In 2012, with great fanfare, the village of Kiryas Joel opened a park on 283 unincorporated acres just outside its borders: slides, swings, benches, and, because Kiryas Joel’s 22,000 residents are all members of the Satmar Hasidic movement, separate playing areas for boys and girls. Haredi news site Behadrey Haredim posted photos of the newly opened park, which showed that the areas for boys and men were blue, while the areas for girls and women were a pinkish-red. They’re separated by both distance and sex-segregated walking trails, to make absolutely sure no mixed-gender swinging is going on.
Municipal treasurer Rabbi Gedalia Segdin told the website that the different locations were also “separated by hills, which actually form a modesty buffer and allow the place to remain completely pure.” Segedin added, too, that the arrangement would be watched over by the village’s Modesty Committee. The article added that, furthermore, the non-Orthodox would not be welcome: “Foreigners who do not belong to the Orthodox stream, are not allowed to work out and the site is reserved for locals only. “
The American Civil Liberties Union, according to court documents filed this week, is not amused.
The issue for the ACLU and the NYCLU, its local state chapter, is whether Kiryas Joel accepted any public funding to build something that is obviously pretty unkosher from an equal rights, equal access perspective. Kiryas Joel argues that it did not: Although in 2001 the state gave the village $195,000 to build the park, according to the Times Herald-Record, several years later village leaders said they had passed on that money. The Behadrey Haredim article says the mayor, Rabbi Abraham Wieder, found “special financing” to build the park.
The ACLU would like to make sure that’s true. According to a memorandum of law submitted to the Supreme Court in Orange County, where Kiryas Joel is located, the organization submitted a public information request to KJ in July of this year, asking for “records relating to the construction and operation of the park and ownership and financing of the property, as well as records relating to Village structure and outside public financing that would shed light on how government and taxpayer dollars might have been used to support the park.”
The response from Kiryas, according to the ACLU, was a blanket denial, asserting that no such park exists and there’s definitely no public information available about it. Village attorney Donald Nichol told the group in a letter that the village “had no information regarding” a park fitting that description, that the village “has no gender-segregated public park located on approximately 280 acres of property,” and furthermore, that he wasn’t aware of any modesty committee overseeing the town. Then, according to the ACLU, “Mr. Nichol accused the NYCLU and ACLU of defamation” for making the request. When the ACLU appealed the denial, Kiryas Joel didn’t respond.
In response, the ACLU decided to sue the village in state Supreme Court. Yesterday, Nichol told Gothamist that he hadn’t seen the lawsuit, and forwarded along the same letter he apparently sent to the ACLU, which says, in part, “The Village has no laws, rules or regulations concerning gender segregation. The Village has never enforced any segregation of any type or kind.”
The part about the nonexistent modesty committees will be difficult to prove in court; during testimony last year in a criminal case against Nechemaya Weberman, a prominent Satmar Hasid who sexually abused a young girl, the jury heard testimony that the modesty committees operate in both Kiryas and Brooklyn, according to the New York Times. A KJ woman said “masked men” from the committee “broke into her bedroom about seven years ago and confiscated her cellphone.”
There were also allegations that a modesty committee in Brooklyn stormed into a home and confiscated an iPad and computer equipment, on grounds that they were unfit for Orthodox children to use, and that they threatened to publicly shame a married man having an affair unless he paid them. The money, they said, would be used for “therapy.” The Brooklyn modesty committee also appears to have issued at least one press release , although its veracity hasn’t been confirmed.
The ACLU’s petition asks the court to compel Kiryas Joel to turn over the records they’ve requested, calling the village’s blanket denial “implausible.” In a press release, NYCLU attorney Brooke Menschel was less polite, calling it “ludicrous.” Daniel Mach, the ACLU’s director for its Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, added, “We cannot allow religion to be used as a shield for government-sponsored segregation.”
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.