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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