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.”