Assemblyman and Rabbi Avi Schnall Speaks on Issues Facing Lakewood

An Orthodox rabbi representing Lakewood in the State Assembly, Avi Schnall is grappling with education and infrastructure challenges.

Avi Schnall

Avi Schnall, Democratic assemblyman for NJ’s 30th legislative district. Photo: Courtesy of Agudath Israel of America

Avi Schnall may not be the most well-known name in many parts of New Jersey—but travel to Lakewood Township, and it’s a different story. Originally from Brooklyn, Schnall, 39, settled in the Ocean County town for Rabbinic study at Beth Medrash Govoha, the second-largest yeshiva in the world. The religious institution has drawn scores of Orthodox Jews such as Avi to Lakewood, which has helped make it one of NJ’s fastest-growing communities.

Schnall made a name for himself with the Orthodox nonprofit Agudath Israel, serving as the director of its New Jersey office until last year. In that role, he became a voice for New Jersey’s rapidly expanding Orthodox community, advocating for issues around education funding and religious liberties while building relationships with a wide range of politicians, business folks and average citizens. Last year, Schnall, formerly a registered Republican, made the decision to run for the State Assembly as a Democrat, and—in one of the biggest upsets of this past election cycle—won overwhelmingly in one of the most heavily Republican areas in New Jersey.

Donald Trump won in Lakewood by 65 points in 2020, his best performance in the state. Yet you won there as a Democrat with 86 percent of the vote. How do you explain that?
Lakewood is unique in that people don’t go down the line like sheep. We may vote one way on the national level, but on the local level, we’re willing to change. You have Sean Kean, a Republican assemblyman who got 36,000 votes while the mayor, Ray Coles, is a Democrat. There’s frustration in the status quo, and when there’s frustration, people come out to the polls.

Not long ago you were a registered Republican. Why did you run as a Democrat?
As I’ve gotten involved in politics, I’ve built relationships on both sides. Some of our Republican representatives couldn’t produce over the years; many Democrats have been there for us.

Seventy percent of the Lakewood population is Orthodox Jewish, and, because they tend to have very large families, that number is growing. How does being a leader in this community affect your policy priorities as a legislator?
My priorities are education and infrastructure. Drive through here any day between 1 and 4 pm and you’ll understand; it’s a disaster. The roads are outdated and congested; several of our main roads are state highways. Lakewood has the largest school-age population in the state, with over 60,000 children. The closest district is Newark with 38,000. It’s a 100 percent school-lunch-eligible district, poverty across the board. We have a public school deficit of $175 million. There’s this huge monstrosity of 55,000 kids who go to private yeshivas and get (free) busing, which they are 100 percent entitled to. The state gets $12 billion from taxpayers for schools. They need to pay attention to this. The problem is that all these years, we haven’t been in the room, waving our hands, saying, “Hello, there’s a place called Lakewood, which has a lot of kids.”

How is increasing anti-Semitism affecting New Jersey’s Jewish community?
It is a scary time. But at any flareup of anti-Semitism, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and state police are all over it. In Ocean County, the prosecutor reaches out to community leaders on a consistent basis. When the war in the Middle East began, the governor, speaker and Senate president put out very strong statements in support of our community. I don’t experience any prejudice in the Statehouse. You do have these comments, but we let it roll off the shoulders. That’s life.

Where do you see the New Jersey Orthodox community heading politically?
There are large Orthodox communities in Bergen, Passaic and Monmouth counties, and they tend to have exceedingly high voter turnout. It’s the beginning of a statewide movement.

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