Kiryas Joel

Eric McAfee has a fascinating profile of the village of Kiryas Joel, north of NYC. (“Demography & Destiny: America’s Youngest Community“):

The village of Kiryas Joel is a perfect illustration of how demographic differences can play out spatially. An enclave of ultra-orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews tucked in the woods of Orange County, about 60 miles north of New York City, Kiryas Joel is an uncharacteristically high-density settlement filled with individuals whose high birth rate and dependence on federal aid often incurs the anger of the upper-middle class suburbs that surround it…

The original founders were a group of Jews belonging to the Satmar Hasidic dynasty. Most lived in Brooklyn, and, like so many who fled to the suburbs at that time, the first arrivals in “KJ” were escaping what they perceived as the ills and crowds of the big city.

The community has an Orthodox and Haredi population that surpasses virtually everywhere in the world outside of Israel. Its ethos is distinctive for its vocal opposition to Zionism: no Satmar Hasidim would ever culturally identify with Israel; the Hebrew lettering in its signs use Yiddish orthography. While the population in Williamsburg burgeoned, it was only a matter of time before the surrounding, secular neighborhoods of Brooklyn encroached on the enclave. After scouting several sites in New Jersey and Staten Island (rejected fiercely by locals), they discovered an area 60 miles north of their prior home, which at the time was still lightly populated, dirt-cheap and primarily exurban in character.

Kiryas Joel grows largely through natural increase. It has among the highest birth rates of any municipality not just in the US, but in the developed world. In 2010, an astonishing 730 of 1000 women between ages 20 and 34 gave birth, a high figure even for many developing countries. Hasidic women marry young, usually shortly after completing the equivalent of high school. They do not practice birth control, so they then almost immediately begin to have children every year or two, resulting in a community with the nation’s lowest median age: thirteen years. It’s an extreme outlier, since no other place in the country has a median age under 20.

The community can claim a number of distinctions, but among those for which it is the most notorious is that it is the poorest municipality with a population of over 10,000 in the entire country, with many estimates placing approximately 70 percent of the population at incomes that would qualify them as below the federal poverty line. About half of the residents receive food stamps, while one-third receive Medicaid benefits. This poverty correlates directly to the fact that virtually none of the women work full-time jobs, and a significant number of the men devote most of their lives to studying the Torah and Talmud; not even 40 percent of them have the equivalent of a high school degree, and the low levels of English proficiency make them further unemployable.

The community bears more than a passing resemblance to other religiously inspired outliers in the United States, also characterized by fundamentalist interpretations of their sacred texts, atypically high birth rates, and an overt repudiation of certain contemporary mores. Certain Anabaptists (particularly the Amish) and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints come to mind. Perhaps the principles that shape the way of life of Satmar Hasidim are not as distinct as they may initially seem. Kiryas Joel isn’t the only exurban settlement of Hasidic or Haredi Jewry in metro New York. While Kiryas Joel is the largest, most of the others share its growth rate and are likely only to escalate in public visibility in the years ahead.

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