Thanks To Kiryas Joel, New York Times, Hanukkah Is Cancelled

Thanks To The Behavior Of The Local Hassidic Community, Kiryas Joel, Hanukkah has been cancelled


Not pictured: The Village of Kiryas Joel. But still, at this very moment? All I can think about the village is, “Ugh.”


Ok. Wait. Let me start over.


How Kiryas Joel, And The New York Times, Ruined Hanukkah For Everybody


How many of you saw the bullshit article in The New York Times not too long ago? The one about anti-semitism in Pine Bush, New York? The reason why I say the article is bullshit is because the lawsuit that is the subject of that article is more than a year-old. The original complaint was filed on March 28th, 2012 and later amended in January of 2013 to involve more parties.


In December of 2012, Public Justice, self-described as “America’s public interest law firm”, released a press release to the national media in December of 2012 touting that a federal court judge would allow for additional members of the Pine Bush School District to be sued. The press release also documented some of the troubling accusations that were being made against the school district. Therefore, the national media, including The New York Times, was first notified of this lawsuit a year ago.


The timing of the NYT article came just as there was a massive burst of controversy up in Pine Bush involving a housing development. One with a long history of alleged lies, manipulation, and outright fraud on the part of a developer and possibly the development’s future tenants. The gentleman behind the development, Shalom Lamm, just so happens to be claiming anti-semitism concerning the investigations into the development.


(It’s worth noting here for background purposes that Shalom Lamm is the son of Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former chancellor of Yeshiva University. He also owns the Wurtsboro-Sullivan County Airport and other property throughout the region.)


Question: You mean to tell me the New York Times randomly took a lawsuit that was previously reported on locally, that they first heard about a year ago, and put it on its front page right as a heated controversy was occurring in Pine Bush? That’s totally a coincidence?


That’s not to say that the lawsuit against the school district itself is without any merit. There is anti-semitism in the Hudson Valley. Mostly due to the kind of shit I’m going to tell you about here. That doesn’t excuse it’s existence in any way, but it does help explain why it’s there. (And you can’t fight hate and intolerance without first identifying the root causes of it.)


Quick example: On the school bus when I was in sixth grade, kids would see the Hasidim and yell, “Yid!” out the window at them. They’d then look at me and go, “Not you. I don’t mean you.” That’s the kind of stuff that goes on up here, and it sucks like any sort of discrimination does, but the reason for its existence isn’t as simple as, “People are dumb and ignorant outside of big cities.” That’s the angle The New York Times is playing up. And the key point here again isn’t the lawsuit itself. The lawsuit is something the courts will decide. What the issue here is the timing of the Times article that is extremely suspect. The author of the article, Benjamin Weiser, declined to respond to requests for comment about the article’s timing.


Weiser did; however, make a statement to The Shawangunk Journal, “The piece was reported in the early fall [Emphasis added]. It ran when it was done and there was space for it. My reporting and the article I wrote had nothing to do with anything but the newsworthiness of this story.” He added, “We will continue to watch the court case and see how it develops.” It’s worth pointing out here that opposition and media coverage concerning the housing development took off in August of 2013. What made the story newsworthy between December of 2012 and the Fall of 2013 is left unexplained by Weiser.


Now, I’ve been working in and around the PR field since 1999. I’ve done it long enough to know that stuff just doesn’t appear out of thin air anymore at major media outlets. Stuff appears there because, most of the time, there’s someone pushing for it beyond the newsroom, either in the form of sock puppets* or influential parties, and if a story’s timing seems really suspicious? Like the one I’m talking about with the Times? Your gut instinct about it being suspicious is almost always right.


*Sock puppets in this context means something like the following: I set up a fake account, or several fake accounts, or just hire people, and then we send a link or tip to a site like Gawker or The New York Times in an effort to get a reporter / editor / producer / whatever to respond. The more tips you send in, the more it looks like to the uninitiated reporter that there’s a real sense of urgency and need to cover this story, and as a side benefit, the potential for a lot of page views if they cover it.


