Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
News of the establishment of a new chassidishe community in the Catskills village of Bloomingburg in Sullivan County, near Middletown and Wurtsboro, had first been introduced on August 17, 2013, in Der Blatt, the Yiddish weekly published by followers of Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe. The need for affordable housing was fully described and explained. A quick study of the spiraling Brooklyn real estate market was presented, underscoring the inability of middle-income chassidishe families to compete in the multimillion-dollar apartment frenzy. That frenzy has since then markedly increased.
Der Yid, published by followers of Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe, in its erev Sukkos edition of September 18, 2013, expanded the introduction. In effect adopting the new venture, the Satmar Rebbe named the new shtetl Kiryas Yetev Lev, in memory of the Yetev Lev, Rabbi Zalman Leib’s great-great-grandfather. Rabbi Zalman Leib is the son of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, zt’l (1914–2006), Satmar Rebbe and author of Beirach Moshe; son of Rabbi Chaim Zvi Teitelbaum, zt’l (1880–1925), Sigeter Rav and author of Atzei Chaim; son of Rabbi Chanania Yom Tov Lipa Teitelbaum, zt’l (1836–1904), Sigeter Rav and author of Kedushas Yom Tov; son of Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, zt’l (1808–1883), Sigeter Rav and author of Yetev Lev.
Der Yid had devoted an entire separate glossy magazine to the launching of the new shtetl, describing its beginnings by noted Satmar community activist Moshe Shlomowitz and his son Yoel Zev, who invested almost two years in its development. The Satmar Rebbe appointed a three-member oversight board to assist in the growth of the new community. The board members are Yirmiya Teitelbaum, Shimon Deutsch, and Yechezkel Meir Gross, each highly respected. Their function was to guide the evolvement of the shtetl in both material and spiritual matters.
Prominent among its stated plans was the then-immediate organization of schools for boys and girls, as well as a fully functioning mikveh, comfortable shul, and beis midrash to enhance a comfortable chassidishe lifestyle. Homes were designed to serve the chassidishe lifestyle. Those plans, such as multiple sinks (meat and dairy) in kitchens as well as an additional Pesach kitchen, have been incorporated by leading architects and fully complied with building codes and guidelines.
Upon the completion of the first homes in the winter of 2013–2014, plans were for 50 to 60 families to move into Bloomingburg. They were to be the pioneers. A bus transportation system was to be established linking Kiryas Yetev Lev to Kiryas Yoel, 25 miles away, as well as to Williamsburg, 80 miles away.
However, the chassidishe shtetl of Bloomingburg did not evolve as planned. Its neighbors fought at almost every stage of development. Back in July 2010, successful real estate developer Shalom Lamm, son of Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, had plans in the works for 396 new homes. Facing inadequate sewage facilities, Lamm had announced, “We will build a state-of-the-art, first-rate wastewater treatment plant,” to correct Bloomingburg’s wastewater system state of disrepair. At that time, Lamm indicated plans were in effect to annex additional property to easily accommodate the new housing code requirements. In 2010, Lamm was somewhat pessimistic about sales of the new homes in the then-depressed real estate market. Since then, the project has become identified with Satmar.
In September 2013, with Satmar having taken a public interest in Lamm’s project, the local planning board meeting to consider a new private girls school to be attached to the new housing development was postponed in the face of loud protests of local residents, furious that the homes were only to be sold to chassidim. At that time, Lamm declared that he has been working with many licensed realtors on marketing his Chestnut Ridge project and added, “I’m a developer and I’m here to sell homes. I’m not going to say someone can live or can’t live here.”
In October 2013, a local NYS assemblywoman filed complaints with the NYS attorney general claiming that “approvals were obtained through misrepresentation of the facts and circumstances of the proposed development.” Additional charges were aired regarding water access rights that were allegedly illegally obtained.
In January 2014, after a large volume of protests, a referendum date was set regarding the sale of a nearby shuttered public school that Satmar was going to use as a boys school. The protests emanated from the 420 residents of Bloomingburg who felt they were going to be overwhelmed by the 396 new homes, presumably to be filled by Satmar’s large families. Also in January, a stop-work order was issued regarding questions about the annexation of land to the project that was going to alleviate regulations that imposed limits.
Representing the new effort was, and continues to be, Shalom Lamm. Lamm, plainly, is not chassidic. The new development is specifically geared, but not limited, to chassidim. Though many of Bloomingburg’s complainants claim that they are not anti-chassidic, they complain of the density of the new population. Some of those protesting are Jewish. Nevertheless, the tenor of the complaints sounds plainly anti-chassidic.
On February 25, 2014, with charges of corruption, bribery, and all sorts of wrongdoing having been filed, local voters overwhelmingly voted against the sale of the unused school building to Satmar, in spite of Satmar meeting all requirements and being the highest bidder. In a mayoral election in Bloomingburg, original election results were challenged and chassidic voter registrations were canceled, thus yielding the office to an outspoken opponent of the Satmar housing effort. Many of the locals claimed that the 140 new chassidic voters do not actually live in Bloomingburg or that they assumed residency within the previous three weeks, not long enough to make them eligible to vote in local elections. Lamm’s attorneys then filed a complaint that the summonses challenging the chassidic voter registration were disqualified because they were served on a Sunday. In April 2014, a stop-work order was issued against Lamm’s mikveh construction and other building starts, until such time that full compliance with building codes is demonstrated.
In March, the FBI began an investigation in response to the deluge of complaints. In April, Lamm gave up his fight over Bloomingburg’s March elections after the Sullivan County Board of Elections stood behind an ineligibility claim brought by local residents and declared Lamm and his family ineligible to vote. In early June, a state appellate court gave developer Lamm authority to restart construction on the 396-unit development in Bloomingburg by reversing the previous stop-work order. The Appellate Division’s Third Department granted Lamm’s appeal and reversed the stop-work order put in place earlier this year by Sullivan County Judge Stephan Schick in response to a lawsuit filed by opponents. The court ruled that Lamm’s opponents did not have a strong enough case to win their challenges against Lamm annexing 240 acres for his enclave. Lamm indicated that work would restart immediately and that he “is committed to its investment in the Village of Bloomingburg and we look forward to new residents making their homes in Bloomingburg in the coming months.”
The project has since been the target of vandals who, night after night, have smashed windows. Authorities have stated that they will investigate the vandalism and pursue wrongdoers. Challengers maintain that they will continue to fight the new project. However, as long as the developers comply with building codes and regulations, the project will be seen through to its completion. Chassidim have already taken up residence in the community and several businesses have been established. A mikveh is now in daily use and many more families are expected to take up residence as the homes are completed through the summer. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.