Lakewood, NJ and an Expose – Who is Imposing Views on Whom and Is it Anti-Semitism or Justified Resentment?

Lakewood in Ocean County has become a destination for Orthodox Jewish families. (Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

Race, religion, corruption and politics: A guide to the crisis in Lakewood

Lakewood is home to a huge Orthodox Jewish community and the rapid growth has engulfed the town, igniting tensions between the religious and secular societies on many levels.

Each day, we will explore some of the major issues in the community, including the welfare fraud investigation, housing problems and the strains on the education system.

LAKEWOOD — The drive into Lakewood from the Parkway could be confused with any other stretch of county road near the Pinelands. There are farm stands, strip malls, modest neighborhoods and an occasional open field.

Then, you cross the border into Lakewood and the landscape changes immediately. There are suddenly crowded townhouse developments, new multifamily houses going up and members of the Orthodox Jewish community on every sidewalk.
 
Lakewood represents the convergence of almost every issue in New Jersey – race, religious freedom, discrimination, corruption, local politics, school funding, overdevelopment and transportation woes.
 
What makes it unique is the unprecedented growth of the town combined with the complex issues surrounding the booming Orthodox Jewish community.

While tensions have been rising in Lakewood for years, the turmoil has escalated in recent weeks with a showdown over school funding and a high-profile welfare fraud investigation.

The town thrust into the spotlight this summer with the arrest of 26 members of the Orthodox community accused of lying about their income to collect more than $2 million in public assistance.

The arrests brought renewed attention to Lakewood and highlighted what residents of the Ocean County town already know – Lakewood is changing. This once-faded resort community has become the most complex town in New Jersey.

What makes Lakewood unique?

Lakewood is booming. Thanks to an influx of Orthodox Jews, it has been New Jersey’s fastest-growing town over the last 20 years. It has one of the highest birth rates in the world. Housing is going up at an unprecedented pace.

“It’s probably the most attractive place in the United States today for a young Orthodox Jewish family,” said Rabbi Aaron Kotler, one of the leaders of the Orthodox community. “That’s a phenomenon that certainly didn’t exist when I was growing up, 20 or 30 years ago. But it’s a reality today.”

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Another Perspective…. A Different Voice -Are we Targeting Hasidim?

Note to our readers:

We are often accused of taking a one-sided approach to the issues involving the Hasidic (Chasidic) community, of ignoring that there are two sides to every story and of crossing the line from factual information to hate speech. For that we apologize. It is during those times when you will see breaks in publication.  There is a fine line between opinions and facts and the message they send (perception is everything) and it is not always walked as cleanly as it should be or frankly as intended.

Here at LM we admire with significant emphasis, those like the Rabbi from New Jersey who commented on prior pages of this blog. His comments are important in the debate of how a community can live together, religious and non-religious, Jew and non-Jew together in harmony.

It takes courage to speak out.

We admire Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone (mentioned in the article below) for his tutorials and opinions or Chabad.org, some of which have graced our pages, whether we agree with them or not. We most admire people like the nurse, Blima Marcus mentioned below, who has gone on a virtual crusade to “debunk vaccination myths”. We don’t express our admiration enough.

We take issue, however, with the belief, expressed below and in the continuation of the Algemeiner article, that it is acceptable for an entire community to be groomed to study ancient texts. While their knowledge, ability to understand and parse out the details of the Jewish texts, and carry that kowledge to the next generation is, indeed, important; it cannot be to the exclusion of all else. Many of these people do not speak the language of the land, and we feel there is no legitimate excuse for that. If that same Jewish scholar is going home, having 9 children and then expecting non-religious, secular or non-Jewish members of society to foot the bills for those 9 children, he is imposing his religion on others. There is a fundamental unfairness to the rest of us, which perpetuates resentment and hate. Those who get angry and resentful should be understood in the context from which that is generated as well.

There must be a balance struck between study for the sake of study and contributing to the economic and financial continuance of that society. In the United States, we refer to the greater US. When living in London we refer to the greater UK and when living in Canada, we refer to the greater Canada. It is all well and good to be a scholar, but when you take money from society to study, you breed resentment. This blogger, for one, would love to return to study, a government and philosophy student who spent years editing translations of the scrolls of Elephantine Island for a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But it is unrealistic to do so if a family must be fed, taxes must be paid and children must attend school. We are not living in a vacuum.

