Lakewood: A City on Edge

Emotions run high in booming Lakewood, where Orthodox Jews dominate local politics but their minority neighbors want a voice, too.

A classroom awaits students at Beth Medrash Govoha. Founded in 1943, it has become the nation's largest yeshiva, with enrollment approaching 7,000.
A classroom awaits students at Beth Medrash Govoha. Founded in 1943, it has become the nation's largest yeshiva, with enrollment approaching 7,000.
Photo by Matthew Wright

On a cool, damp evening last September,  dozens of families filed into Lakewood High School’s cafeteria for the first Board of Education meeting of the new school year. A handful of teachers wearing Lakewood Education Association T-shirts gathered in the back, while parents moved among the rows of folding chairs to find seats in front. As the clock ticked closer to the 7:30 start time, the energy became anticipatory, even a little tense. The din of conversation—much of it in Spanish—grew steadily. Any minute now, the district’s nine board members would take their seats and the meeting would commence.

And then…it didn’t.

The announcement was made shortly after 7:35. Too few board members had shown up to constitute a quorum. The meeting was canceled; almost immediately, the grumbling began.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” said Kimberlee Shaw, president of the Lakewood Education Association. “It hasn’t happened in a while, but we’re used to this. That’s why more people don’t come out. Because by now, they’re just expecting it.”

Several parents said they were looking forward to voicing concerns about the district’s school bus service, which they claimed was running behind schedule or, in some cases, not at all.

“I waited two hours at my son’s bus stop the other day, and the bus never even showed,” said Janice Rivera, a Lakewood native and mother of two. “Finally, I drove to his school, and he’s sitting on the sidewalk. The driver didn’t know the route, so he just circled back and dropped him at the school. That’s absurd! And then I make time to come to this meeting and they can’t even respect us enough to show up? That’s a bunch of B.S. And I’m tired of it.”

But that night’s river of frustration runs far deeper than concerns over busing and a canceled school board meeting. This is Lakewood, and the story of Lakewood exposes a deep divide on issues of race, religious freedom, overdevelopment, downtown blight, school funding and good governance.

In part, it’s the story of the fastest-growing municipality in the state. Lakewood’s breathtaking boom has been fueled by a steady stream of young Orthodox Jewish families and yeshiva (religious studies school) students putting down roots after arriving from Brooklyn. Their influx over the past 20 years has altered the economic, political and cultural landscape of this Ocean County community. The newcomers have brought prosperity to Lakewood, but they have also provoked tension and conflict.

What’s more, critics say, Lakewood’s growth has been poorly managed. Today, the township suffers from traffic congestion, overcrowding, unfettered and haphazard development, and a cultural divide between the town’s Jewish residents and their African-American and Latino neighbors, who claim they lack a voice in the town’s governance.

“We’re just not given a chance anymore,” Rivera declares. “Things here are so different, even from back when I was going to school.”

Lakewood’s demographic and cultural shift started toward the end of the last century. In 1990, Lakewood had about 45,000 residents; the town was depressed and considered something of a backwater. By 2000, the population had ballooned to more than 60,000. A decade later, the 2010 census reported that 92,843 people called Lakewood home. Today, most township officials put the population closer to 120,000. And with the ongoing increase estimated at 5,000 people per year, they project that by 2030, more than 220,000 people will live within Lakewood’s 25 square miles. That would make it the third largest city in the state, behind Newark and Jersey City.

Today, more than half of the town’s residents are Orthodox Jews. They constitute what is believed to be the nation’s second largest concentration of this rigidly traditional branch of Judaism in the United States (second only to Brooklyn). Their strict religious tenets have been central to the reshaping of the town’s political and educational institutions. And so Lakewood is also a story about the intersection of religious and secular society—and a story that raises questions about whether it’s possible for the two to harmoniously co-exist in the 21st century.

“We want to stay far away from making this a story about us-versus-them. Our interest is in maintaining a sense of community,” says Pastor Glenn Wilson, a Lakewood native and leader of Lakewood U.N.I.T.E., a group that advocates for public school families. “But we can’t have a community where nine-tenths of the pie goes to them, and we get the crumbs. That’s what creates contention.”

Consider, he says, the board of education. At deadline, only three of its eight elected members are non-Orthodox. The remaining five are white, Orthodox men. But Lakewood’s Orthodox families don’t send their children to public schools. Their dominance of the school board leaves minority parents feeling voiceless and neglected.

