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Monroe, New York

Kiryas Joel

Adherence to strict Jewish laws is required to enter this ultra-conservative New York village. 

In many senses Kiryas Joel is an island onto itself. Comprised almost entirely of Ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews, Kiryas Joel is considered the poorest town over 10,000 people in the country, and has stirred up controversy over a welcome sign that requests outsiders conform to the village’s strict laws regulating dress and appearance.

Formed in the 1970s by Orthodox Jews leaving Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the residents of Kiryas Joel strictly follow the Satmar Hasidic interpretation of the laws of Judaism, and many of the residents study Torah full time. English is seldom spoken and most children are raised conversing exclusively in Yiddish. There is little connection with the world outside of the village, due in large part to the population avoiding contact outside of the Satmar sect of Judaism, and the town has fallen into poverty.

Per capita income in the town is a shockingly low $4,494, and most residents receive little in terms of formal education. Less than 40% of people in Kiryas Joel obtained a high school degree, and traditional education is a low priority. Combined with a median age of just 12 years old - due to the large number of young children in Kiryas Joel - the new generation of residents have little chance of escaping the cycle of statistical poverty.

Despite the lack of monetary resources however, people in Kiryas Joel tend to have their needs satisfied through community programs and welfare. However, state involvement has often been accompanied with controversy in the insular community.

At the gates of the village, a welcome sign lays out the rules of the town, focused mostly on decorum, appearance and separating the sexes. Although no consequences are stated, breaking rules inside Kiryas Joel is likely to result in an uncomfortable situation for outsiders. Even though the sign is consistent with the US Constitution, as it does not prohibit any behavior, many people who have passed through the town have complained, and the strict regulations have put Kiryas Joel at the center of a debate over self-governance within the United States.

Regardless of outside pressure or animosity, and despite being the lowest-income town in America, Kiryas Joel continues to grow and according to the community members, to thrive.

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