Kiryas Joel Foes Holding Fire

Kiryas Joel Foes Holding Fire

Like Jesus’ friend Lazarus, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and the hope that springs eternal, Kiryas Joel, the upstate chasidic school district ruled thrice an affront to the constitution, has yet another legislative lease on life.

Last week, the very week its latest appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was turned down Kiryas Joel village took steps to resurrect the school district yet again under a law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. George Pataki last August.

This time (under the fourth such law passed by the legislature in 10 years) the beleaguered school district’s most longstanding legal opponents are, for the moment, holding fire.

"They keep coming up with language to encompass more school districts," said Marc Stern, legal counsel for the American Jewish

Congress, which has filed friend-of-the-court briefs against the constitutionality of all the previous efforts. "There probably is a point where we would conclude it would not be challengeable under federal law."

The earlier attempts were so clearly aimed exclusively at Kiryas Joel, Stern explained, that his group felt compelled to oppose them as designed to single out this one, religion-based enclave for special benefit.

Stern noted that the legislature’s third attempt was touted by the governor as the remedy to this objection. When he signed it, Pataki claimed its criteria would enable some 10 other communities to also split off from their school districts, if they wished. But when the state’s Department of Education completed its official analysis of the law, those 10 were reduced to two, including Kiryas Joel.

Under the new law, Pataki now claims, fully 29 municipalities will be able split off. The Education Department has yet to issue its own, determining opinion. But according to a source closely involved in the case, who asked not to be named, the department has recently completed its study. And this time, it concurs.

"Obviously, that’s more than one or two," said Stern approvingly. Stern stressed that AJCongress has not yet reached its own judgement on the new law.

David Ernst, a spokesperson for the New York State School Boards Association, said "it’s possible" his group’s stance toward the law could also shift this time: if the number of municipalities affected truly increases. "It’s the claim of the speaker [of the state Assembly] and the governor that this will apply to more than two dozen communities," he said. "We have not yet verified that."

It is Ernst’s group that actually filed suit to kill the previous three laws.

The fourth law passed last August after the state court of appeals ruled unconstitutional the legislature’s third effort to legalize the Kiryas Joel school district. In a tribute to the fealty of Pataki and legislative leaders to Kiryas Joel, this fourth law actually anticipated last week’s Supreme Court’s refusal to review the state court decision.

That refusal, when it came down last Tuesday, left in place the state Court of Appeals’ ruling that creating a special school district for Kiryas Joel (an enclave of 15,000 Satmar chasidim in upstate New York) was an unconstitutional violation of the separation between religion and state.

Nevertheless, the school remains open as official papers from the Supreme Court wend their way through the bureaucracy and Kiryas Joel takes steps to get approval under the new, fourth law. Its 250 students, all handicapped children in need of special education, continue their state-required secular learning under the auspices of the tiny school district that was split off from the neighboring Monroe-Woodbury school district in 1989.

Even Kiryas Joel’s legal opponents are sympathetic to the chasidic enclave’s desire to remain separate from Monroe-Woodbury: if only a constitutional way can be found.

Unlike Kiryas Joel’s regular education students, who attend private religious schools in the village, the special-ed children attended the Monroe-Woodbury school to receive government-financed services related to their disabilities. But the chasidim complained of frequent ridicule and hostility their distinctively garbed, culturally insulated children faced in the public school’s secular environment. Monroe-Woodbury officials rejected several alternative efforts to address them.

It was this situation that moved the Kiryas Joel Satmars to appeal to the state legislature to create a public school district just for them in 1989. After the resulting legislation was ruled unconstitutional favoritism, the state Assembly and Senate passed reformulated statutes in 1994, 1997 and, most recently, last August.

The laws passed with strong backing from Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo and, after Cuomo’s 1994 defeat, Republican Pataki. In fact, Pataki, a then-obscure state assemblyman from neighboring Rockland County, was the sponsor of the original 1989 bill. Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Democratic Party-controlled assembly, has also been a crucial supporter.

Cynical lobbyists and idealistic advocates alike might ask just how the 15,000 Satmar chasids who constitute virtually the entire population of the upstate village do it: not once, but four times.

"They are a very large and prominent voting bloc," said Rabbi Milton Balkany, a prominent activist and political fund-raiser in Brooklyn’s ultra-traditional Orthodox community.

Balkany said the Satmar community could marshal not just the 15,000 residents of Kiryas Joel but also the 25,000 to 30,000 Satmars who live in Williamsburg, the sect’s home base in Brooklyn, to vote as a bloc.

"They are also very involved in the political fund-raising process," said Balkany, who has himself raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for mostly Republican candidates. "And finally, there is the merit of their cause," he said. "A number of legislators feel very inclined to support the concept of the right of kids to the proper education."

Stern, the AJ Congress counsel, dismissed political contributions from the Satmar community as an explanation for their success. But he strongly supported the significance of their influence as a voting bloc.

"This is a group of people who are perceived by politicians to vote en masse … on the basis of a small number of issues of no concern to anyone else," he said. "Unlike, say, abortion or school prayer, you can more or less satisfy the Satmars [on these issues], and no one else will vote against you; plus, you have an attractive photo-op at the end. … There’s no disincentive."

One Pataki administration official, speaking on condition he not be identified, agreed with Stern’s analysis. He noted that in neighboring Rockland County just last May, a special state Senate election was decided by only 1,600 votes in favor of the Republican victor, Thomas Morahan.

"That was only because of New Square, Keser and a few other enclaves," he said, referring to chasidic developments in the sparsely populated county. Together, said the official, these enclaves contributed a decisive 3,000 votes to the victor.

But George Shevitz, Kiryas Joel’s attorney, strongly challenged these analyses. He noted that Nancy Calhoun, the lawmaker representing Kiryas Joel’s own assembly district, was among the strongest foes of the separate school district. Yet, he said, "They’ve never been able to get her out of office. If they have any influence at all, it would be in a state assembly race."

Shevitz pronounced himself "mystified" by the Satmars’ ability to win over Pataki, Silver and the legislators who follow them "but for one belief: anyone who has ever seen the school these kids attend walks away saying this is the best special-ed program in the state. And to do away with it would destroy 220 kids."

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