“You can see it firsthand tonight,” says former school board member Tracey Tift. “If they were concerned with what’s happening in the public schools, they would have been here. I adjusted my schedule to be here, and so did those 50 parents inside. Did [the board] not know there was going to be a meeting tonight? Did they not know parents would want to discuss certain issues? It’s been a history of the board that, when there’s a hot topic, they just don’t show up. I’ve seen it firsthand. Emotions in Lakewood are running high.”

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  1. ed

    “God ” help lakewood and the surrounding communities

  2. Abby Levine

    I’m surprised there was no mention in this thoughtful article of the many over-55 communities affected by the overcrowding in Lakewood. Many seniors have had their taxes raised to pay for non-public schools and amenities, and have seen the traffic grow into nightmare scenarios, which makes driving (the only way to get around, there being little to no public transportation) a difficult and daunting task. The infrastructure is falling into disrepair and, frankly, there is no longer a representative government if one does not belong to the Orthodox community. The school busing paid for by the public is sexually segregated, leading, at times, to large buses with only three or four children riding in them. Rarely have I seen a full school bus at any time of day. I could go on. If the situation in Lakewood was caused by a Muslim-majority Ultra-Conservative group, it would not be allowed to continue.

    • SantorumsNose

      Your comment of rarely seeing buses full is evidence as to why anecdotal evidence is worthless.

      Lakewood pays less per student for bussing than then the surrounding towns. That wouldn’t be the case if the busses were empty, and the busses I see are full.

      Lakewood has problems, but inventing fake ones isn’t going to accomplish anything.

      There are 2 distinct issues, the taxes, and the congestion, and neither of them areally a direct result of religious practices.

      The fact is Lakewood has 30,000 children in school. All of those students receive some state mandated services such as bussing and special ed, yet the state funds Lakewood as if they only had 5000 students in school.

      The State, with their faulty funding formula, and aid freeze, which penalizes all growing towns, while rewarding stagnant and shrinking towns, is ripping off Lakewood.

      The state is getting a windfall in sales, income, and payroll tax from Lakewood, but gives very little back relative to other towns.

      As far as congestion, do you think that Orthodox Jews enjoy congestion. The issue is not religion, but the result of a political machine that has taken control to the detriment of all residents, not that different from big city political machines.

      If you would attend some of the Comitee and Board meetings you would notice that most of the people speaking out against the congestion and density are Orthodox Jews.

  3. Kos C

    ITS A DAAAAAAAMN SHAME TO SEE THE BLATANT RACISM THT GOES ON IN LKWD. ITS DEF A PROBLEM WHEN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY ONLY LOOKS OUT FOR THEMSELVES. THIS SHOULD BE ILLEGAL. WHERE ARE THE FEDS? HOUSING GOING UP ONLY FOR JEWS. STORES MOSTLY ALL JEWISH. BUSING CUT FROM LOCALS. COURT SYSTEM DOMINATED BY JEWS. NO PROBLEM WITH THE JEWS,BUT WHEN THE REST OF THE COMMUNITY ARE DISCROMINATED AGAINST…ITS A SHAME…THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN IN TOMS RIVER,BRICK,MANCHESTER,SEASIDE,….!! EVERY1 DESERVES EQUAL RIGHTS. THIS ARTICLE SAYING LAKEWOOD IS SO GREAT…YEA..ONLY FOR THE JEWS. THEY FORCED LOCALS OUT BY BUYING APT COMPLEXES and THEN RENT THEM OUT ONLY TO JEWS. WHOS GONNA STOP THIS NONSENSE??

    .

  4. Bob Jenkins

    I strongly believe that if the board of education members do not show up for what may be “hot issue” meetings they should be kicked off the board. There is not enough news coverage of this ongoing problem with the Lakewood School system. The state of New Jersey should take over the school system to ensure that all township students receive a quality education. Presently they are being short changed by board members who clearly have a conflict of interest. Their Orthodox kids don’t go to Lakewood schools so why put the necessary funding into the Lakewood school system..

  5. Marilyn Corrales-Mercado

    As per no Jewish children in the public schools that’s where they are wrong, there are two in the Middle School and one in Piners Elementary School. I have seen them they get their lunches delivered by Gelbsteins Bakery.

    • Yaakov Fischer

      3 out of 30,000 that’s some real eye catching numbers there detective.

  6. Mark Levin

    Complainers complainers complainers. You want the benefits of the money the jews spend in Lakewood and surrounding areas but you dont want the jews. Substitute blacks for jews and reread your complaints! Are you okay with what you are saying? I’ll bet you arent. Why? Because you talk out of both sides of your mouth!

