I lived in Kiryas Joel the first twenty five years of my life. I was born and raised there, educated there, married there, became a mother there, got divorced there, and left there with the kid in tow. Every time I return to visit my family I am stunned by how quickly the village is changing, how fast it is growing. But visiting also brings back a flood of memories, because in essence, it’s still the same.

Kiryas Joel is a village of Satmar Hasidim. It’s called Kiryas Joel; meaning the Village of Joel, Joel being the Satmar Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum who died before I was born, when the village was in its infancy. The village was founded in the 1970s and by today, 2018, is at about a 30K population. In 2020 the village will secede from the town of Monroe, under which it has been until now, and become a town in its own right, Palm Tree (named for the Teitelbaum dynasty). It is being incorporate as its own town because of its growth.

To live in Kiryas Joel is to live in one of the most child-centric communities. Because women have many children and usually don’t work, their entire lives are dedicated to raising the kids. The streets of suburbanish condos are filled with Little Tykes bikes and Bigwheels and wagons and scooters, and during summer afternoons the outdoors is swarming with children and the sounds of screeching and crying and having fun and mothers on patio chairs gossiping with each other while feeding the youngest dinner out of a plastic plate. When there is an event for women, like a fundraiser for a charity, it usually has entertainment for the kids. When a kid gets hurt, any adult will take the kid and make sure he or she is okay. Kids are always surrounded by peers and they are always busying themselves with each other. Boys schools start at age 2.6 and attend it six days a week, all year round, with few off days. All of the boys teachers, for all ages, are men. In other words, everyone is busy with the children. The entire community is an institution revolving around the kids. Town or village, it lives by the motto ‘it takes a village’.

If you are the curious kind of kid, as I was, then you know that there is a world of forbidden things out there beyond your shtetl. You know it from the billboard you pass on the way to Williamsburg to visit your grandparents; you know it from the Yellow Pages that get dropped at the big mailbox of your cul-de-sac; oh – all the strange ads in there — law firms with people in American suits and services for pregnant women; oh man, what is pregnancy, you must read the tiny letters, obstetrics and gynecology, what does it mean, how can you find out, who would be able to tell you, this all feels so naughty and titillating and you must know but you won’t… You also go to the hospital once for an emergency when you break your leg while sledding down the hill of a house near your school, and you can’t stop your eyes from wandering to the waiting room TV and its seductive blue light, even though your mother keeps warning you not to look at this “not nice” stuff. Kik nisht; but how much your eyes want to kik. At the dentist you stare at the gentile patrons and you keep wishing you could pick up a Highlights Magazine, because one modern girl in your class gets the Highlights, and you wish you were her. You go to Brooklyn for a cousin’s wedding and you slip out with five dollars and buy bubble gum, because gum is forbidden and it is not sold in Kiryas Joel (by now it is). Your teachers and parents say that gum is like a cow chewing the cud, that it is not appropriate, but that’s exactly why you must have gum. You will chew it with the most exaggerated chump chumps, talking funny, so fancy. You will be like that fancy girl in the class who told you that if you leave your gum out overnight, the flavor comes back and you can start on it all over again. And like the neighbor who put a sour ball in her mouth alongside a gum, and told you that it is how everyone who knows gum does it, because it is how you make cherry flavor. You want to do all that so badly, so you buy the whole box at a Williamsburg grocery. You imagine that you will be a huge deal in school for weeks to come. But the wedding ends late and you fall asleep in the fifteen passenger van on the two hour ride home, and you forget the whole box of Bubble Gum, and for weeks afterwards you are terrified and anticipating consequences. Luckily, you get away with this one. You won’t always be so lucky.

The fear Hasidim have of the outside world influence means that anything seen as “Goyish”, gentile-ish, is not allowed. So you don’t know of the public library. So you don’t know what radio is; when your father surprises the family with a new stereo for Chanukah, the radio antenna gets chops off. So no movies or English books or magazines or pop music.

