May 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

My Family’s Shabbos in Kiryas Joel

This past Shabbos my family and I were in Kiryas Joel visiting my relatives. Both my parents’ families come from Hungary. My mother’s family moved there two generations before the war and my father’s family, unfortunately significantly smaller than it had been, moved after the war. My father, z”l, grew up in a small town outside of Debrecen and his family was most closely aligned with the Satmar and Munkacs sects. All the boys in the family had blond peyot and my grandfather continued to follow that tradition until he was niftar in 1978 in Israel.

Growing up in Woodmere, we had visited with our Satmar relatives in Williamsburg maybe once a year, but my father grew closer to them as he aged. I continued that tradition both before and after my father’s passing by attending their simchas and always purchasing our shmura matza from my father’s first cousin, who was the daughter of the rebbetzin of the Shopron chasidic dynasty, and became the rebbetzin herself.

My relatives would constantly invite me and then my entire family to Kiryas Joel, where half of them lived, for Shabbos. I had been to Kiryas Joel several times, and even just visiting them on a weekday was an out-of-this-world experience. Upon approaching the town, off the New York State Thruway near Woodbury Commons, one is greeted by a large warning sign about the proper modes of dress that one would expect upon entering Mea Shearim. Upon entering the town, basically the only people you see are chasidim. Interestingly enough, no matter what time of day I was visiting, the men on the street always seemed to be carrying their tefillin bags. The housing in the town somewhat reminds me of Har Nof in Israel. There are a lot of townhouses, in addition to two-, three- and four-family homes.

Finally, after many years of responding “soon, someday, im yirtzeh Hashem,” I decided to take the plunge and visit for Shabbos, mostly because I thought it would be an experience for our three boys they would never forget. Once I decided we were going, I had to think about several scenarios that had never before been on my radar and be prepared in terms of how to handle them. I already knew that the men didn’t wear laced shoes or neckties, so as not to tie a permanent knot on Shabbos. I decided I was going to be bold and wear my regular laced Shabbos shoes, but instructed my boys not to bring ties as I thought that would stand out. The next issue was what kippah I was going to wear. While my boys wear large frummer-looking kippot, I wear a seruga and feel aligned with those who similarly wear them in Israel. I caved on that one by wearing a suede kippah.

The next issue, to me, was major, and I needed to deal with it before Shabbos; I believed the town had a no-eruv policy. How was I going to get my tallis bag, glasses, etc. to shul for Shabbos? I was prepared to act like the Posens (my relatives’ name) and just wear it under my coat, but upon our arrival I was told there is a gate, not a wire, around the whole town and that everyone abides by it. That took care of a major concern.

I also inquired beforehand what time daveing was on erev Shabbos, not realizing that while the zman was 5:08 p.m, Mincha was not going to begin until at least 5:55 p.m. Instead of going to his regular shul, my cousin, who had injured his leg earlier in the week, went to a local minyan a few houses down from his. As stated, my cousin is Satmar, so he was dressed as expected: including a bekishe, beautiful mink shtreimel, white knee high socks and, of course, slip-on shoes.

The fun started as soon as we arrived for Mincha. Every child stared at us for the entire davening as if we were JC from Nazareth, l’havdil. The men would all inquire of my cousin, in Yiddish, who these people were. While I don’t speak Yiddish I was able to make out “tallis and tefillin,” and assumed that gave me a level of acceptance. I honestly think I blew the minds of the children by being able to daven and say Shemoneh Esrei by heart. I had no idea how long davening was going to take, but it ended up being about an hour and a half.

Friday night dinner was limited to my cousin and his wife and didn’t begin until around 7:30 p.m. and ended at around 11. My cousins got a lot of nachas from my sons’ saying Kiddush and repeating divrei Torah they had learned in school. It made me feel like we passed, though I did not have to feel that way. Sleep finally relieved most of the stress, and I had Shabbos day to look forward to for the real experience. The largest of the three main shuls seats a few thousand, and that is where Reb Aharon Teitelbaum, one of the two Satmar rebbes, davens. My cousin davens at a smaller shul that really was just a huge, square, gym-like room that seated several hundred on benches. Everyone davening there was a Satmar chasid except for me, my TABC ninth grader and my fifth- and second-grade Yeshivat Noam boys.

I should mention that Kiryas Joel has about 10,000 people and that my cousin and his wife were the 180th family, having moved there 40 years ago. They are among the “elders” of a clearly largely under-35 community. My cousin and probably all the men went to the mikvah at 8:30 a.m. and davening was at 9:30. Davening, though nusach Sefard, was easy enough to follow but interestingly, like the Sefardim, both on Friday night and Shabbos day they say the tefillah almost entirely out loud and with much, much more kavana than we do. I lained Kriyat Shema and felt accomplished having ended it as the same time as the shliach tzibur, my cousin’s son-in-law. This was a current theme, as my cousin’s other son-in-law davened Friday night.

Kriyat haTorah was another story. The baal koreh lained it very fast and very low. One could not keep up with the misheberach, and out of nowhere I was asked to do hagba on the second Sefer Torah for Parshat Shekalim. Baruch Hashem I was paying attention, gathered up my strength and walked right up to the bimah and lifted the Torah in an uncriticized manner. I also was asked to do hagba at Mincha, with more staring by the children, but by then I was a pro. Lunch began at 1 p.m., with more fish, cholent and cold food, and ended a few hours later when we were able to take a brief nap. I saw not a single car the entire Shabbos, though the community has goyim at designated locations who are prepared to assist as a Shabbos goy if needed.

Motzei Shabbos was the highlight. Out came all the relatives—all the sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and many of the children. While I was introduced to all the female cousins, they all immediately went to one side of the room to cross-examine my wife about our life. I was introduced to the men by way of “shalom aleichem” and they all sat around me and asked about what Teaneck is like hashkafically, about the State of Israel and the ranges of observance in Teaneck. I am blessed to have a copy of my zaydie’s V’Yoel Moshe, the Satmar Rebbe’s position on Zionism, so I was not unprepared for the onslaught.

Comfortingly, all my cousins were extremely open and friendly with us. It was as if we were long-lost relatives who came from another planet and they wanted to know everything about us. In a way, we were. They were extremely curious about everything. I was so comforted by their willingness to engage and laugh and smile along with us, both the men and the women, that except for the garb, it was as if I was back in Teaneck at a non-lashon hara lunch. We ended up driving back to Teaneck at around 11:30 p.m.

My family was blessed, baruch Hashem, to have this exposure and I think it brought a part of klal Yisrael a little closer.

By Jeffrey Rubin

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