Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A new sign in Kiryas Joel

By Chris McCenna
Times Herald-Record
Published: 2:00 AM - 08/31/10

KIRYAS JOEL — A large new sign greets visitors as they cross over Route 17 on Forest Avenue and enter a world where the skirts and shirt sleeves are always long, regardless of the season.

"Welcome to Kiryas Joel," it reads. "In keeping with our traditions and religious customs, we kindly ask that you dress and behave in a modest way while visiting our community."

The main congregation in this community of 22,000 Satmar Hasidim recently posted identical notices near two village entrances to ask outsiders to respect their ways while visiting, which includes "covered necklines," "appropriate language" and "gender separation in all public areas."

The wording is polite, and there is no threat of enforcement.

But even so, passers-by who have spotted the sign near County Route 105 and Bakertown Road in Monroe have taken umbrage at what they see as an expectation to conform to one group's religious beliefs and dress codes in a public place.

"I know it's a request, and it certainly was a polite request," said James Murphy of Highland Mills. "But it puts me in an uncomfortable position. Why should it bother you what I'm wearing?"

David Ekstein, president of Congregation Yetev Lev, says the signs were meant to guide outsiders so they don't offend village residents, especially during the summer. No single incident or spate of visitors with objectionable clothing triggered them, he said.

"If our standards of modesty are not what is practiced in the surrounding communities, then it is even more incumbent to provide this polite reminder," he said.

Modest dress is strictly observed in Hasidic communities for the same reason that unmarried men and women stay apart and risque images are shunned: to block sexual impulses.

Women can't wear provocative clothing. And men aren't supposed to see anything that may inspire inappropriate thoughts. In New York City, where cultures mix more freely than in self-contained Kiryas Joel, some Hasidic men avoid temptation by removing their glasses while in public or turning away from women.

Previously, I was of the opinion that its perfectly OK for a religious community to make requests like this -- so long as those who ignore the request aren't abused.

Now I'm not so sure.

The comments on the original sign article  indicate that the other residents of Orange County are deeply offended by this sign. They think its in poor taste. Some of them, no doubt have good reasons to dislike Satmars. Some may have  had bad experiences with the Satmar of Kiryas Joel; others may be worried that the culture and quality of life in their region is being damaged because of the Satmars; and still others might be straight out bigots.

But I don't think it matters.

As my wise conservative friends explained to me last week during our discussions of the Park51 mosque that whenever people are really upset about something its incumbent upon religious communities to honor whatever demands are made of them and to apologize profusely for anything any member of their religion might have done.

Using the logic of mosque opponents, the Satmar Chasidim should tear down their village, and move it to a place where it won't offend anyone. Before they go, they should also offer the residents of Orange County a sincere apology for anything rude, unfriendly, or anti-social that any Jew dating to the beginning of time might have done to make a resident of Orange County unhappy.

This is what mosque opponents want the Park51 Muslims to do so it seems only right that the Satmars do it, too.  (The preceding by the way was pure snark)

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