And while we’re talking about the shoddiness of our media outlets in terms of story selection: Just this Summer I wrote an op-ed for a friend of mine and sent it in to The New York Times. A matter of days later, a news story appeared using virtually all of the same sources and information contained in the op-ed piece, which never ran. So, my confidence in the folks at The New York Times is pretty much zero at this point. And this is on top of them allowing Nick Bilton to use BS sources from technology manufacturer lobbyists in his attempts to get the FAA to relax their restriction on portable electronic devices. He may have been right to fight for the easing of restrictions for portable electronic devices, but make no mistake, he did it through shitty, lazy means while doing it.


The NYT Pine Bush article also came in the same week as an extraordinarily tense local election in Monroe, New York. The short version of the Monroe election is that within the border of the town of Monroe is a village called Kiryas Joel, home to a branch of Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect, and they are not good neighbors. Like, not at all. The election was fought over many issues, one of which included the Town of Monroe’s unexplained, and unpopular, backing of a lawsuit against its neighboring town Woodbury on behalf of a developer who wanted to  annex land into Kiryas Joel.


For those of you not familiar with your local Jews, there are: Hasidim, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Fucking Crazy, and “Cultural Jews”. I’m a Cultural Jew. I’m not practicing. Fucking Crazy, jokingly, refers to Kabbalah enthusiasts. Reform is what my parents are (they observe only the major holidays). Conservative observes more holidays and rules than Reform Jews. Orthodox Jews, which is what my great grandparents were when both sets of them came over here from Eastern Europe, is the most devout you can get in terms of observing your religion without turning into a religious fanatic and becoming dysfunctional in terms of interacting with society at large. Finally, we have our “fanatics”, the Hasidim. I realize fanatics is a loaded term, but I feel it’s an accurate way to describe this group in terms of its devotion to following all the rules in our religion when compared to the rest of us.


Please note that for the rest of this article though, any use of the term Hasidim refers exclusively to the Satmar sect and not any other kind of Hasidim. Like with Christianity, there are many different kinds of Catholics and Protestants, even within those subdivisions there are subdivisions. Jews are the same way. And when I say dysfunctional, I don’t necessarily mean that as a good thing or a bad thing as much as I mean it in a literal sense that living one way or the other creates friction between the two groups.


The dissidents within Kiryas Joel want to move up to the controversial housing development in Bloomingburg, as well as other Satmar Hassidim in Brooklyn, New York. The housing development has been advertised in Der Yid (a weekly, Yiddish language newspaper published by the Satmar) as Yatev Lev. These announcements ran concurrently with developer Shalom Lamm telling the community of Bloomingburg that the housing was being built for anyone and everyone. Worth noting here is that the housing being constructed in Bloomingburg mirror the housing in Kiryas Joel,where the townhouses are equipped with two sinks in order to keep Kosher.


When completed, the housing development would be served by the Pine Bush school district. The same district now undergoing a federal and state investigation following The New York Times article. A state investigation prompted by a mostly unpopular governor who is up for reelection next year.


See how all of these things connect?


That brings us back to The New York Times and why Hanukkah is cancelled, at least in the Mendelson household, due to anti-semitism.


(As a side note: It’s worth noting here that Kiryas Joel has been covered in the past, quite glowingly, in the pages of The New York Times.)


Now, the Hasidim, in general, are a very powerful voting bloc. Here’s an example of their impact on the recent mayoral election in NYC and how both candidates were bending over backwards to court their vote. Because of that voting bloc, they have a lot of sway in local elections in upstate New York. For example, it was their bloc vote that allowed the unpopular incumbent, Harley Doles, to remain on the town board in the recent election in Monroe, despite absolutely no campaigning outside of Kiryas Joel by Doles. Their bloc votes in Rockland County and Brooklyn are also highly coveted by politicians seeking office on the state and federal level.


Kiryas Joel’s leadership also has a large amount of money, which has always been sort of mysterious given that they also have the highest poverty in the nation (according to the 2008 Census). Perhaps some of that could be from funds that were diverted from the Kiryas Joel school district? There are also allegations of overvoting (voting twice, if not three times) and bussing people up from Brooklyn and Rockland to vote with them. None of which is ever investigated by the Department of Justice, but the DOJ sure came running the second Kiryas Joel claimed voter intimidation and harassment by poll watchers for United Monroe who were on the lookout for the usual alleged voting irregularities.


