Monday, June 13, 2011

Dissident Jews say enclave in NY oppresses them 

Dissidents in a Hasidic Jewish enclave in upstate New York demanded Monday that the village be dissolved on the grounds that its existence violates religious freedom.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court, the dissidents say the majority congregation has taken over village government in Kiryas Joel and selectively enforces tax, zoning, election and other laws to oppress them.

"Due to this inherent and unavoidable entanglement between religion and government, the village has engaged, and continues to engage, in religious discrimination," the lawsuit said.

Kiryas Joel's attorney, Donald Nichol, denied any infringement of religious rights.

"These people have been allowed to exercise their religious freedom even beyond the village statutes," he said.

Kiryas Joel was incorporated in 1977 by members of the Satmar Hasidic sect from Brooklyn. Few if any others live there. A village of large families, it is one of the fastest-growing places in the state, with a population of 23,000.

It also is listed as among the poorest places in the country and is heavily dependent on food stamps, Medicaid and federal housing vouchers. But it has little of the street crime or drug problems that other poor communities have.

The lawsuit says many of the dissidents — nine are named as plaintiffs — follow the teachings not of the grand rebbe, Aron Teiltelbaum, but his brother Zalman Teiltelbaum, who leads a Satmar group in Brooklyn. It says the dissidents comprise about 40 percent of the village population.

The lawsuit says the dissidents recently established a wedding hall outside the village where couples could be married by rabbis not sanctioned by the grand rebbe. Village officials then told the majority congregation to excommunicate the newlyweds, the lawsuit says. It says religious leaders also incited violence against the couples with "hateful" leaflets and loudspeaker announcements.

The lawsuit also says the village gives tax-exempt status to the main congregation but not the dissidents, disregards its own zoning law to advance the main congregation's activities and assesses sanitation fees against dissident organizations even when they use outside garbage companies.

It also alleges voting fraud, including intimidation of voters and busing in non-residents to vote.

The lawsuit asks that the village be dissolved, or that religious leaders not be permitted to hold government office for 25 years.

Nichol, the village attorney, said that proposed remedy would itself be religious discrimination.

"It would be like saying a Catholic can't be president," he said.

The lawsuit names as defendants the village, the main congregation and several village officials.

It does not name the grand rebbe as a defendant but calls him a "key non-party."

In a separate lawsuit, also filed Monday but in state court in Rockland County, Sussman targeted the grand rebbe of another Hasidic enclave, in New Square.

That lawsuit alleges that Grand Rebbe David Twersky directed a fiery attack on a villager who had begun praying at a synagogue other than the main synagogue in New Square, 30 miles from Manhattan.

On May 22, Aron Rottenberg suffered third-degree burns over half his body in what police said was an attempt to burn down his house. Another New Square resident, Shaul Spitzer, has been charged with attempted murder. The lawsuit alleges — as Sussman has previously, in a letter seeking a federal investigation — that Twersky was responsible.

Hank Sheinkopf, who advises some village leaders, said attorneys had not yet seen the lawsuit.

It seeks $36 million for Rottenberg and his family from Twersky and Spitzer.


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