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Copyright 1994 The Hearst Corporation  
The Times Union (Albany, NY)

August 30, 1994, Tuesday, THREE STAR EDITION


LENGTH: 853 words


BYLINE: JOHN CAHER; Staff writer


A 79-year-old man and his son, dissidents in Orange County's Hasidic enclave, claim that they were insulted and stoned after making good on a threat to vote against the formation of a special school district.

An 18-year-old woman, voting for the first time in the July 25 Kiryas Joel referendum, contends that her vote was stolen by an elections volunteer who reached into the voting booth and cast a ballot in favor of a public school for handicapped children.

Several other residents of the village of Kiryas Joel people who had made it known prior to the election that they opposed the special district claim that when they showed up to vote they were told their registrations were missing, and were turned away.

Those and other allegations of vote fraud and intimidation are the latest charges to rock Kiryas Joel. The allegations form the basis for a complaint filed Friday by dissidents who contend that iron-fisted leaders of Kiryas Joel subverted the principles of democracy to get their own way. Kiryas Joel is home to about 12,000 people, virtually all of them members of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect of Judaism.

The complaint, lodged with the state Education Department, alleges that village leaders manhandled the election and, at least tacitly, encouraged supporters of the school district to harass opponents. School Superintendent Steven Benardo called the charges ''just ridiculous.''

''There were so many government agencies supervising the election that you could trip over them,'' Benardo said. ''The police were there. The sheriff was there. No one that I know of saw anything that could possibly be construed as inappropriate.''

An official with the Orange County Sheriff's Department confirmed that deputies were present at the election. He said there were no arrests.

Bill Hirschen, Education Department spokesman, said Kiryas Joel leaders have until Sept. 13 to respond to the allegations. He said the matter will be investigated over the next two months, and the department's legal staff will eventually present the commissioner with any evidence that is uncovered.

At the center of the controversy is a public school for disabled children.

It was created in 1989 when Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and the state Legislature allowed Kiryas Joel to secede from the local school district and form its own district. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court called the district a violation of the separation of church and state. Cuomo and the Legislature promptly approved new legislation to skirt the Supreme Court ruling and sent the matter back to Kiryas Joel for a villagewide vote and the election of a school board.

To no one's surprise, the school district, which never stopped operating despite the Supreme Court ruling, was re-created and its Board of Education was re-elected. Opponents of the school district claim that the outcome was preordained.

The complaint was filed by six residents who opposed the public school district and call themselves the Committee for No School District.

''Persons were accompanied into the voting booth and stripped of their right to vote,'' according to the complaint. ''Other persons were threatened and scared away from the polls and still others were able to vote only after enduring considerable undue hardship.''

Kiryas Joel religious leaders have warned residents to shun the approximately 300 dissidents, or ''infidels,'' who banded together in the mid-1980s when Grand Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum installed his son Aaron as chief rabbi, and promoted several allies as village leaders.

A few years ago, one resident, Joseph Waldman, ran for the school board without the blessings of the rabbi. He lost the election and was thrown out of the synagogue, and his six children were expelled from the religious schools in Kiryas Joel. It took a court order to get them reinstated.

Recently, the village came under the scrutiny of the U.S. attorney's office, which is investigating allegations of fraud in the way Kiryas Joel used federal funds. The resident who allegedly tipped off federal authorities and started the probe, Yosef Hirsch, was labeled a ''muser,'' or informer, and contends that his house was stoned and that a banner was placed on top of the local shopping center declaring that his name should be ''banished from the face of the Earth.''

The complainants, Waldman among them, claim that they were discouraged from running. They included in their complaint affidavits from 10 residents, all of whom publicly opposed the special school.

Jacob Samet said he and his handicapped 79-year-old father, who had both publicly opposed the special school district, were confronted and insulted by students. Samet said his head was cut when he was hit with a thrown stone.

Eighteen-year-old Tzpora Feldman, attempting for the first time to exercise her right to vote, said she asked for help in operating the voting machine.

''The volunteer came in to assist me and she pushed the 'yes' button and then quickly pulled the curtain open and told me in Yiddish I was done and to leave,'' Feldman said in her statement.

LOAD-DATE: December 1, 1994

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