Regardless of where the mysterious flow of money comes from, basically, what Kiryas Joel wants, it gets. And what it seemingly wants is endless expansion at the expense of anything and everything around it. This includes attempting to build a water pipeline that taps into New York City’s water supply. One which they couldn’t actually pay for, in part, because they don’t pay their taxes. Conveniently, the guy they just voted into office as Orange County executive, Steve Neuhaus, is now pushing for what amounts to a bailout and completion of the line for them.


So, the expansion occurs often through deception and other shady methods, some of which were brought out into the open in the ongoing Bloomingburg investigation. This expansion is aided and abetted by its friends in the local and state government, and seemingly, at The New York Times. (This wouldn’t be the first time something appeared in The New York Times for the sole purpose of furthering someone’s agenda. Remember Judith “Weapons of Mass Destruction” Miller?) And that’s the heart of this issue. It’s not anti-semitism, it’s trampling surrounding communities in shady and manipulative ways with no opportunity for recourse by those communities.


The election in Monroe was a disaster. There’s no other way to put it. Here’s only the most recent report on all the voting issues that went on in the town on election day. Between the victory of Harley Doles, the way Doles campaigned (essentially saying fuck you to the community and accusing anyone who criticized him of anti-semitism), the Bloomingburg housing development (and the way that whole thing is being handled by the local politicians), the suspiciously timed New York Times article, and the general behavior of Kiryas Joel in terms of how it and its residents interact with its neighbors, it’s getting ugly in New York’s Hudson Valley. And I haven’t even got to the ongoing situation involving a federal lawsuit in neighboring Rockland County, also involving the Hasidim.


The ironic thing is that Harley Doles was accusing everyone and anyone he could of anti-semitism for bringing up legitimate criticism of Kiryas Joel, and now he in part has helped to create serious and legitimate anti-semitism in his own community.


If you come up to Monroe sometime, it’s virtually on the tip of everyone’s tongue. There is (legitimate) anger at the Hasidim, but unfortunately that anger is only a hop, skip, and a jump from going from “Damn Hasidim” to “Damn Jews”.  With the loss of the United Monroe party (it was a Democrat, Republican, and Independent running together to unseat the previous town supervisor and get rid of Doles), now there’s a sense of (legitimate) frustration.


IF a united party ticket like that CAN’T win, even with unusually high voter turnout which they had, against the KJ Bloc, what can? The answer? Nothing.


So think about the situation Monroe, New York, and other communities dealing with these issues are now in:


-You can’t win your local election because of this massive, zombie-like bloc vote that obeys their leadership and votes for whom they’re told. This is true if you look at the voting statistics from the community. Residents are often given directions and sample ballots en route to the polling places and are told whom to vote for. Some members of this bloc than vote multiple times.


-Your vote doesn’t matter on the federal level because New York City always dictates that.


-Your local government only does whatever serves the interest of the bloc vote. In fact, Doles had ran for office previously and lost, but with the backing of Kiryas Joel in 2011, he won.



-The federal government has tried to intervene and was totally ignored, see the Supreme Court case Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet. In fact, in the years following the Supreme Court case, the state education law was tweaked so as to allow the district to, more or less, exist as it was. It wouldn’t be the first time the laws were bent to benefit the community. In fact, there’s an ongoing lawsuit concerning whether or not the community can exist in the first place given the potential violation of the Establishment Clause in the constitution and the oppression of non-Hasidic community members.


-There’s nothing you can do if you live in these communities.


Think about that for a second. In the United States, right now, there is a group of religious extremists steamrolling voters, government officials, and anyone else who gets in the way. This includes members of their own community who don’t conform to the majority’s religious beliefs. To say nothing of allegations concerning sexual abuse of young men in the community and others like it. (Yeshiva University also did not escape these allegations.)


But you never hear the whole story on the national stage. More often than not, you hear the story of anti-semitism, blown out of proportion on that national stage, at just the right moment to secure another win for the steamroller. And that kind of shit? That’s the kind of shit that fuels anti-semitism. The real kind, not the convenient Harley Doles kind. The kind that, I think, poses a real and substantial risk to my fellow Jews and I in the area. Especially given the population trends.


