May 1, 2016
LAKEWOOD, N.J. – A crowded city like nothing New Jersey has ever seen is rising over this once sleepy Ocean County township, and its neighbors are on edge.
In adjacent Toms River, those tensions started in late 2014 when bearded men in wide hats began knocking on doors. They had friends in Brooklyn, they said, who would pay top dollar for the houses.
“The guy who came around our street called himself ‘Charles from Brooklyn,’ ” homeowner Laurie Venditto recalled.
He “must have been here 20 or 30 times” to tell her and others on Hunters Court that his fellow Haredi Jews were moving in.
“He said we wouldn’t want to live here when he was done,” Venditto recalled, speaking in the ground-floor office of her corner home.
One block north sits Lakewood. Home to the nation’s largest population of ultra-Orthodox Jews outside of Brooklyn, it’s scrambling to meet demand for synagogues, yeshivas, and housing that have made it the fastest growing municipality in New Jersey.
But its streets have grown crowded, its public schools are struggling, its minority population is declining, and demand for homes anywhere nearby has spawned such aggressive solicitation that in December, Toms River called a town meeting.
More than 1,000 irate residents showed up, telling of sales agents parked in their driveways before dawn, or peering into windows, or even asking children how many rooms were in their houses, according to a 37-page report issued in February by the township attorney.
Then the controversy blew up when Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher said the actions felt “like an invasion” and appeared to be “blockbusting” – using ethnic fears to provoke panicked home selling.
Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller denounced the remarks as anti-Semitic and demanded an apology. He didn’t get one.
High-pressure real estate marketing also has been reported in neighboring Jackson, Howell, and Brick Townships, prompting the townships to strengthen their “no-knock” ordinances in response to homeowner complaints.
For seven decades, Lakewood has drawn the Haredim, many from New York, large families in tow. Haredim comes from the Hebrew for “those who tremble before God,” a reference to their piety.
They now constitute more than 60 percent of the town’s population of 100,000, and members of the community – distinctive for the women’s modest dress and the men’s black suits and broad fedoras – are beginning to look beyond its borders.
There is no need for concern, says Rabbi Aaron Kotler, the rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the Beth Medrash Govoha school for Torah study in Lakewood, the nation’s largest yeshiva. “If you really get to know us, we are warm, friendly, open, and understanding – fantastic neighbors,” he said.
Only Brooklyn, with 300,000, has a larger Haredim population in the U.S. than Lakewood.
Kotler’s yeshiva and the Haredim’s abundant presence have made the town so attractive to Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jews that this 25-square-mile township is projected by 2030 to rival Newark and Jersey City in population.
And since Haredim don’t drive on the Sabbath, demand for homes in walking distance of its more than 80 synagogues has grown frenzied even in surrounding towns.
At December’s town meeting in Toms River, a doctor residing on Crystal Mile Court told of real estate agents coming knocking every Sunday “for weeks and months,” according to the township attorney’s report.
A woman on Brentwood Avenue told of “a tremendous amount of drive-bys” and of agents taking photos of her home. “It’s very threatening,” she said.
” ‘We’re ready to buy the whole neighborhood,’ ” one homeowner said he was told, and many reported being coaxed to sell by Haredi sales agents with the question: “Why would you want to live with us?”
The report did not identify the speakers by name. In recent interviews around Toms River’s North Dover section, homeowners declined to give their full names, citing concerns they would be accused of bias.
“You’ve validated, even stoked, awful stereotypes of your Lakewood neighbors, and, by extension, Orthodox Jewish residents of Toms River,” Miller wrote Kelaher in an open letter to local news media.
But Kelaher called Miller’s accusation of anti-Semitism “scurrilous.” His use of the word invasion “had nothing to do with religion,” he said in an interview.
Miller did not respond to requests for interview.
Mary Ann Wissel, president of the Ocean County Board of Realtors, said her organization had begun “training sessions” to better acquaint area sales agents with proper business practices.
Such tensions are being fueled by the fact that Lakewood, once shabby and crime-ridden, is now the fastest-growing major municipality in New Jersey, with about 4,000 births a year – more than in some entire counties.
In 1990, its population was 45,000. Ten years later it was just over 60,000, and the 2010 census counted 92,843. It is home today to about 100,000, and the township projects that will rise to 225,000 by 2030. That would put it in league with Newark, which has 277,000 residents, and Jersey City, with 247,000, to make it the state’s third-largest municipality.
It’s a surge driven by city dwellers looking for affordable space, quiet streets, greenery – and traditional Judaism.
“We have a two-bedroom, 700-square-foot apartment in Borough Park,” said a man who gave his name as Sol.
Bearded, wearing a yarmulke and a lightweight black silk bekishe, or topcoat, he was standing with four of his five young children on the front lawn of the large brick home on Toms River’s Crystal Mile Court that he and his wife had just purchased.
