Lakewood in Ocean County has become a destination for Orthodox Jewish families. (Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
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.”
Sexual abuse in the world of Orthodox Judaism
In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”
“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.
Jay Goldberg, who attended Yeshiva from 1980 to 1984, says that he endured years of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse from Finkelstein. The rabbi, he said, forced him and others to wrestle with him while he became sexually aroused, and demanded that they hit him repeatedly. Neither Goldberg nor Singer ever reported Finkelstein’s behavior to the school; when one student, identified in a future lawsuit as John Doe 14, finally did, in 1986, Finkelstein allegedly pulled him out of class in a rage, shoved him against a wall, punched him, and threatened him with expulsion. The school took no action during those years other than removing Finkelstein’s office door. In 1991, he was promoted to principal.
During those same decades, another Yeshiva rabbi, Macy Gordon, was also reportedly sexually abusing students. One accuser, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 2, claims that Gordon sodomized him in his dorm room in 1980. The rabbi “said he was going to punish me for missing class,” the accuser told me. “He laid me across his lap and took my toothbrush and plowed it in and out of my rectum, and it burned. I remember it burned for a very long time after. I can’t go back in time and tell you what I was thinking, but I can only tell you that it lasts forever.” He told me that Gordon also sprayed Chloraseptic on his genitals, remarking that he showed “signs,” by which Gordon meant signs of puberty. Later that year, John Doe 2 tried to kill himself.
In total, Finkelstein and Gordon are suspected of hundreds of acts of sexual abuse at Yeshiva, though they never faced any legal repercussions. Finkelstein was discreetly forced out of Yeshiva in 1995 but quickly found work as the dean of a Jewish day school in Florida and later as the director general of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, although allegations of abuse followed him to each of these new positions.
Gordon, for his part, enjoyed a thirty-plus-year career at Yeshiva. He also eventually moved to Jerusalem, where, according to the New York Times, he served alongside Finkelstein on the advisory board of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization promoting Orthodox Judaism to liberal American Jews. (The current president of the organization claims that neither rabbi had been involved with the group “to my knowledge.”) In 2002, Dr. Jonathan Zizmor—a celebrity dermatologist whose advertisements were a staple of New York City subway cars for decades—set up a $250,000 scholarship fund in Gordon’s name for future generations of Yeshiva students. (Zizmor claims he knew nothing of the abuse at the time, and when allegations surfaced, he maintained that Gordon was “a great teacher, a great man.”)
In 2013, thirty-four of Finkelstein’s and Gordon’s victims—including Singer, Goldberg, John Doe 14, and John Doe 2—filed a $680 million lawsuit against Yeshiva, alleging that sexual misconduct occurred for decades with the knowledge of the administration and without recourse for victims or punishment for the perpetrators. But by the time the suit was filed, the statute of limitations had expired, and the case was dismissed.
This past February, however, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, signed the Child Victims Act (C.V.A.), which modifies the state’s statute of limitations such that many cases previously dismissed because of the length of time since the alleged crime can now be relitigated. As of this writing, attorneys for the former Yeshiva students—now numbering forty-one—planned to refile the lawsuit with new evidence on August 14, the day the law was scheduled to go into effect. Their hope, one of the attorneys, Michael Dowd, told me, is for Yeshiva to “finally be held accountable for their craven, repugnant, and unconscionable behavior in letting known sexual predators have unfettered access to scores of innocent and unsuspecting boys.” But even if they succeed, it’s far from certain whether the C.V.A. will be able to fundamentally change the culture of secrets and lies that has given rise to scandals such as the one at Yeshiva in the first place.
‘This is the reality that currently exists in Israel,’ says the creator of Autonomies
War rages in the heart of the Middle East. Jerusalem is captured. Concrete walls go up, and a deep distrust spreads across the holy land.
The well-worn tale is used as the backdrop to multiple Israeli television dramas. Yet for one show, it is not Arabs and Jews who are doing the fighting, but Jews and Jews.
