The leadership of two chasidic communities came under legal attack this week, the most serious being a lawsuit seeking the dissolution of the Village of Kiryas Joel in Orange County.
In a 59-page suit filed in Manhattan Federal Court, the Kiryas Joel Alliance and several of its members, who describe themselves as “dissidents” within the Satmar village, claimed that the village’s “majority religious faction has irretrievably commandeered the village government and uses it to advance the congregation’s agenda.”
The second suit comes following an internal quarrel within the Skver chasidic community in Rockland County’s New Square. The $36 million suit filed in state court names as defendants New Square’s grand rebbe, David Twersky, and an 18-year-old, Shaul Spitzer. The suit alleges that Spitzer, at the direction of Rabbi Twersky, started a fire in the home of Aron Rottenberg, 43, because he refused to pray in the main synagogue at which Rabbi Twersky presides.
Both suits were filed Monday by Michael Sussman of Goshen, N.Y., who said he represented the same group of Kiryas Joel dissidents in a 1997 suit against the village. In that suit, the dissidents claimed they were subject to a sometimes violent campaign of religious persecution. The case ended with the village, about 50 miles north of Manhattan, reportedly agreeing to pay the dissidents $300,000.
Sussman said that during that trial the court “said the evidence suggested” that the village should be dissolved.
“It didn’t happen because we were not seeking that,” he said.
Asked why he waited 14 years to pursue it, he replied: “The situation has worsened.”
The 1997 case was reportedly settled to avoid the embarrassment of putting on the witness stand Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum, the spiritual leader of Kiryas Joel and the son of the grand rabbi of the Satmar chasidim, which with a reported 50,000 followers is the largest chasidic group.
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College who has written extensively about the fervently Orthodox, suggested that it is no coincidence that both suits were filed by Sussman, “a civil rights lawyer who is a busy political activist and has a long history” of pursuing liberal causes and cases involving separation of church and state.
He noted that three months after the Kiryas Joel settlement in 1997, Sussman successfully sued to compel Kiryas Joel to move the voting booths from the basement of the main synagogue because dissidents said they were harassed when they went to vote.
“This is a guy who has an agenda, who does not like the idea of the right wing and wants to separate state and religion,” Heilman said.
He said the group of dissidents who filed the Kiryas Joel suit are followers of Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the founder of Kiryas Joel in 1977. His nephew, Moshe Teitelbaum, succeeded him when he died in 1979, although the dissident group remained loyal to Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum’s widow, Feige.
After Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum died in 2006, another split occurred over his successor, with the majority favoring his son Aron and others favoring his son Zalman. Sussman said he believes some of those supporting his suit are supporters of Zalman.
William Helmreich, a professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and a close observer of the Orthodox community, said the rivalry between the factions in Kiryas Joel is well known.
“Let them remember the old saying that when it starts raining, everyone gets wet,” he said. “They may bring down calumny on both their houses if they keep this up. … Rational thinking ends when emotions take control. Here they are willing to engage in self-destructive behavior. If they would stop and count to 10, they would realize they are hurtling towards disaster for their own community.”
Heilman added that the idea of seeking the village’s dissolution is “one more tactic in the ongoing conflict between the various streams. … What you are seeing here is the old dispute that has been festering.”
The Kiryas Joel suit charges that the majority who rule the village engage in religious discrimination by selectively enforcing laws to their own benefit. Among other things, the suit alleges that the village disparately treats dissidents with regard to taxes, municipal fees and enforcement of building and zoning codes, and selectively enforces littering, noise and public order ordinances.
“Dissolution of the village is warranted because of the inherent and unwavering conflict that exists in the village … between the rule of law in a secular democratic society and theocratic rule, which gives primacy and credence to the edicts of a single religious leader without respect to judicial boundaries,” the suit says.
It is alleged that the dissidents represent about 40 percent of the 20,000 residents of Kiryas Joel and that the village’s public safety officers have overlooked instances of violence and harassment directed at the dissidents. For instance, village residents who opt to use a wedding hall not sanctioned by the majority have had their names, pictures and private phone numbers plastered on leaflets that are distributed throughout the community. They often receive harassing phone calls, including during the middle of the night.
“If not directly calling for violence, in fact, [they] do incite violence against the ‘dissidents,’” the suit said. “Within the past few years there have been several incidents involving mobs of hundreds of [yeshiva] boys, harassing and assaulting ‘dissident’ members. When these mobs convene, [the public safety officers] often do not intervene but rather allow the boys to continue unhindered, forcing the ‘dissidents’ to call the state police to obtain relief.”
The suit, which cited examples of discrimination going back a decade, noted that last August a family of 10 to 12 people — including a woman who was pregnant — were returning from a post-wedding celebration when a “mob of about 300 [yeshiva] boys” surrounded them and, while family members tried to escape, “the boys were hitting and kicking them, throwing bottles and eggs and calling [the man’s daughter] a Yiddish term roughly equivalent to ‘prostitute,’ but carrying an even more negative religious connotation.”
Dissolving the village would place it under the governance of the Town of Monroe. Should the court not opt to pursue that option, the suit asks that it enjoin the village and its leaders from selectively enforcing the laws and that it remove the current village leaders, including Mayor Abraham Weider, the trustees and the director of public safety and bar them for holding any village office indefinitely.
In the New Square suit, it was alleged that Rottenberg had been harassed since September because of his refusal to pray in the community’s main synagogue. The suit contends that Rabbi Twersky condoned the “aggressive behavior” against Rottenberg, which included expelling his daughter from the religious school she attended, “throwing stones and rocks through the car windows and plaintiffs’ residence, and making threatening phone calls to plaintiffs’ residence.”
It said the goal of setting fire to Rottenberg’s home on May 22 was to “run [him] out of the Village of New Square” and that Spitzer was “acting at the direction of the Grand Rebbe, in whose home he lived.”
Rottenberg was severely burned when he spotted Spitzer, who ignited an accelerant and the two men struggled, the suit said. Rottenberg’s son, Jacob, was also burned, it said.