City of Joel takes a both-sides approach while documenting the Village of Kiryas Joel and the Chasdic enclave’s plans to annex land.
The discussion surrounding Kiryas Joel is an interesting one. This is a Chasidic community that grew too large for South Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Thus, members of the community were forced to move to a different town in order to grow their community. If you’re unfamiliar with Chasidic Jews, these are very large families. While many of us are familiar with the Chabad-Lubavich movement, there are other Chasidic sects like Satmar, etc. The members of Kiryas Joel originate from within the Satmar sect.
Some brief history of the Satmar sect is in order. The group was founded in 1905 by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. Hence the name, Kiryas Joel! In the 1970s, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum moved the growing community to Monroe, N.Y. The community, which started as 500 in 1977, grew to over 20,000 people as of the 2010 census. The current grand rebbe is Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum and nothing happens without his blessing. The Satmar rules are so strict that a person who is solely visiting the town must adhere to their rules. Even if there’s no official law on the books, the custom is to dress modestly and “maintain gender separation in all public areas.”
This is a Satmar community that wants no part of American life. They want to study Torah, cook, and just go about their day. Satmar is one of the sects that is firmly against Zionism because of religious reasons. All while waiting for Moshiach to come.
With growing families, the Kiryas Joel community seeks to annex more land. The citizens of Monroe unite in a “United Monroe” campaign in hopes of defeating this proposal. Things get so heated that you almost think a fight will break out during the town hall meetings.
One Kiryas Joel resident agreed to go on the record but only if their identity would remain anonymous. This is a person had a lot of things to get off their chest. They talk about the strict community rules, which takes a harsh stance against computers and smart phones. Let alone the fact that women must shave (I know Orthodox women who let their leg hair grow in the winter–hey, if it’s cold and our legs are covered by leggings, so be it!). This is a guy who describes the schools as being the main instrument of enforcing the rules. If you live in the community, you can’t even as much as send your children to private schools!
This resident brings up three categories of people that come from the community but have disagreements. There’s the group of people who pick up and leave. There are those who are miserable and stay but continue to curse the system. Finally, there’s the group who make peace with staying.
Some of these people end up staying because of the fear of losing contact with their families. This is a serious concern. It’s sad to watch as all of this goes down. There are those who end up leaving and have to change their whole outlook and way of life.
One young woman was forced to live with her boyfriend when her mom changed the locks on the doors. This definitely isn’t my Judaism. However, she says that right now, her life “is so much better” than what it could be if she stayed. She turned away from a lifestyle that would have saw her barely talk to a husband while staying home to cook and raise a family. The rules that the Satmar sect enforces on women are so strict that it’s no wonder that anyone would want to leave!
City of Joel culminates with the town hall meeting prior to the town board’s annexation vote. The debate gets heated and people go over their allotted time to speak. While the town board ultimately approves Kiryas Joel’s annexation request, they deny the request for larger land. United Monroe comes to support Kiryas Joel’s secession if it means putting a stay on annexations for the next ten years.
The residents of Monroe have every right to speak out and be upset. After all, America has an establishment clause that prevents the establishment of an official religion. Nevermind just how much of the town’s money is being used for social services. Many of the Kiryas Joel residents live in poverty. There’s more to be said about this aspect of the community but the film’s bigger focus is on the annexation of land.
Jesse Sweet takes us inside the battle lines as the film is able to capture a clash between cultures. One can only hope that differences have settled down when the next request comes up for annexing land. The Satmar sect will surely grow too big for their current size during the next few decades. Nobody knows what the future holds but City of Joel is a very fascinating and even-handed approach to the workings of the Kiryas Joel community.
DIRECTOR: Jesse Sweet
FEATURING: Chasidic community of Kiryas Joel; Members of the town of Monroe, NY