You might be allowed to get a piece of mail that comes to your mailbox. If it’s innocent. My father would hand out the mail to us kids if we stood nicely in line and waited for him to finish reading the important stuff. I’d get pieces like dental fliers and Charles Schwab notifications – my father would often accompany this with a discourse on Mutual Funds. I would use these for my art projects and poetry notebooks. But my father would tear up anything that wasn’t “nice”. Like pictures of a couple in bathing suits hugging by the pool, an immodest gift delivered to us courtesy of the Orange County company that builds oh-so-lavish in-ground pools. But here’s the thing, if the flier is torn up, in tatters inside the lined garbage can, how hard is it to just fish it out and piece it back together and ogle it in your bedroom under your blanket? You just need to hope no one piles mostly-eaten chicken into the trash before you have a chance to salvage it, and then the heist is on. The rush, ah, the rush of looking at that secular couple in their nighttime summer paradise and wandering what their lives were like. Oh!

And the hours and hours with friends. That was Kiryas Joel. There were so many intense interpersonal relationships. Without any electronics, without any TV, with very few trips out of the confines of our bubble, it was all about friendships. My best friend Masha and I — we spent hours and hours on the stairs to the basement; making arts and crafts and studying for exams on proper laws of Shabbes and copying notes and planning pranks on other girls. I would be sweating between my tights and dripping sweat from my ponytail and storming into our house to get another ice pop and quickly fly out the door again, before I got called in to do the dishes or help with the laundry.

In Kiryas Joel you walked a lot. You walked the hilly village sidewalks at night after the wedding of a sister or brother of a classmate’s. There was a thrill as we’d all stand under the streetlight deeply ensconced in the high drama and gossip of who wore what and which teacher showed up and who was right about why so-and-so got divorced, and did a matchmaker stare at us, was that why she stood there as we danced in the circled? And yoy, we would laugh so loudly, shush-shushthe village patrol would soon come around and we’d flee in hysterics.

And later at night yet, after the crowd dispersed, maybe one other girl would stay to walk home with me, and then we’d speculate on how pregnancies work, what really happened after marriage, if the man really did something somehow on someone, and promise me and swear to me this will be secret and that you won’t repeat a word of our conversation, and was it true that the baby came out of the — there-there? We’d be so confused; none the wiser by each others speculation. We’d bond over the confusion, the confidential mystery of do-you-know and do-you-think and do-you-believe-it and shush. We’d feel close; drawn together by breathless repressed sexual longing. I’d run a finger over my confidant’s hands without knowing why it felt good, only that all this talk of naughty stuff made our fingers intertwine, our breaths hot on each others faces as we stood close to whisper. We were a whole new degree of best friends. We knew that our parents would be mad if we didn’t get home before midnight, so bye bye, call me, bye, and I’d turn back to watch her ponytail and straight skirt suit disappear around the bend. I’d feel a rush as she disappeared and I took my high heel shoes off and walked in my stockings the rest of the way.

Kiryas Joel was a place of hunger. Hungered for more. Hunger to know. Sometimes the hunger hurt. Sometimes I couldn’t resist, and I stole to satiate myself. I stole a book from the Monroe Woodbury school. A Hasidic girls acting group had rented out their auditorium and we all were bused for a very rare play. I found a book near my chair in the audience seating. I took it. I read it in secrecy. I didn’t understand everything, but enough. My entire day in school felt like a walk on clouds, just knowing that I would get home and sneak a read of some more pages. Then my parents found it, and I got a nasty beating. I cried, screamed, apologized, self loathed, hated myself so much. It wasn’t the hunger that hurt. It was knowing that I was hungry while everyone else was content.

When I was grown up and my marriage was arranged, Kiryas Joel became a more oppressive place. I loved my husband and he indulged me in watching movies, but when we stepped out of our little bunker, I mean, basement apartment, we’d squint at the sunlight and I’d find myself out of touch with all the trends, the proper behavior, the harsh judgments. The school friends all got married and became mothers and serious women, they took the wigs to the wig maker regularly and wore sweet little hats, and they carried on with the charade dutifully. One friend scolded me in front of a group of women for not dressing up to shop at WalMart. It wasn’t normal to wear a housecoat in WalMart, no, it just wasn’t, no no no! I was so ashamed, yet so indignant. What’s it to you?, I wanted to say, but of course I didn’t. Because then I would seem even more off. Then I would be even more gossiped about. Then I’d be called even more crazy.

Kiryas Joel became smaller and harsher and lonelier with time, until I finally left. But when I return and hear the sounds of children playing kick-the-can and calling not-it and being called home by grown women on porches, I can remember a sweet side of it. A side that is innocent. A side that is connected.