People who feel like they’re trapped and have no recourse will lash out. We’ve seen that time and time again. And sooner or later, they’re not going to differentiate between “Jews” and “Hasidim” like those kids on the bus did. They’re just going to go looking for Jews.


So, for that reason, Hanukkah is cancelled. The Menorah isn’t going in the window, and I honestly think I need to move my family out of the area because this is the kind of thing that only gets worse, not better. And as far as The New York Times goes? Fuck you guys. Seriously. You either have the worst timing ever, which I’m unlikely to believe given the timing and your previous coverage of KJ, or you allowed your front page to be used for propaganda and just displayed it under the guise of news. Either way, your timing couldn’t be worse, and you’ve once again proven how broken the national media truly is.


P.S. Any time a discussion of Kiryas Joel, or the Hasidim in general, comes up, there’s always some line concerning the Holocaust and that’s why they act the way they do toward everyone else. This includes other Jews, by the way, whom the Hasidim refuse to acknowledge as Jewish.


My grandmother’s family was from Galicia, a place few Americans have heard of. All of them that didn’t make it to Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th Century were murdered by the Nazis.


So, when I hear the Holocaust being used as an excuse to be a dick, essentially, to surrounding communities, I take that pretty seriously. Even if there may be an understandable reason to that mindset, we’re now sixty-years removed from World War II, and this isn’t Nazi Germany. Or Austria. Or even Italy, Spain, Russia, or Japan.


Being a dick to your neighbors, regardless of the reason, flies in the face of at least three of the Ten Commandments. I know that and I’m more or less an Atheist. These commandments come from the Old Testament, which these folks have decided they were going to build a village around because they wanted to be able to follow it as strictly as they could. So for a group of people who claim to be following the rules in accordance to God’s wishes, they seem to so easily break the rules of don’t steal, don’t covet other people’s stuff, and don’t lie.


11.27.13 Update:

I saw a few comments below that I thought were worth addressing here so I (or anyone else) doesn’t have to repeat ourselves over and over and over and over …


1. “If the people of Monroe don’t come out to vote, they deserve what they get”. The people of Monroe DID come out to vote, in record numbers. This is especially remarkable because it was an off-year election with no congressional seats up for grabs. The turnout was so impressive that the Board of Elections ran out of ballots, people were voting on photo copies of Spanish language ballots, blank pieces of paper, and waited in line for over two hours in most districts to vote. In addition, there were irregularities involving KJ voting machines and extra votes in those districts where there weren’t as many people as there were votes. So, to suggest what happened in Monroe was “voter apathy” is ignorant of the facts.


2. The content of The New York Times article is interesting because it paints Pine Bush as it used to be and not how it is now. In other words, their position in the article was “It was a racist backwater then, and this lawsuit shows it’s a racist backwater now.” This is a standard trope when it comes to how the New York City media has always portrayed upstate New York, even if there’s no basis for it in reality. You also don’t need to look too far to see that anti-semitism, the real kind, is alive and well in New York City.


What the Times doesn’t mention is that, since the late ’90s, the population of Orange County and the surrounding region has changed dramatically. Again: This isn’t meant to excuse the lawsuit itself; however the region now is mostly populated by a diverse array of people from all backgrounds, religions, and orientations whom commute and work in New York City on a daily basis. In fact, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Jerrold Rosen, is the founding member of KJ Aviation. A company that leases airplane equipment. KJ Aviation is based in Manhattan. The Times neglected to mention this. Probably because it didn’t fit their narrative. (The speculation concerning the association between Rosen and KJ Aviation and Shalom Lamm, who owns the local airport and holds a pilot’s license, is best left to the lawyers).


So it’s not right, nor fair, to continue characterizing the region in a way that doesn’t reflect reality in order to make a story fit into a certain narrative box. That’s what I believe happened here with the Times.


