and physical turf wars over neighborhood space with neighboring racial minorities, to the extent that they lobbied to be counted as an official minority group, and thus eligible for affirmative action programs. This push failed at the federal level, but succeeded in New York state.

Beneath the numbers, however, major differences persisted between minority poverty and Hasidic poverty. Satmars might have been poor on paper, but as Times reporter Sam Roberts observed about Kiryas Joel, “It has no slums or homeless people. No one who lives there is shabbily dressed or has to go hungry. Crime is virtually nonexistent.”13 Or as a young Richard John Neuhaus concluded about the differential effects of government aid during his time as a Lutheran pastor and community activist in Williamsburg in the 1960s and ’70s, “The poverty program was a disaster. Voluntarism was ended, people were bought off…. These communities have become ‘governmentalized.’ To a large extent, this has happened to the Puerto Ricans, but not the Hasids. The Hasidim have the best of both worlds. They have political clout but it is done in a way that doesn’t mess up their infrastructure.”14 Unlike so many other welfare recipients of this period, Hasidim experienced no concomitant community breakdown or loss of communal initiative.

Their very poverty and social isolation fortified an intense form of communitarianism that substantially blunted poverty’s ill effects. Each Hasidic sect, and Satmar in particular, has numerous charitable institutions—funds for weddings, donation centers for clothing and children’s items, food assistance—contribution to which is a moral imperative, especially for the community’s wealthiest donors. These benefices ensure that poverty does not leave many in dire need or prevent them from participating in communal life. Facing increasing crime in Williamsburg during the postwar period, Satmar responded not by fleeing to the suburbs but by forming a spirited neighborhood watch program: “When Hasidim in Williamsburg experienced or witnessed a crime, they would yell, ‘Chaptsem!’ (Yiddish, ‘Catch him!’) at the top of their lungs, which prompted other community members in earshot to drop whatever they were doing to pursue the assailant,” beating him if they caught him, and winding up in trouble with the law themselves for their vigilantism on several occasions.15

This unprecedented degree of collective action keeps the Satmar from suffering the worst effects of poverty, but it also makes them unusually capable of exploiting and even defrauding government aid programs. For example, federal prosecutors last year found that the main Satmar school in Williamsburg had been systematically underpaying employees so that their salaries would remain low enough to qualify them for welfare (and lighten the school’s tax burden), and then topping up their salaries with unreported cash payments and “at least $12 million in coupons—17 percent of its total employee compensation—which the workers could use as cash in Hasidic grocery stores and other shops.”16 What is striking about this arrangement is not just its creative illegality, but the fact that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in New York City accepting this deal. To be willing to be paid in supermarket vouchers (like being willing to chase after and beat up anyone your neighbor identifies as a criminal) requires a level of social trust that is simply unthinkable in the vast majority of American communities.

Reading the Times’s coverage of Hasidic welfare fraud, one gets the distinct sense that the reporters would be more relieved if all the public money that Hasidim received was fraudulent than accept that so many of them are actually just poor. For them, it seems, poverty has not been as fatal to flourishing as it has for other Americans. It has not led to any of the social pathologies—crime, family disintegration, drug abuse, and so on—typically associated with it. This confounds the typical sociological explanations for these negative outcomes, which identify poverty as their root cause. In this respect, Hasidism confounds the right too, since it more successfully models, in actual practice, the corrective or even alternative to liberalism that Christianity often aspires to be.

Who’s Afraid of the Hasidim?

The elephant in the room throughout the entire history of conflicts between the Satmar and the secular state is the identity of the people most loudly opposed to them. The authors of all the Times articles share something with Louis Grumet, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case involving the Kiryas Joel school district. Stolzenberg and Myers illustrate this dynamic in a remarkable litany:

The lawyers who argued the case for Grumet from the New York State School [Boards] Association…were Jewish…the village’s lawyer, was Jewish…the lawyer hired by the village to represent the school district was Jewish; superintendent Steve Benardo, who testified for the school district, was Jewish; Michael Sussman, who represented Joseph Waldman, was Jewish…New York’s attorney general, who defended Chapter 748 [the statute that enabled creation of a school district with boundaries conterminous with those of Kiryas Joel] on behalf of the state, was Jewish…the lawyer who argued the case for the state before the Supreme Court was Jewish; Judge Howard Levine, who dissented from the Appellate Division’s decision to affirm Kahn’s ruling, was Jewish. And so, too, was Judge Judith Kaye…who wrote the decision in the Wieder case, denying the Satmars the right to force the Monroe-Woodbury School District to provide special ed classes at a neutral site…Daniel Alexander, the former superintendent of the Monroe-Woodbury School district whose refusal to accommodate the Satmars’ request for services in Kiryas Joel led to the passage of Chapter 748, was Jewish. Many members of the NYSSBA board, who stood firmly behind Grumet, were Jewish.17