    • Dana Higgins

      Not jews.. you are talking about the orthodox… jews cover many sects just as saying christian would not only be talking about catholics… so dont say jews when u really mean orthodox

  7. Dana Higgins

    There always has been a university in lkwd… goergian court university… lkwd was a wonderful place in 80’s and 90’s how in the heck did that yeshiva save lkwd like this guy says?? Save for whom??? Unreal

  8. Lisa Perez

    They cant fix it now. They have stayed quiet too long! Sat around and let it happen! Lakewood is lost for them…time to move and get out. Let the Orthodox have it. At 5,000 more people per year they will anyway!

  9. craigoftruth

    There are so many problems with the Lakewood Board Of Education they are almost to numerous to list them all. The Lakewood School system would be floating in money if it was not for the busing of children to segregated religious schools even the buses are segregated by sex. Then we have THE SCHOOL FOR CHILDREN WITH HIDDEN INTELLIGENCE that services special needs children at a price of around $97,000.00 per school year. That is more than a Year at Princeton University $58,000.00 with room and board. The national average is around $26,000.00 per year to educate a special needs child.Three hours of the children’s class room time at this school is spent on the teaching religion. Then we have The Board of Education patting themselves on the back for fixing the leaking roof at the High School while totally ignoring the poor SAT scores. The Board of Education has basically gutted the schools of extra curricular programs.

  10. Dana Higgins

    Lkwd wasnt saved in the 90’s it was the beginning of its downfall. Lkwd needs saving now

  11. Yaakov Fischer

    Could you be more ignorant? “Your” people haven’t respected themselves or the neighborhood, they pay almost nothing in taxes, and the Jews were in Lakewood before the minorities, how is it “your” neighborhood?

  12. Dana Higgins

    Lkwd was perfect in the 80’s and 90’s just the rite amount of diversity jews,blacks,whites, orthodox, hispanic.. great place to grow up… its now way too overcrowded and corrupt. So sad where its headed

  13. Dana Higgins

    Lkwd was great in 1990 it was not depressed and considered a “backwater” as u say it was the ultimate place of diversity and joy… i speak for hunreds if not thousands of folks who adored lakewood of the 80’s and 90’s.. it is now depressed it is niw in ruin… it is ashame… back then it was a melting pot of orthodox, catholilics, jews, latinos, blacks, hasidics a perfect mix of harmony, now it is corrupt and christophobia is out of control and anti-orthodox too. (Not anti semetism that would include all sects of judaism and that broad brush is grossly abused)

  14. Mark Levin

    Substitute person of color for Jews and try your comments again. You wouldn’t dare!

  15. Dana Higgins

    Jews are not what folks have issue with its the ways of the ultra orthodox.. people have issues with jehovah witnesses, that doesnt mean they are anti christian just as here when people complain about the orthodox being rude and not wanting to have anything to do with society or non orthodox ppl. Calling those folks antisemetic is a gross exageration and shameful

  16. ksharp7

    A population can not increase 50% in ten years and 50% in another 10 years back to back far from a major city. Why were so many homes allowed to be built in such a short time? Industrial park jobs are not going support private school tuition even higher than catholic parochial schools and homes at over $400,000 and a large portion of the population studying. That is why there have been arrests for welfare fraud and I wonder what other financial crimes are being committed. Yes the community needs to have a relgious building that can be walked to. There should be a few in walking distance so people can change to a different synogogue and have choices. There is no mega church so why is a mega neighborhood being built? Pastors are often given homes for their families to live in where they are serving. Why doesn’t this happen for married men with kids in full time study? You have people knocking on doors of homes with no for sale signs asking to buy the house with the sales pitch of you don’t want to live here as our community grows. What the heck is happening in NJ?

  17. NJJoany

    I’m aware of thousands of Orthodox men working at income producing jobs in NYC. The jewelry business alone is mostly run by Orthodox men bringing $ home to feed their large families. The Kushner family are real estate millionaires. Why are there 6,400 young men with large families still
    Spending all their non-prductive lives studying the Torah? It’s one of the oldest religious books in the world. Can’t these people study after work & after getting all their kids to bed? I find it extremely hard to understand why they cannot work to take care of their families. If their communities support their endeavors, then let them pay for their rent, food & schooling.
    They. Do not assimilate into the communities where they live, they do no care about the welfare of other people nor their states nor country. They do nothing for others; therefore, let them take care of themselves.

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