Currently touring film festivals across the world, the six-part series Autonomies envisions a clash between secular Jews and the deeply religious ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews.
In this vision, set in the near future, civil war has cut the land into two countries. The coastal State of Israel is nonreligious, with the cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv as its capital. Jerusalem is a walled, autonomous city-state, run by Haredi rabbis.
At first glance dystopian, the show is in fact an artistic extrapolation of real-life rifts in Israeli society. Many Israelis increasingly see secular-Haredi disaccord about the future of the state as a greater concern than the Palestinian issue, and fear it could tear the country apart from the inside.
Earlier this year, disagreements between secular and religious politicians shattered attempts to form a coalition government and dragged the country into a second round of elections. On 17 September, Israelis will go back to the polls following a campaign in which political parties have sought to exploit internal animosity.
Yehonatan Indursky, an Israeli filmmaker who wrote Autonomies with the writer Ori Elon, says the show takes divisions in Israel “to extremes, and tries to show what can happen if we do not wake up and try to find the way to live together and respect one another’s way of life”.
The drama’s protagonist, Broide (played by Assi Cohen), is a Haredi man who moves contraband, smuggling pornography and books banned by the religious authorities into Jerusalem. He is one of a few who crosses between the two sides and is soon caught up in a controversy that could reignite the war.
The Israeli filmmaker Yehonatan Indursky, pictured, wrote the show with the writer Ori Elon. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo
The series comes off the back of the writers’ hit Netflix show Shtisel, which received acclaim for sensitively and lovingly portraying Haredi family life, and has been renewed for a third season. Autonomies instead paints a much bleaker scene.
“Autonomies gives a kick in the stomach. And sometimes it is painful and hard to watch,” Indursky said.
What is fascinating for many viewers is how similar the setting of Autonomies appears. Israelis today lament a nation already divided, with the Haredim often living in their own neighbourhoods, women covering their hair with wigs and men wearing black coats and hats.
To secular outcries, ultra-Orthodox politicians have sought to ban public transport and other activities on the Jewish holy day of rest, and outlaw non-kosher food in supermarket chains. They feel their way of life is under threat.
Meanwhile, resentment against them focuses on hefty government stipends given to the community, as many men do not work but study religious texts. Almost half live in poverty.
Indursky grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem but has not been part of the community for years, although he keeps close links with family and friends. He said he had received two main responses from Israelis to the series, both of which saddened him.
“One possible answer is that this is really not a dystopia but rather a utopia,” he said, adding some viewers backed the idea of separate countries to end seemingly irreconcilable differences.
“The second possible answer is that this is not a dystopia – this is the reality that currently exists in Israel. And in a way, that’s part of what we wanted to show through the series.”
The fissure between secular and ultra-Orthodox communities has already spiralled to the point that it ignited a political crisis this year.
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Start-Up Nation Central staff visiting teachers and students from a Bais Yaakov Seminary in Jerusalem in June. Photo courtesy of Start-Up Nation Central
Tel Aviv — Zehava Feinberg is a 19-year-old from charedi girls’ seminary in Jerusalem who wanted to study computer science after high school in the hope of landing a job at an Israeli high-tech firm.
“I like problem solving and math,” she said. “I’m looking for a job that I won’t be bored at. I want it to be a good salary. I also want to raise a family.”
In theory, there should be plenty of opportunity for Feinberg. Israel’s high-tech sector is thirsty for young programming talent and intense demand for employees has driven up salaries so high that many companies have set up programming operations outside of Israel to ease labor costs. At the same time, charedi communities are eager for women to find high-paying jobs to provide a higher quality of life for a population group in which men are encouraged to engage in religious studies and the poverty rate was a staggering 43 percent in 2018.