Within the writing of some of the most scholarly rabbis, there was a clear understanding, if not an outright demand of the Jewish people, that we be self-sufficient. However we chose to establish our society, the religion demands that we not rely on others for support. When religion starts to encroach upon the lives and livelihoods of others, it is an imposition and unacceptable. To deem those not religious as not even Jewish or as lesser humans, which can be found in multiple teachings throughout the religious (and perhaps fundamentalist Jewish world – yes… every religion has its kooks), then the balance gets tipped and damage is done.

We, with admiration, agree wholeheartedly that there must be a way forward that provides for mutual respect, mutual tolerance, global sensitivity and a measure of love for those notable people on all sides of the debate and political divide. We thank Algemeiner for the published opinion and those highlighted within the article. 

We ask that you please read the Algemeiner article below and that you consult its original sources.  It tells a different story then most that grace our pages, but one that should be read without a passive indifference or active criticism.

With respect, LM 

Stop Picking on the Hasidim

The Orthodox Jewish community of New York is under attack. In just a few days, a 63-year-old Hasidic grandfather was beaten with a brick, another was made to strip off his yarmulke at gunpoint, a gang attacked a truck, and more. Then a shocking campaign video was posted by Republicans in Rockland County, depicting Hasidic Jews as a threat to their fellow Americans.

Those behind the video refused to apologize, and as The New York Post revealed, they had deviously plotted their modern-age blood libel months in advance.

These unmistakably antisemitic attacks are not sui generis in nature. On the contrary, the NYPD found a 101 percent increase in antisemitic hate crimes compared to the same period last year. With their distinctive black and white uniforms and visible religious head coverings, the Orthodox make an easy target for physical violence and societal prejudice.

As Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, social media editor at Chabad.org, puts it, Hasidim “are described as all things except for the one thing we are the most: human beings trying to make it in this town like everyone else.”

The fact is that the Orthodox are growing extremely fast. With 70 percent of Jewish-Americans assimilating out of religious existence, these “black hat” communities (I refuse to call them “ultra-Orthodox”) will reportedly soon constitute 25 percent of Jewry in the entire nation.

An example of the way these people have recently been picked on is the public reaction to the measles crisis that recently swept New York. With a health ban that was placed only on yeshiva schools, many began to blame the Orthodox for not vaccinating their children. Never mind the fact that most of the schools with unvaccinated students weren’t even Jewish, or arguably that the common denominator between those who refuse vaccinations isn’t religion but being white, rich, and well-educated.

Regardless, by painting the vaccination crisis in New York as an Orthodox Jewish issue, the national conversation is skewed away from the reality that nine percent of Americans (30 million people!) are reportedly anti-vaxxers. Furthermore, it is an Orthodox nurse, Blima Marcus, who is leading the way in teaching healthcare clinicians how to effectively debunk vaccination myths for the American public.

The problem is that this bias leads directly to the short-sighted and dangerous “us vs. them” mentality that pits public opinion against minority groups. In her New York Times article “Is it Safe to be a Jew in New York?” Ginia Bellafante points out that the societal intransigence to take action against the blaze of anti-Orthodox bigotry stems from stories like these that carelessly stoke the “existing impressions of backwardness.”

I believe the flames of insidious bigotry must be quenched with the soothing waters of public education.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently appointed Deborah Lauter, previously of the Anti-Defamation League, to run the new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. They should follow the advice of Elan Carr, US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, who recently remarked that fighting antisemitism must include “philosemitic education” about positive Jewish contributions to society.

Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman, arguably the most politically active Hasidic Jew in New York City, laments the ignorance surrounding the contributions his community offers the general public. “I think most New Yorkers would be surprised to discover that our non-profit, United Jewish Organizations (UJO) of Williamsburg, provides social services to anyone, regardless of religion, race, or creed.”

Although most of Niederman’s clientele are Hasidim, he advocates for fellow New Yorkers of all backgrounds who are referred to UJO. “We help anyone who walks in the door,” Niederman says, “it could be food stamps, housing assistance or whatever else they need.”

This public service ethos is derived from Jewish spiritual theology, which places a moral mandate on its followers to engage in “Chessed,” colloquially translated as “acts of loving kindness.” As Professor Jack Werthheimer writes in his article “What You Don’t Know About the Ultra-Orthodox,” the Orthodox have made “Chessed” into an “art form” by creating hundreds of aid programs, known as “Gemachs” — a Hebrew acronym for “Gemilut Chasadim,” literally, “the giving of loving-kindness.”

