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KIRYAS JOEL - Twelve years ago, parents in this Hasidic enclave demanded that New York state create a school for their disabled children. They wanted better care than was offered in local private yeshivas while still sheltering students from the outside world.

What would seem like an audacious request elsewhere was taken up as a cause celebre by many state legislators and two governors.

Lawmakers persevered despite several judicial rulings, including one by the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that publicly subsidizing the school would amount to a special favor for a religious group and thus violate the separation of church and state.

Finally, in 1999, lawmakers tucked eight abstruse pages into a 230-page education budget bill. The section, which permitted something called "partitioning of territory," never mentioned Kiryas Joel by name. But when the bill passed, the Hasidim were allowed to tap into public money for exactly the type of school they had wanted.

The Kiryas Joel Public School isn't the only victory that this ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community of 13,000 has scored in Albany.

State taxpayers have paved its grassy hills with $1.3 million in sidewalks, basic infrastructure that most municipalities pay for on their own. New Yorkers pitched in $195,000 for the community's first park and almost $1 million for a birthing center. The state is even paying $750,000 for a new chicken slaughterhouse, money the village received under a competitive state grant.

The political clout of the Hasidic communities in Kiryas Joel, populated by the Satmar sect, and elsewhere throughout New York is notable if not remarkable for an ethnic group that makes up less than 1 percent of the state's population. For politicians, New York's Hasidic sects offer something that other interest groups and religious and minority communities in the state lack: a true, consistent voting bloc.


Submitted by: Werner Hetzner 



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