Rabbi Aaron Kotler sinks into a large, white sofa in his plush den, surrounded by dark wooden shelves crammed with Hebrew texts and family photographs. Kotler is delighted to talk about his hometown.
“Lakewood is one of New Jersey’s greatest success stories, and it’s the single greatest success story of the past 20 years,” says the affable Kotler, the most influential voice to emerge from the town’s Orthodox community. “People love it here. They want to raise families here. They want to open businesses here. They want to work here. And that story is so often untold.”
Kotler is more qualified than most to champion Lakewood. In 1943, his grandfather, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, founded the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva, a postgraduate yeshiva college that offers degrees in Talmudic and Judaic studies. At the time, Lakewood was a resort destination, with more than 200 hotels catering to affluent vacationers from New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. It also had a thriving middle class and a vibrant downtown that attracted shoppers from throughout the county.
That era came to a swift and unanticipated halt. In the postwar years, Lakewood’s wealthy vacationers began embracing the jet age, opting for far-flung destinations. The town’s seasonal economy dried up. By the late 1960s, the slide accelerated. Racially charged riots broke out sporadically. Violent crime began to climb. Hotels were torn down by developers or burnt down by vandals.
“Lakewood was in the death throes,” says Kotler. “It was a direct result of the total disappearance of the town’s economic mainstay—tourism. But make no mistake, Lakewood was a failed municipality, not unlike Camden or Atlantic City. Now those very same areas of decline [in Lakewood]are claiming premium rents.”
What turned the tide? Beth Medrash Govoha.
Known locally as BMG, the school started with 13 students. It has grown into the nation’s largest yeshiva, with enrollment approaching 7,000. Its influence in and around Lakewood is inescapable. Some refer to it as the Princeton of Lakewood. It’s impossible to dissociate its success from Lakewood’s revitalization.
“For some time now, we’ve been morphing into something new, and it’s been driven by free-market decisions,” says Kotler, the yeshiva’s president.
BMG made Lakewood attractive for yeshiva students and non-students alike. All were looking for an affordable alternative to Brooklyn’s increasingly pricey Orthodox neighborhoods.
More Orthodox families meant more synagogues, more kosher eateries, and more opportunities to live and study with other adherents of what some call Haredi Judaism, the dominant form of orthodoxy in Lakewood. (Kotler rejects the term Haredi; he simply defines his community as Orthodox.) Since these families don’t send their children to public schools, the population shift created a market for private religious schools; there are now more than 130 within the town’s borders.
“Look, you can have a mega-church in Texas that draws in 10,000 people every Sunday. But that model doesn’t work for us, because we can’t drive on the Sabbath. So you need smaller, local synagogues and communities,” says Kotler. “For an Orthodox family looking for a place to live, Lakewood made sense. And by the late ’90s, it was unstoppable.”
That unstoppable tide brought prosperity to Lakewood. Stunning McMansions sprang up. Lakewood gained a municipal airport, a minor league baseball team and a state-of-the-art medical center. The town is also home to the state’s second largest industrial park, responsible for more than 11,000 jobs. Recently, a 70,000-square-foot warehouse and manufacturing complex was added to the development.
“This is a very successful place,” says Kotler. “But obviously with growth comes some problems.”