This is a very interesting story of a Jehovah’s Witnesses worship house in the heart of Kiryas Joel. Kiryas Joel is the Satmar Hasidic satellite community in Orange County, New York, about an hour and a half from Williamsburg. The Satmar Rebbe Yoelish Teitelbaum founded Kiryas Joel in 1977. He had homes in Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel.

Kiryas Joel is more insular than Williamsburg, because while Hasidim and ethnic minorities coexist in the housing projects of Williamsburg, and Hasidim and Hipsters live next to each other there, Kiryas Joel’s population is isolated (except for some outside employment for cleaning help, etc.) This is reflected in the almost-entirely white population reported in the census:

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Yet despite the complete insularity of Kiryas Joel, as little as five years ago there was a building in Kiryas Joel that was called a church, and it was surrounded from all sides by Hasidic housing. The worship house was active until about 2000, and then it was deserted for ten years.

Here is an aerial view of the worship house in 2006. The white building is the “church” from behind, and you can see the construction of Hasidic housing nearby.

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On the Bing map you can see the worship house in red, the Kiryas Joel Yeshiva in blue and the Satmar cemetery where the rebbe is buried in yellow. 

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I admit, what prompted me to look into the building was an old curiosity because of my childhood in Kiryas Joel. The “church” was actually right in back of my childhood home. I grew up on Satmar Drive, the street named for our sect. There was a large area of beautiful Hudson Valley woods behind us. It was broken up by a narrow road that led to what we called “The Tifleh”, a Yiddish term for Church.

As a child I couldn’t actually see the church building because it sat deep into the path. Twenty five acres of woods surrounded it so I had no idea what happened behind the curtain of vegetation, but as a little girl I imagined it looked like any medieval church I encountered in stories about blood libels and bishops. I had heard that the church bells can be heard from Lizensk Blvd and it was all the proof I needed to imagine the church as a gray, towered medieval work of architecture.

Everyone I speak to remembers the mass of parishioners that used to come every Saturday. Masses of busses and cars streamed out of the woods every Saturday. Because it was right behind my home, on long, sticky Saturday afternoons my friends and I clung to the yard fence to watch the cars leave the church. We even waved to every single car. It was great fun. We choreographed a practiced, cheer like motion for the wave: hang hand over fence, pick up, wave right to left, left to right, drop down. Repeat. Sometimes, someone waved back, and then we laughed and ran away, a little scared.

I was on the “church” property once or twice while the religious group was still active there, sometime in the 1990s. My father used to go for a leisurely stroll with us kids on Saturday afternoon. He usually walked up Forest Road, but there were times he walked into the church path you see below. I remember there was an open electronic gate at the entrance and the road leading up to the church was beautiful – waterfalls and flora – but my father didn’t go far enough for us to actually see the “church.”

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(the picture is of the entrance, when the church was already vacated)

Fast forward to about 2000, the cars stopped coming. We didn’t know it then, but the congregation had moved out. As far as I know, there was no conflict between the Hasidim and the religious group. I don’t know why they sold, but they sold for $2.5 million to a Hasid, and the price tag may have had something to do with it.

The building then stayed vacated for ten more years, till about 2010 when it was demolished. The whole twenty five acre property was not cleared for construction until now – in 2014. I hear lots are now being sold for a quarter million a single family lot.

Recently, when I noticed they are starting construction there, I decided to research the “church.” Here’s its story:

It was built by Jehovah’s Witness in approximately 1972. The Witnesses are an unusual religious group. Relative to religion, this one is young, founded in 1870. The belief system is a radical offspring of Christianity. According to wikipedia, the Witnesses are known for their aggressive proselytization. They go door to door and ask if they can share a word about “the truth”, or Jehovah, or a passage from the Bible. They tend to be very insistent. They also do not allow blood transfusions, military service, celebration of birthdays and believe that everyone who isn’t a Witness is doomed. Their leaders have unsuccessfully predicted the end of the world many times, beginning in 1914.

They meet about once a week or twice a week in a Kingdom Hall but it seems these meetings aren’t prayer services; they are more like sermons or bible study sessions. While most of their locations are Kingdom Halls, the one behind my childhood home was not. It was a much larger Assembly Hall, as it served many congregations from the tristate area. Every week several parishes took turns occupying the space. The members do not call their worship house a “church,” but somehow that is how Hasidim referred to it.

