Maybe it’s not surprising that it took the son of a Jewish alcoholic from West Virginia to challenge the New York State government, including his one-time friend Mario Cuomo, on its unconstitutional concessions to the Satmar chasidim in Kiryas Joel.
Louis Grumet, a lawyer who spent his career in public service, was the plaintiff in a case that reached the United States Supreme Court; he won at every level of the judiciary system. Fueled not at all by dislike for the plaintiffs — who, he said, had every right to pursue their interests as far, as long, and as hard as they could — but by a burning, passionate desire that the Constitution’s first amendment be respected, he has written a book about his experiences.
“The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State,” details Mr. Grumet’s story. He will be talking about it at JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on Thursday, October 9, at 10:30 a.m., and again at the JCC Rockland on Tuesday, November 1, at 7. (See box for more information about both talks, and more about the JCC U.)
Mr. Grumet, 72, grew up as one of very few Jews in Weirton, W. Va.; he was one of two Jewish kids in school, and the other “was the rabbi’s daughter,” he said. “And my father was the only Jewish alcoholic in West Virginia.
“It was … toughening,” he understated. “You learn to put up with people telling you that you’re not like other Jews, and meaning it as a compliment. And of course most of them had never met another Jew.”
His town’s high school was integrated soon after the Brown vs. Board of Education case found that intentional segregation was unconstitutional. Dunbar High School integrated surprisingly easily, Mr. Grumet said, because one of the black students at the black high school was a standout football star that went on to play in the NFL. “But I was a nerd,” he said. “I didn’t care about football.” Instead, he read. “The book and movie that had a great influence on me was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
When he got to George Washington University (with a full-time job to bankroll his position as a full-time student), Mr. Grumet, energized with his passion for the civil rights movement and his desire to work for change through politics, “knocked on the door of the Democratic National Committee,” he said. Lyndon Johnson was running for president then. Mr. Grumet worked for the party for three years, and then his boss, who was his mentor, and who was clear-eyed about the young man’s potential as an attorney, “harassed me into getting a scholarship to law school.”
Mr. Grumet went to NYU; he met his wife, Barbara, at law school, where she was one of very few women. Next, he went to the University of Pittsburgh for a master’s degree in public administration.
One of the ways that politics works is through connections, and Mr. Grumet made them. After graduation he went back to government, first as an assistant research director for a commission studying local government. He met Robert Wagner, the former New York City mayor and then-current eminence grise. From there, he moved to Albany, “where I became the very young chief of research” for an agency actually named the Office of Local Government.
One day, Mr. Grumet, who is not only a lawyer, a bureaucrat, and an advocate but also a gifted storyteller, got a phone call telling him that Hugh Carey had just won New York State’s governorship the day before — that was not news to him — and that Carey’s team would appreciate it should Mr. Grumet represent them the next day, at a state budget hearing. (The call came through Mr. Wagner’s influence.) “I said, ‘but I’m a state employee!’ And they said just call in sick.
“So I do — and I discovered that it’s a press conference. I’m giving my first press conference, with the New York Times, Newsday, UPI, the AP. So I panic, and run and call Mayor Wagner, and stammer that the pppppppppppress is there. And he hangs up on me.
“So I go back — I’m 28, 29 years old — and I hold a press conference. I was a stitch. It was like Gold in Joseph Heller’s ‘Good as Gold.’ I told the truth because I didn’t know any better.
“I was asked how well I knew Hugh Carey, and I said, ‘I never met him.’ I was asked, ‘What was your role in the campaign,’ and I said, ‘I voted.’
“I was on the front page of every newspaper except the New York Times, and there I was on the front page of the Metropolitan section.”
His public career now launched, Mr. Grumet soon found himself the director of intergovernmental relations (“because I had said somewhat piously that I was an intergovernmental specialist,” he reported) “working for a man whom I had never met, who had never met me.
After three years as special assistant to Mr. Cuomo, who was secretary of state, Mr. Grumet became assistant commissioner of the state education department, given the task of building a program for handicapped children. He had no background whatsoever in special education, Mr. Grumet said, but he did combine an advocate’s passion with a bureaucrat’s knowledge of the system. From what he said, his was a controversial tenure, during which he moved children to the least restrictive environments consonant with their needs and conditions.
Next, in 1984, Mr. Grumet became the executive director of the New York State School Boards, an umbrella organization representing (surprise!) the state’s school boards.
It was during that tenure — in 1989 — that the state legislature passed what is called a “vampire bill,” one that would never withstand the light of day. The bill called for the establishment of a school district, and it defined the district so that it encompassed only one place — Kiryas Joel. Everyone who lived there —every last soul, every living breathing human being — was a Satmar chasid.
“This was the first time in American history — and so far the last — when a municipal government was established for one and only one religious group. And on its face, it was unconstitutional.”
But the Satmars in Kiryas Joel voted as a bloc, and, even more importantly, so did the Satmars in Brooklyn. So the legislature passed the law, sure that Governor Cuomo would veto it. But Cuomo signed it.
The two men argued. “He said to me, ‘Lou-eeg’ — he called me that sometimes — ‘Lou-eeg, these people don’t ask for much. They asked for this.” And then, as tempers got heated, “Cuomo said, ‘and anyway, so what. Who would sue?’ And I said, ‘I will.’
