Frimet Goldberger grew up in Kiryas Joel, New York, an ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic community about an hour's drive northwest of New York City. An overwhelming majority of the village’s 22,000 residents live below the federal poverty threshold, according to The New York Times. Most of the men devote their lives to studying the Torah, while the women marry young and have large families (the town's median household size is almost six people, the highest in the country). The custom is for women to stay home to take care of the family as full-time homemakers.
And they aren’t allowed to drive.
In fact, women who get behind the wheel in Kiryas Joel risk being shunned and having their children taken out of school. They can’t be jailed for the act, but they may be socially ostracized -- or even expelled from the community they’ve grown up in, Goldberger recently wrote for Public Radio International.
Growing up, it never dawned on me that driving was a possibility. No woman in my family or neighborhood ever did. We were taught that our tznius, our modesty, would be at stake. But I think there’s something else. For Hasidic women, being banned from the wheel means being tied to your husband and to your community. Driving gives you the keys to freedom and independence.
According to KJ Voice, a website that describes itself as a “clearinghouse for information” about Kiryas Joel, residents follows these guidelines as a result of their “faith and customs.”
The women of KJ dress and behave in a modest way and do not socialize with men, other than their immediate family. This modesty extends to other issues as well, for example, the women of Kiryas Joel and other Satmar women do not drive automobiles. In addition to raising the children, Kiryas Joel women are often the ones who pay the bills, balance the checkbook and organize the home and family.
Kiryas Joel isn't the only ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in America where women are discouraged from driving. Lani Santo is executive director of Footsteps, an organization that has offered guidance to more than 1,000 ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women who are looking to explore the world outside their childhood neighborhoods. Santo says the driving ban is most commonly found in the Satmar brand of Hasidic Judaism, in towns and communities like New Square, New York, or Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn.
"It's less of a religious textual issue and more of a cultural issue," Santo told HuffPost. "Young ultra-Orthodox girls are groomed from a young age for a life of religious dedication and modesty as pious mothers and wives."
The role of a women in these communities is to support the family and ensure that the husband is able to study the Talmud. Women are taught that their intellect isn't as strong as men's and that they lack the capacity to reason -- which causes them to doubt themselves when they begin to question the rules of their community.
Goldberger and her husband chose to leave the community in 2008, and at the age of 23, she finally learned how to drive.
She defended her story this past Sunday on Facebook.
“Of course, the overwhelming majority of women in Kiryas Joel are content with their lifestyles ... But there are many women who do wish for greater freedom to come and go as they please. This story is about them, and for them,” she wrote.
The presence of such a large and densely packed community in suburban New York has caused tensions over the years. Kiryas Joel has put in a request to annex roughly 500 acres of land adjacent to the village, which has prompted an outcry from opponents.
The nearby East Ramapo School District, which is also home to many Hasidim, is currently under investigation by the state. Since the district's residents often vote in blocs, the community has been accused of stocking the local school board with its members. Public school families in the area have complained that the board aids Orthodox Jewish students who attend private yeshiva schools, while making deep cuts to public schools.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the school district that is currently under investigation by the state for allegedly showing favoritism towards Orthodox Jewish private school students. It is East Ramapo, not Kiryas Joel.