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who voted with the majority against Kiryas Joel in Grumet, completes the list. This dynamic goes back to the very beginning of Hasidic settlement in the United States after World War II. Stolzenberg and Myers remind us that this was all foretold in Philip Roth’s 1959 story “Eli, the Fanatic,” which both describes and foreshadows the tortured relationship between secular and religious Jews.

There is both a straightforward and petty explanation for this dynamic, and an interesting and complex one. Straightforwardly, it has always been secular Jews who have opposed Hasidim more intensely than gentiles because, for one thing, they need not fear being accused of anti-Semitism when they do so. More importantly, as Roth saw, secular Jews fear that their own legitimacy as normal Americans is endangered by the presence of such offensively visible coreligionists, who threaten to tarnish the good reputation of secular Jews as educated, productive, modern, and socially acceptable citizens. Deutsch and Casper quote a Jewish police officer in Brooklyn who in 1975 articulated this resentment: “To a Jew who regards himself as an ‘American,’ there’s something repulsive about these people who insist upon preserving anachronistic ways. The goyim are far more understanding in dealing with the Chassidim.”18

But there is a deeper dynamic at work in this intrareligious conflict. The secular Jews who have constituted such a striking proportion of the opposition to the Satmar over the years represent not just a petty assimilationism that resents being associated in the minds of gentiles with backwardness and ancient prejudices. They represent a robust and principled vision of liberalism, call it “postwar liberalism” or “Cold War liberalism.” Whatever you call it, that liberalism was heavily influenced by the legal and cultural presuppositions of secularizing Jews. This Jewish liberalism was dominated by a particular understanding of the First Amendment that prioritized free speech absolutism, strict church/state separation and removal of religion from the public sphere, and meritocracy as a vindication of individual rights. It viewed rights through the prism of what the (Jewish) political theorist Judith Shklar called the “liberalism of permanent minorities”—a prioritization of strong protections against majority tyranny in all forms, shaped by the expectation of remaining permanently numerically disempowered in a democracy.19 Its analog in culture was an ethos of exposure, which celebrated frank speech in the public sphere about previously taboo subjects, an ethos inspired by a certain Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst and exemplified by Jewish writers and artists like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen.

With its communitarian deprioritization of individual rights and insistence on tradition and modesty, Hasidism was completely orthogonal to this Jewish liberalism, with its secular, individualistic vision of the law and society. And unlike the Amish, who promised to remain out of sight and out of mind in their anti-individualism, asking for nothing and taking nothing, Hasidim rejected Jewish liberalism right in the middle of New York City for all to see, and they did it with the tax dollars of their critics.

The New York Times’s crusade against certain educational and fiscal practices of New York’s Hasidic communities still evokes all of Jewish liberalism’s presuppositions—that a strictly secular state should avoid financial entanglement with avowedly religious institutions, that it should closely regulate and impose secular expectations on all schools in its jurisdiction, that it should protect individual and not group rights, and that it should make every effort to facilitate exit from illiberal communities for individuals within them. And the Times’s audience is still at least casually responsive to these claims.

Nonetheless, the tide is turning against this vision of liberalism. From different partisan directions, the courts have slowly abandoned its interpretation of the First Amendment, elite institutions have rejected its argument for meritocracy, and the culture is turning away from its celebration of exposure and taboo busting. Even demography has turned against Jewish liberalism—Orthodoxy is growing, secular Judaism is shrinking, and the former is predicted to outnumber the latter in the next forty years.20 Ironically, Hasidism is now closer in form to the emerging ideals on both the left and the right than the American Civil Liberties Union of the 1970s. It is the urban, family-centric, anticorporate, and in some respects anticapitalist, welfare-approving, religious-communitarian Benedict Option that has actually worked over half a century. Of course, neither Christian postliberals nor atheist socialists have any desire to join Satmar; nor does Satmar have much desire to admit them, but that is beside the point. To the degree that Satmar has been successful for its own adherents, it has been so in ways that probably point more clearly to the future, both of American Jews and, more importantly, of American liberalism.


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