“And then I go back to my board, thinking that I have just threatened, on your behalf, to sue the governor of New York, and he’s a man who takes no prisoners. So I tell the president of the board what I did, and that I won’t back down, and she said, ‘You did the right thing.’
“My organization didn’t have standing, but as an aggrieved taxpayer, I did.”
Maybe it would be a good idea to back up and explain why Mr. Grumet was so upset. “It looks like there was a dissolution between the separation of church and state,” he said.
“The First Amendment to the Constitution is in two parts. The first part is the freedom to worship in any way you want. The second part is freedom from the state coercing you to worship, or leaning toward one religion in any way.
“It’s written that way because it was a compromise between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison was about freedom of religion — freedom from religion was Jefferson.
“Jefferson felt very strongly about it. Within living memory in Europe, Protestants and Catholics spent a great deal of time killing each other, and America was founded by a whole lot of people who fled from all sides.
“And of course everyone hated the Jews.
“For 150 years, we had never had a case about it before the Supreme Court, because everyone accepted the fact that the separation was crucial. Even when the Mormons took over Utah, they held up making it a state for several years, until the Mormons agreed to the separation.”
The situation was complicated. Kiryas Joel was a village because it is easy to incorporate, and can be done without legislative action. That’s not true of a school district.
Meanwhile, there were special needs children in Kiryas Joel who needed an education that the yeshivot and girls’ schools could not give them. Parents sent their children to public school in the district that surrounds Kiryas Joel, Monroe-Woodbury; the children were met with a serious lack of sensitivity to their needs. At one point, a Satmar girl was taken to a McDonald’s. “They did some really idiotic things,” Mr. Grumet said. “They also asked that same girl to play Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a holiday pageant. They were stupid, and the result was to further inflame the situation.”
Were those actions taken on purpose? “I don’t know,” Mr. Grumet said. “No one knows.”
Another, related problem was that the school district provided Kiryas Joel with free transportation. Some of the bus drivers were women, and Kiryas Joel’s leaders objected to women driving their sons. “So now we have a growing anger on both sides.”
There is far more to the story — it goes on to involve New York State’s next governor, George Pataki, and many levels of trial and appellate courts. “We got the idea that the only reason that the Supreme Court took the case was to demolish separation,” he said. “It was David and Goliath.” It is extremely expensive to take a case to the Supreme Court. Mr. Grumet’s pro bono lawyer was “a young Orthodox man from Poughkeepsie, Jay Worona, who decided to spend his evenings and weekends for four years doing nothing but this.
“He had been to the Supreme Court once before — as a visitor.”
The other side was represented by Nathan Lewin, the famous trial lawyer and frequent Supreme Court litigator who often represents the Orthodox Union. “We get to the Supreme Court, and we win, six to three,” Mr. Grumet said.
“It’s a great American story. The chasidim and the poor Jewish kid from West Virginia are at a case at the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The story had many twists even after that; Mr. Grumet will tell them. He feels the issue deeply. Why? It goes back to lessons he learned in childhood, growing up as an oddity. “If we can spend public dollars to build a ghetto wall because the people inside want the ghetto, then we can build a ghetto wall because the people outside want the ghetto.
“If anyone knows that, it’s a Jew.
“The bottom line is that I never said the chasidim did anything wrong,” he continued. “I still am not saying that. I am not willing to say that these people are villains. They have the right, under the First Amendment, to want all the things they wanted. But the state did something wrong in saying yes to them.”
When he speaks at the Rockland JCC in November, Mr. Grumet will focus more on the East Ramapo school district. There, he said, the situation is very different. No one was harmed in Kiryas Joel, he said; in East Ramapo, public school children are being harmed. But there also is some recourse there. “Eighty to 85 percent of the people there have no vote, and that allows this to happen,” he said. “If everyone in East Ramapo voted, it would be different.”
Who: Louis Grumet, author of “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel”
What: Will talk about his book twice
IN BERGEN COUNTY
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
When: On Thursday, October 6, at 10:30 a.m.
Why: Co-sponsored by the JCC U and the James H. Grossmann Memorial Jewish Book Month Endowment Fund
For tickets and information: Call Kathy Graff at (201) 408-1454 or email her at email@example.com
IN ROCKLAND COUNTY
Where: At the JCC Rockland,
450 West Nyack Rd., West Nyack
When: On Tuesday, November 1, at 7p.m.
What Else: Please see below for rest of JCC U schedule, including second talk that session.
Who: Professor Seth Gopin
What: Will talk about “Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Gauguin:
Post-Impressionism and the East”
When: On Thursday, October 6, for the second session of the program that will begin at 10:30 a.m. with Louis Grumet
How much: $34 for members, $42 for nonmembers.
To register: Go to jccotp.org or call Kathy Graff at (201) 408-1454.
Who: Professor Tom Grunfeld and David Leopold
What: Professor Grunfeld will talk about “The Vietnam War: Seeing Beyond the American Perspective” and Mr. Leopold will examine “David Levine Took on the Most Powerful Men of the Free World— With His Pen”
When: On Thursday, October 20, from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
How much: $34 for members, $42 for nonmembers.
To register: Go to jccotp.org or call Kathy Graff at (201) 408-1454.
What: The (Dis)Honesty Project—A Full Day Screening and Discussion Event
When: On Thursday, November 3, from 10:30 to 2 p.m.