For example, The Times only identified two people from Pine Bush, not tied to the lawsuit in some way or providing color on it, that they chose to quote in their article. This is the exchange between a NYT reporter and John Barker, a local mechanic:


“At that point, a pickup truck pulled up nearby [Emphasis added], and a man emerged. The man, John Barker, 42, a mechanic, cautioned that “everybody watches out for everybody.” When asked about the presence of Jewish families, he blurted out, “We don’t want them in our town.” “They can’t drive, for number one — and they already have Sullivan County. Who really wants them here? They don’t belong here.”


I’m attempting to track down John Barker. The key question for him is whether or not he was referring to the Hassidim and what was going on with the housing development, which (if the appropriate context wasn’t presented to him from the Times reporter) could be what he was talking about and not the families involved in the lawsuit itself.


Note: That doesn’t excuse Barker’s comments. But. It certainly changes the complexion of their context as presented in the article. It also isn’t an accurate representation of the opposition to the housing development in Bloomingburg. If you were to ask many residents of the Hudson Valley, including some who are leading the charge in Bloomingburg housing development that are Jewish themselves, you’ll see the opposition isn’t a question of anti-semitism as much as it’s a larger socio-economic question concerning taxes, urban sprawl, and the documented manipulative behavior that’s mentioned in this post.


One other point about the sources used in this story:  I spoke (through an intermediary) with the parents of Corey Kyles, who was interviewed by New York Times reporter Nate Schweber. Schweber was the reporter who also spoke to John Barker. Corey’s brother, Tyler, was killed in an accident back in 2009 that was covered by the local paper. Tyler, according to Corey in the NYT article, used to draw swastikas around the school and town.


Now, here’s the thing: Since Tyler can’t defend himself, we’re left entirely with Corey’s words about his behavior. According to his parents, Corey was deemed mentally disabled by the Pine Bush School District when he attended the school as a student. This is not mentioned in the Times article anywhere, but having two brothers who are mentally disabled myself, I can attest to the fact that they aren’t necessarily reliable sources and are not at all equipped to deal with a newspaper reporter.


I’m not the only one who thinks so. Ms. Wolf, who knows Tyler and Corey’s family, reached out to The New York Times over concerns about how Tyler was portrayed and the information from Corey not necessarily being reliable. She received the following response from Dean Chang, the Times’s City Editor:


“Dear Ms. Wolf,


Thank you for writing of your concerns regarding the article on the Pine Bush School District.


After reviewing our reporting, we have concluded that our correspondent in Pine Bush, Nate Schweber, properly identified himself as a reporter for The New York Times, and interviewed Corey Kyles at length at the McDonald’s where he was working. Mr. Schweber had no reason to question the veracity of what Mr. Kyles told him.


We truly sympathize over the untimely death of Tyler Kyles, and we understand that he was a cherished son, brother and friend in the Pine Bush community.


However, we are confident in our reporting, and do not believe that a correction is warranted. ”


So there you have it. If you’re mentally disabled, The New York Times sees no reason to question what you tell them.


3. Finally, although it’s not very surprising, it’s easy for some to gloss over these issues entirely and just claim that any criticism of Kiryas Joel or the housing development is anti-semitism and nothing more. If you were to look through the archives of all of the region’s papers, heck even if you look at just some of the links that were included above, you’ll see that the anti-semitism claim (barely) holds water. It might be true with the lawsuit. I have some doubts and issues with the lawsuit as a former school teacher, but I also wasn’t there. Neither were you. So the lawsuit itself stands as a separate issue. Here we’re only talking about the timing of the NYT article itself.


It’s certainly true that there are dumb, ignorant people out there, but it’s equally true, simply by looking at the facts, to see that there are legitimacy to the claims being made about the housing development, voter fraud, and other issues mentioned here. To simply go “oh it’s anti-semitism” doesn’t somehow explain away, or alleviate, the corrupt activity occurring.


It’s good that our natural inclination is to look out for the rights of the oppressed, “the little guy”, that is why this country exists in the first place. But. Sometimes, we have to look twice at things. Because sometimes, as rare as it may be, the “little guy” isn’t so little, and they can be guilty of the same shit everyone else does. To turn a blind eye toward that because it doesn’t fit into our view of the world does a disservice to everyone else who may have been legitimately harmed, and that’s not equality. That’s bullshit.


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