Here is a picture of the Jehovah’s Witness Assembly Hall that was active near Kiryas Joel from about 1970-2000. The photo was taken aprox late 1970.

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The Witnesses sold the property to dissident Hasid Cheskel Brach in the end of 2000. Zigmont/Cheskel Brach bought it under a shadow corporation Cong. Bnei Luzer. See the link and below for the property record:

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Because Brach was not aligned with the leading Hasidic village officials, he could not get the property annexed into the Village of Kiryas Joel, so it wasn’t zoned for multi-family homes. That’s why it wasn’t developed and the “church” stayed so long. In essence, the twenty five acre property was an island of Town of Monroe land in the middle of the Hasidic shtetl. We called the property Cheskel Brach’s Lot.

During the ten years that the building was abandoned, I passed it many times. All the building markings of a worship house were removed. The previously manicured lawns were decrepit and the walls scrawled with Yiddish graffiti.

This is the church when it was abandoned. You can see the water fountain is just a pool of muddy water. Notice the playground set up by Brach’s dissident school that was housed in trailers.

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The property was in the news several times when it was the site of incidents of arson. In 2003 and 2004 and 2004, among others.


TIMES HEARD RECORD:
Building survives another arson attempt

A former Jehovah’s Witnesses building just outside of Kiryas Joel caught fire yesterday evening, marking yet another suspicious blaze there in a year.
Authorities are investigating.

This is becoming a common occurrence at the structure. Most recently, firefighters made two trips to the building on March 14 to douse suspicious fires. While inside, they found evidence of a fourth blaze that had gone out on its own. Days earlier, they put out another fire there. There was yet another suspicious fire in the building in May 2003. No arrests have been made in connection with the fires. The building and surrounding 25 acres are owned by Zigmond Brach, a prominent dissident in the Satmar Hasidic community.

Mahran said officials have been trying to talk Brach into boarding up the building, but so far no one’s had much luck. Several fire companies assisted at the scene of yesterday’s blaze, including Woodbury, Harriman, Washingtonville and South Blooming Grove.


The existence of a worship house in Kiryas Joel, right next to the heart of everything, is incredibly unusual, and the particular group that gathered there makes it even more mindboggling. It’s interesting to read what the Jehovah’s Witnesses members thought of their center that neighbored Hasidim. What I heard at home as a child was that the “church people” were polite goyim and that they respected the Hasidic lifestyle. 
 
It seems they actually had more colorful opinions. From a forum from members of this faith and members who left their faith, http://www.jehovahs-witness.net, here are their comments. 

It is worth reading.

One member remembers the Hasidim “being very upset that the Witnesses ‘worshipped’ there among them.”

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The Witnesses moved from Monroe to a bigger place in Newburgh:

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The scene
“Those hasidic Jews were hardcore, weren’t they?”

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When they were trying to spread their faith in Kiryas Joel: The Hasidim were a whole territory of “bad doors!”, ie, doors where trying to convert people felt futile. The Hasidim immediately ran them out. “The Witnesses were told not to return or else their would be problems with the assembly hall which was adjacent to the village. Some Witnesses tried to speak to Hasidics when they were alone in Monroe – with no success at all.”

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And one claimed that Hasidim were known to “beat up and toss out Jehovah’s Witnesses out of their neighborhood.” And that men don’t grow beards until they marry. 
Neither the comment about the beards nor about the women showing hair to their husbands is correct, and I know of no incidents in which Hasidim beat up any Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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“We knew we were unwelcome there and would never have gotten out of the car to speak to them even if we broke down.”

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Jehovah’s Witnesses sold to relocate elsewhere in Orange County, Newburgh, Tallman, Warwick, etc. They are now building their headquarters in Warwick.I hear that the twenty five acres that used to belong to Jehovah’s Witness are part of the request for additional five hundred acreage to be annexed to the Village. The Brach Lot is expected to be developed for Hasidic housing regardless of annexation.Soon, the site of the Jehovah’s Witnesses worship house that sat in Kiryas Joel for so many years will look like any other part of Kiryas Joel, and the story of the “church” will be history. But many of us, will remember the streams of busses and cars on Saturday.