JNS: As Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood grows, tensions spill into neighboring towns

https://www.jns.org/as-the-orthodox-jewish-community-in-lakewood-n-j-grows-tensions-are-spilling-over-into-neighboring-towns/

When the power went out in Jackson, N.J., on a particularly hot summer night, Howard Orama and his family, including his wife, Carol, and adult son, were planning to do what they always did: simply weather it out. As U.S. Air Force veteran, Orama was used to handling things on his own and this time would be no different.

Except that it was. His neighbor of three years, David Shlezinger, had a generator and offered to let the Oramas hook it up to their fridge, which was full of meat and other foods they had bought in preparation for a large family gathering later in the week.

“At the time, I was a little apprehensive, a little concerned,” acknowledges Orama, who has lived in Jackson since 1990. “I usually don’t take things or ask people for anything. … Then it kind of hit me, and I shed a tear because it’s not every day you get assistance from anyone.”

For Shlezinger, originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., offering a helping hand to a neighbor was the right thing to do. “I didn’t think I did anything major. In a Jewish neighborhood, it would be a normal thing, but here people mostly keep to themselves.”

The two men are likely to be found sharing a late snack; Shlezinger will drop off some food his wife cooked, and sit and talk about work or life. Orama may ask Shlezinger about Orthodox Judaism, including whether or not it’s OK to speak with Shlezinger’s wife (yes, of course) or for information about upcoming holidays (again, no problem). Shlezinger, for his part, may ask Orama for home-repair tips or inquire about his work in the U.S. Air Force.

The friendship that has built up between Orama and Shlezinger is a sharp contrast to the usual stories as they relate to Orthodox Jews and their neighbors coming out of Ocean County, N.J., which includes towns like Jackson, Lakewood, Brick and Toms River.

Since about 2015, and possibly even earlier, as the Orthodox Jewish population of Lakewood has continued to multiply—half of its 102,000 residents are Orthodox Jews and the other half includes Hispanic or African-American—tensions have also been growing with their neighbors. The median income in Lakewood is about $44,700 as compared to some $65,770 for Ocean County overall, while the “persons per household” in Lakewood is 5.12 as compared to 2.61 in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s QuickFacts. Also, the township’s population is significantly younger with the median age in Lakewood being just 21.7 years as opposed to 42.7 in Ocean County as a whole.

Residents of nearby towns, primarily non-Jewish, Caucasian middle-class families, will point to concerns about overdevelopment in Lakewood, where multiple-family dwellings have replaced single family houses and natural wooded areas; concerns about Jewish control of the township and school boards, which they believe has had a detrimental impact on both the local public school system, with significant budgetary challenges; and the aesthetics of Lakewood, which once welcomed such dignitaries as railroad magnate George Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller, who owned property there.

They complain about the increased funding spent on busing for Orthodox Jewish children, whose Torah-observant families want to keep separate from the greater community. They also claim that Orthodox Jews who want to buy properties outside of Lakewood proper have been aggressive in their actions—banging on doors; sending fliers to residents, urging them to sell; and advertising proposed new housing developments only in Jewish publications, indicating that they for Jewish residents only.

Orthodox Jews, for their part, will point to problems getting zoning to build religious schools and synagogue in nearby towns. They note harassment and threats, both verbal and online. Then there were the yard signs, prevalent just two years ago, like “Don’t Sell, Toms River Strong”—a not-so-subtle message that the Orthodox Jews who were house-hunting in the area were not welcome. And just a few weeks ago, more than 100 tires were slashed in Lakewood on Shabbat; all those cars were owned by Jews.

“On an average day, the average person is just living their life. I don’t believe that the average person feels on a day-to-day basis they are under attack. However, there are incidents that wake us up, and make us pause and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” says Rabbi Avi Schnall, New Jersey director of the Agudath Israel of America.

‘Behavior that has become downright anti-Semitic’

Once home to vast farmland, summer resorts and a quiet pace of life, the growth of Orthodox Jewish life in Lakewood began in the 1940s, when Rabbi Aharon Kotler, one of the leading Jewish leaders of his time, started Beth Medrash Govoha, a yeshivah and Kollel (center for advanced Jewish learning) for men in Lakewood.

Soon many more families came to town to be near the burgeoning men’s yeshivah. Young post-high school men came to study for their rabbinate degrees. Newly married men stayed in the Kollel to study for a few additional years, settling their young families in town and building the next generation of Orthodox Jews in Lakewood. Jewish elementary and high schools, stores and restaurants catering to the kosher dietary needs of these young families, along with clothing boutiques and Judaica shops, encouraged even more families to come to town, pushing out the historically white, non-Jewish residents. Lakewood’s Orthodox population today doesn’t just include those who are studying in or graduates of BMG, but also includes Chassidic Jews from Brooklyn, N.Y., who wanted to move to an area with a strong Orthodox presence where they could build their own schools and synagogues.

All of these developments helped fuel the growth of a township that had just 38,000 residents in 1980 to the more than 100,000 who call the township home today. While much of the growth has been centered in Lakewood, in recent years young families have been moving to adjacent towns, which is when things began to get heated.