In the marketplace of ideas, cultural contributions from these most visible Jews should be cherished and protected as a national resource. In these communities, young men are expected to dedicate their post-high school years to studying at Kollelim, yeshivas of higher learning, where they pour over the ancient texts from morning until night. The purpose of this higher education model isn’t to obtain a degree but to engage in study for its own sake.

To continue reading in Algemeiner click here.

It’s Not About Anti-Semitism, It’s About Keeping a Bucolic County’s Character Alive

Overdevelopment in Rockland County subject of contentious county legislature session

NEW CITY – About a dozen residents of Rockland County called on county officials to do something about overdevelopment. Many at Tuesday night’s contentious county legislature session blasted claims by County Legislator Aron Wieder that the criticism is centered on anti-Semitism, something the residents denied.

The issue boiled over when the county Republican Committee posted a “Storm is Coming” video last week, and flyers containing Nazi language and nails were placed on Clarkstown residents’ lawns.

In the end, the legislature did not formally pass any resolution condemning anything or anyone.

To continue to read the article in its entirety, click here.

Rockland County, New York and a Legislative Meeting with More Residents Outside Than Inside

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Speakers sound off at packed Rockland Legislature meeting, with hundreds still outside

NEW CITY — Tuesday night’s county Legislature meeting turned into a venting session for distressed community members, with speakers letting loose about legislators Aron Wieder and Laurie Santulli, unsustainable growth, anti-Semitism, a proposed summit to address divisiveness in Rockland and more.

“You want to fix the anger?” speaker Lauren Marie told the legislators. “Do your jobs!” She was later removed from the room for shouting at another speaker while many spectators rose and cheered for her.

The atmosphere was intense from early evening, with hundreds waiting on line outside to get into the 7 p.m. meeting. The Legislature’s auditorium quickly reached its capacity of 220 people, though, and officials estimated that another couple hundred people remained outside, behind locked doors. Sheriff’s deputies were all around, one with a police dog.

The Legislature, with 13 members present, opened the meeting by moving directly to public comment. The audience included several Orthodox and Hasidic men and women, but the overwhelmingly majority appeared to be non-Orthodox.

Many speakers began their remarks by noting that they were not anti-Semitic or that their concerns were not about religion. Speakers who warned against over-development and called for fair treatment for all received applause. Several speakers who tried to defend Wieder or the Orthodox community were interrupted or booed.

The Legislature wound up not officially discussing its two agenda items, which were moved to committee. One called for praising those who condemned a controversial video shared by the Rockland County GOP last week, which many condemned as anti-Semitic, and the second called for a community summit in 2020 to address the county’s tensions.

Several speakers did comment about the lack of a resolution requested by Santulli to censure Wieder. Santulli wanted Wieder censured for calling a Clarkstown blogger “the anti-Semite of Rockland County” after an Aug. 23 press conference and for comments Wieder made about state Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee at an Aug. 15 Ramapo Town Board hearing related to development.

To continue reading click here.

The GOP in Rockland “Fearing Takeover” is Supporting a DA Candidate Allied with the Same “Feared” – Stirring Hate Soup…

A storm is brewing in Rockland County, N.Y., a campaign ad says.

As dramatic music pulses in the background, the Rockland County Republican Party’s video first targets what the party considers overdevelopment in the county of about 329,000 people.

Then it takes a turn. County Legislator Aron Wieder, an Orthodox Jew who supports new housing developments, is “plotting a takeover” that threatens “our way of life,” the advertisement proclaims. After the video asks what’s at stake, the words “Our Families” are overlaid on a photo of a white, non-Orthodox couple and their children posing on a front lawn.

……..

Development, and how much of it is too much, recently has been a flash point in Rockland County. A town board meeting in Ramapo this month featured nearly two dozen speakers complaining that 220 planned housing units favored ultra-Orthodox Jews at the expense of secular residents, the Rockland/Westchester Journal News reported.

In March, Rockland County banned unvaccinated children from public spaces amid New York’s largest measles outbreak in decades. Day said during a news conference at the time that authorities would not search for unvaccinated children, but parents who were found to be in violation could be charged with a misdemeanor. The action came at a time when health authorities were raising concerns about decreased vaccination rates and measles outbreaks in communities including ultra-Orthodox Jews. An outbreak in Rockland “has mainly affected the Orthodox Jewish community in Spring Valley and Monsey,” the lohud.com news website reported.