A moving van was in the driveway. The children squealed when a turkey vulture flew overhead.
Home prices in Borough Park were beyond his reach. “If you want a four-bedroom, it will cost you $1.4 million,” he said.
“Here,” he said, gesturing to his new house, “you get that for $400,000.”
And being in a Jewish neighborhood fosters Jewish identity in children.
At that his 9-year-old daughter glanced down and plucked shyly at her fingers. “Kh’vil shpilen mit Yidishe kinder,” she said, Yiddish for “I want Jewish children to play with.”
In Lakewood, civic leaders defend the growth.
“That’s how cities start,” longtime Councilman Raymond Coles remarked. “Lakewood will become a city, if we’re not one already,” he said, and predicted that office towers and tall apartments one day will dot the skyline.
Coles, a Catholic, defended Lakewood’s opening its doors to the many Orthodox who want to live there, saying it is right to accommodate a community for whom Torah study is “life’s highest callings.”
But some residents disagree.
“This is not natural growth,” said Harold Herskowitz, a toy store owner critical of the township’s expansive ways despite being Haredi himself.
In his opinion, Lakewood’s municipal leadership – now majority Orthodox – is too accommodating of the influx from Brooklyn. Herskowitz moved to Lakewood from Los Angeles 30 years ago to study at Beth Medrash Govoha. It has been a magnet for the Haredim since its founding in 1943.
Starting in 2001, he said, the newly elected township council “put the people they wanted on the planning and zoning boards, and they’ve given the developers carte blanche.”
Lakewood’s zoning code now permits construction of schools and houses of worship virtually anywhere in the township.
But since traditionally observant Jews must walk to Sabbath services, that has led, in Herskowitz’s view, to a “chicken-and-egg” demand for yeshivas, synagogues, and housing with no end in sight.
In 2014, Lakewood approved 10 synagogues, eight yeshivas, and 517 new residential units. Last year, it approved 10 synagogues, nine yeshivas, and 1,175 new residences. So far this year, it has reviewed plans for the construction or expansion of six Jewish schools and seven synagogues.
Records show no similar applications for religious facilities of other faiths.
“I’m not angry at the developers,” Herskowitz said. “But why are they [elected officials] letting them do that?”
Some non-Jewish residents are also apprehensive that the Haredim “don’t want to assimilate,” Kelaher said, echoing a complaint from some non-Haredi in Lakewood.
Nowhere is Lakewood’s Jewish population more self-segregated than in its schools. More than 20,000 youngsters attend private, tuition-based K-12 yeshivas, whereas just 6,000 children – mostly African American and Latino – attend public schools.
But because the Haredim do not permit boys and girls to sit together, the township has long provided gender-separate “courtesy busing” for all pupils – a major factor in the public school district’s current $12 million deficit.
Critics also allege that the district gives preferential treatment to Jewish children with special needs. Most are sent to the private School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI) in town, at $93,000 per pupil, whereas most non-Jewish special-needs children are schooled within the district at far lower cost.
“SCHI was supposed to be a school for all children,” said the Rev. Glenn Wilson, a leader of the township’s African American community and president of the activist group United Neighbors Improving Today’s Equality. “It actually became an Orthodox school.”
UNITE’s aim “is never to target the Orthodox community as people,” he said. “What we target are the disparities in the ways moneys are distributed.”
Unless residents approve a whopping tax increase in November, the school board says it will lay off 68 teachers (9 percent of the total) and slash middle school sports.
Such a move would likely hasten the decline of Lakewood’s already shrinking black and Hispanic populations, according to Wilson. With homes in town selling at high prices, he said, many parents are selling so they can “relocate their kids to better school districts.”
Jorge Rod, a leader of the area’s Latino community, said Lakewood voters have repeatedly rejected bond referendums to fix the public schools’ infrastructure, which includes “leaky roofs.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, a Manhattan-based group that speaks for the nation’s Haredim, said he advises them to be “friendly and helpful to all their neighbors.”
But “to those who say, ‘They’re taking over,’ I say: ‘This is natural growth. Neighborhoods are always changing.’ They should learn to live with it – and be happy we don’t come with a high crime rate.”
In Toms River, Venditto said she and her husband had gotten past their initial resistance to last year’s “threatening” message of “Charles from Brooklyn,” and had recently listed their home for sale – with an Orthodox-owned real estate firm.
Eleven of the 23 houses on Hunters Court and two adjacent cul-de-sacs have sold since 2015 at an average price of $631,000.
Venditto said she will miss her home of 19 years.
“We raised our children here.” But with their children grown, and the housing market hot, it seemed a good time to move on. “It’s the circle of life,” she said with a shrug.
Her new Orthodox neighbors across the street are “lovely,” Venditto said. But the real estate agents bearing what she called ” ‘suitcases of cash’ . . . gave me the feeling I was not welcome.”