Despite that potential match, the prospects for young charedi women like Feinberg to find employment as programmers in Israel’s technology industry have been discouraging. In the last two years, nearly three out of every four graduates of vocational computer science programs at the Bais Yaakov schools, a network of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox girls seminaries with 8,000 students, did not find work with technology companies. The graduates who do get jobs in the field are usually employed in low-paid quality assurance jobs. At the same time, charedi women became convinced that the industry was biased against them, and often never even bothered to apply for entry level jobs.
But an educational pilot project is trying to improve the prospects for female graduates of charedi post-high school seminaries to find work in high tech. Dubbed “Adva” (small wave or ripple in Hebrew), the project aims to give high school graduates a post-secondary education on par with Israeli universities and colleges (institutions that are shunned by ultra-Orthodox as “foreign” and sacrilegious).
The two-year (three semesters) program also gives them programming boot-camp problem solving experience as well as interviewing and career skills necessary for the largely unfamiliar world of high tech.
Feinberg is part of the first Adva cohort — 86 students spread over three Jerusalem schools — and recently completed her first year of studies, which focused on catch-up math courses in statistics, calculus and linear algebra, as well beginning programming languages.
“Our math level was not such a high level,” said Feinberg. At the beginning of the year we had intensive math to bring it up just so we could learn.”
The curriculum has been developed with input and oversight from university computer science professors and executives from technology multinationals. The program is a joint initiative of Start-Up Nation Central, a non-governmental organization promoting Israel’s tech sector, the companies themselves and the Bais Yaakov network of schools. (Start-Up Nation Central did not provide exact figures on the cost of the pilot, saying only that the first year’s costs were “expensive” and that government agencies are expected to pick up some costs for the second year.) It also has the blessing of ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities.
The disconnect between Israel’s reclusive ultra-Orthodox community and larger society animates the country’s daily political debate and is shaping up as a major wedge issue in the Sept. 17 elections. Issues of military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds and charedi-enforced restrictions on marriage, dietary laws and Sabbath observance have created a bitter divide.
But that chasm also threatens the country’s economy: with low levels of employment, the impoverished charedi (and Israeli Arab) populations will eventually become a drag on public finances. Economists have warned that Israel needs to take urgent steps to better integrate the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs into the larger economy.
“We can’t sustain our economy if Arabs and charedim go their separate ways and don’t participate,” said Eugene Kandell, the chief executive of Start-Up Nation Central and a former economic adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The majority of relations between non-religious and charedi populations is driven on fear and non-familiarity. Each one thinks the other wants to change them and delegitimize their way of life.”
The Adva initiative began with Yisrael Tik, the head of external relations at Bais Yaakov and a former director of education for the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Ilit, who wanted to improve the job acceptance rate for seminary students studying computers. Tik discussed the challenge with colleagues on Israel’s Council for Higher Education (on which he also serves), who put him in contact with Start-Up Nation Central.
The first thing the stakeholders realized was that the vocational curriculum developed by Israel’s labor ministry for the seminaries was not up to par.
“The computer programs at seminaries don’t provide what the industry requires,” Tik said. “They were built for people who don’t attend university.”
As recently as a decade ago, nearly two-thirds of charedi women became educators within their own community. That figure has dropped to just over one-third, as more of the women find work as nurses and caregivers. For years teaching was the most prized women’s profession within the charedi community, but now, women with engineering education are also sought after as potential matches. Poverty rates among the ultra-Orthodox are dropping, but the community still lags far behind the rest of Israel.
“People are more practical now,” said Gilad Malach, who heads the ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “There is a need and wish for a lot of women to go into areas of high tech. Even within the community, there is an understanding that if a woman is working and earning a lot of money,” it frees a man “to [pursue] religious studies.”
Adva isn’t the first educational program to embrace the challenge of integrating ultra-Orthodox women into the tech workforce. Special courses at three Jerusalem academic colleges are tailored to ultra-Orthodox students, though only 130 charedi women are receiving degrees a year — far from the number necessary to help the industry or boost the standard of living of charedi families.
