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.

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.”

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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.