To read the article in its entirety click here.

Anti-Semitism and Pollsters – Not Understanding the Nuances – Social Hostilities of Religious Norms

What the Pew report got wrong about religious restrictions

NEW YORK (JTA)—A recently released Pew Research Center report about global restrictions on religion focuses mostly on discrimination against, and the persecution of, various religious groups in different countries. Jews are prominent targets as always, “harassed in 87 countries… the third-highest figure for any religion.”

But the report also turns a spotlight on Israel, yielding headlines like the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s “Israel has almost as many religious restrictions as Iran.” The headline and the report beneath it were picked up by myriad media.

But the Pew report, by not differentiating between the types of “religious restrictions” or “hostilities,” might lead readers to false conclusions.

The report ranks Israel’s “social hostilities related to religious norms” as “very high,” following more than two dozen countries in the “very high” category like China and Iran, and its “governmental restrictions” on religion as “high,” behind countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.

Pew also cites Israel as having the sixth highest level of “interreligious tension and violence,” presumably referring to Arab Muslim attacks on Jews and vice-versa.

When Israel is placed in the company of such countries, an uninformed reader might be led to imagine Israel as a violent Jewish theocracy, with rival religious groups shooting it out on the streets of Jerusalem, the mass repression of non-Jewish citizens and the jailing of people for practicing their faiths. But no such things were cited, of course, since no such things actually happen.

The only specific description of religious restrictions that happen in Israel contained in the 126-page report was a single sentence: “In Israel, drivers who operated cars near ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods on the Sabbath reported incidents of harassment, including name-calling and spitting, by ultra-Orthodox residents.”

Such rude behavior should be beneath any Jew, certainly any Jew claiming to be religious. But such behavior, not sanctioned in any way by the state or the rabbinate, does not merit Israel’s inclusion among a list of countries where religious minorities are interned, as in China, or where police have raided religious minorities’ homes and places of worship, as in Iran, or where the Islamic State is currently active.

Decades ago, when I was studying in a yeshiva in such a neighborhood, Israelis who were not Sabbath observant would sometimes purposely drive through the main street, where people were enjoying peaceful Sabbath strolls, seeking to goad the locals. No one was spat upon, but angry calls of “Shabbos!” were indeed shouted at the visitors. The late Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, once told a writer that “Shabbos” was not a word ever meant to be shouted.

But even ill-mannered reactions to provocations are hardly the stuff of “religious hostility.”

As to “governmental restrictions on religion,” the report makes reference to the fact that “all countries in [the Middle East] defer in some way to religious authorities or doctrines on legal issues.”

In Israel, this refers to the fact that the haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate sets the terms of official religious life and Jewish personal status, from determining whether or not a certain restaurant is kosher to whether or not two individuals can marry there. Marriages of any sort that take place outside the country, though, are legally recognized, leading some Israelis to take quick trips to Cyprus to obtain marriage licenses.

There is indeed opposition among some Israelis to the power afforded the country’s official Rabbinate in matters of Jewish personal status. But many Jewish Israelis—a majority of whom are either haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”), dati (nationalist religious) or “traditional” Jews—accept the need for a single, central standard-bearer regarding conversion, marriage and divorce.

The Chief Rabbinate’s fealty to traditional norms of halacha (Jewish religious law) effectively rejects the legitimacy of conversions and divorces overseen by non-Orthodox rabbis, which is seen by non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. as outrageous.

“Why,” they ask, “should Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Humanistic Jewish rituals not enjoy the same respect in Israel as Orthodox ones?”

From a non-Orthodox perspective, it’s an entirely valid question. And we Orthodox Jews need to understand why fellow Jews are so hurt by the Chief Rabbinate’s approach to personal status issues.

But there’s something non-Orthodox Jews also need to understand: The Chief Rabbinate’s position doesn’t stem from any animus (despite some uncouth comments by Israeli politicians and rabbis who seem to have never met a Jewishly committed non-Orthodox Jew). It stems from a commitment to the religious laws that have preserved the Jewish nation for millennia.

In Israel, the existence of the Chief Rabbinate helps ensure that conversions and divorces meet standards that all Jews can accept, preventing the sort of schism that, tragically but undeniably, has developed here in the United States as a result of the dire sociological upshot of non-halachic conversions and divorces.

To continue reading click here.