And more than a decade ago, programming companies like Matrix software opened offices in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Ilit to employ charedi women in a gender segregated work environment that offered flexible hours so employees could balance home life and employment. But those positions were outsourced programming projects with relatively low pay.
Instructors in the Bais Yakov program are all charedi women with doctorates in their respective fields. To overcome suspicions about the tech work environments, community rabbinic authorities visited the offices of technology companies taking part in the program.
But there is still ample resistance to women pursuing degrees in high tech. In May, at a conference for the parents of women studying at the post-high-school seminaries, Modiin Ilit Chief Rabbi Meir Kessler complained about husbands who encourage women to earn better salaries. He warned that “immodest” workplaces promote “evil” inclinations, mixing with secular co-workers and leave wives too tired to handle their roles as homemakers.
After the publication of a report on the program in an ultra-Orthodox newspaper, a public leaflet warned the public that “the defense establishment” was behind a secret campaign to turn the charedi seminaries into academic colleges with help from “collaborators” from within the seminaries.
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Israel Launches a Tech Integration Program for Haredi Students
Amounting to 11% of Israel’s population, the number of Haredi Jews employed in high-paying jobs is relatively low
Israel’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services is setting up a new program to help ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish students find jobs in international tech companies. With a budget of NIS 10 million (approximately $2.8 million), the program will offer scholarships of NIS 12,000 (approximately $3,400) a year, help students scout for potential employers, and provide guidance on acquiring essential workforce skills.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Haredim made up 11% of the country’s population as of 2018, but their number among employees in high-paying jobs is relatively low. According to the ministry, in 2017, Haredi women held 4% (3,800) of high paying tech jobs, while Haredi men held just 1% (800). Ultra-Orthodox Jews are rarely seen in more sought after positions, Shira Berliner, head of the Haredi employment section in the ministry, said in a recent interview with Calcalist.
The program will support 50 Haredi students a year and its success and future budget will be examined after its second cohort. One of the main objectives of the program is to integrate Haredi students into high paying part-time jobs during their second year of study to help them gain relevant experience, and the program is already in talks with HP, network and cloud security company Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., and chipmaker Mellanox Technologies Ltd., according to Nathan Kendler, a vice president at Yedidut Toronto.
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JERUSALEM — A resident of a Haredi Orthodox West Bank settlement was arrested and indicted for sexual abuse of 45 underage girls.
Uriah Assis, 26, of Emmanuel was indicted Sunday in Tel Aviv District Court. He allegedly used pseudonyms – including a swimming coach, a wealthy businessman and a woman, and contacted the girls on the internet over the last four years, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
The charges against Assis include rape or sodomy of a minor, indecent assault, sexual harassment, making threats, obstruction of justice and the possession and production of child pornography.
He is alleged to have asked the girls to send him nude or semi-nude photos which he then threatened to post online if they went to the authorities. In some cases he asked them to sodomize themselves. He also met with several of the girls in person, forcing himself on them, Ynet reported.
Assis’ attorney claimed that he suffered from schizophrenia. A psychiatric examination found that he was faking the mental illness and is fit to stand trial, the Times of Israel reported.
The prosecutor’s office asked that Assis be held in jail until trial.
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Israeli indicted for sexual abuse of 45 underage girls
The charges against Assis include rape or sodomy of a minor, indecent assault, sexual harassment, making threats, obstruction of justice and the possession and production of child pornography.
He is alleged to have asked the girls to send him nude or semi-nude photos, which he then threatened to post online if they went to the authorities. In some cases he asked them to sodomize themselves. He also met several of the girls in person, forcing himself on them, Ynet reported.
Assis’ attorney claimed that he suffered from schizophrenia. A psychiatric examination found that he was faking the mental illness and is fit to stand trial, The Times of Israel reported.
The prosecutor’s office asked that Assis remain in jail until trial.