Thursday, June 25, 2015
A forum held to address relations between the residents of Kiryas Joel and the surrounding community drew a packed audience of more than 150 people to the campus of SUNY Orange on Wednesday evening, where the discussion was by turns combative and conciliatory, snide and sympathetic.
The forum, sponsored by Orange County Democratic Women and moderated by New York University history professor Richard Hull of Warwick, consisted of a panel of four diverse members of the community at large: Rabbi Joel Schwab of Temple Sinai in Middletown; Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz; Caren Fairweather, executive director of Maternal Infant Services Network; and Assemblyman James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, who made his comments in absentia through his legislative aide, Cornwall-on-Hudson Mayor Brendan Coyne.
In just over two hours, the discussion covered a far-reaching range of topics, from Kiryas Joel's proposed annexation of 507 acres from the Town of Monroe, population growth, public health, use of social services, employment, religious freedom and cultural tolerance, to political influence, bloc voting, legislation and court fights, among other matters.
It was the sixth such forum Hull has moderated on relations between Kiryas Joel and the surrounding community; new this time was the addition of the panel, which did not include a member from Kiryas Joel. In fact, only two residents of the village were present in the audience, along with three other Hasidic residents of Monroe, who identified themselves by a show of hands.
Each panel member focused on a different aspect of the persistent tension between the two communities.
Schwab spoke passionately about the historical and devoutly religious influences on Hasidic culture, then drew parallels to widely held American traditions. "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't all be curious about a lifestyle based on families," he said. "Isn't that a value that we have? A lifestyle based on religion. Isn't that a value that we have?"
Benjamin spoke of the historical tendency for cultural groups to live apart, and the relative newness of mixed communities in American society. "Municipality no longer means community," Benjamin said.
Fairweather offered a unique perspective on maternal and infant health care in Kiryas Joel, where the rate of caesarean births — 7 percent — is far below the average of 35-50 percent elsewhere. Unintended pregnancies among teenagers are also minimal in KJ, Fairweather said. In this way, she said, "this community does a lot to reduce the cost of health care," an idea that runs counter to common belief.
Skoufis, who has been an outspoken critic of Kiryas Joel's leadership, said through Coyne, "So many others and I want to end the division and want to live in peace. The people of Kiryas Joel are good people, who, I believe, overwhelmingly also want to live in peace."
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