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.

To understand Lakewood’s political and economic power structure, one first has to understand the Vaad.

Spearheaded in the mid-1990s,  the Vaad is a small but well-organized and highly influential gathering of businessmen and some Orthodox rabbis who have driven much of the decision-making that has shaped Lakewood. When the town prepares for elections, ballot questions or general debates over pressing issues, the Vaad releases its position on the matter. Its authority is based on the Orthodox voters’ trust in the Vaad’s collective wisdom.

Kotler, understood to be the leader of the Vaad, says it is simply “an advocacy group.” He downplays its significance. “We discover the real concerns of our community and then adopt positions and platforms that address those needs and advocate for the people who will support them,” says Kotler. “We do make [political] endorsements, but not everyone listens to us.”

Despite their public positions, Vaad members, apart from Kotler, are reluctant to speak to the media. Attempts to reach other members of the Vaad, as well as the township committee, went unheeded. But one individual made an exception.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, this former township insider doesn’t mince words when it comes to Lakewood’s imbalance of power and influence.

“Aaron Kotler is the godfather of Lakewood. Make no mistake about it. And when you go against the Vaad, you’re probably not going to win,” says the source. “And Hershel’s not incorrect. The town is being run for the benefit of a few major rabbis, school owners and large developers. And this has led to irresponsible overdevelopment.”

What’s unfortunate, says the source, is that outside observers and critics unfairly place the blame for this “irresponsible leadership” on the shoulders of everyday people in Lakewood.

“People in yeshiva-culture Orthodox Judaism are very trusting. They’re good people,” says the source. “But they grow up in a system where they’re inculcated with the notion that we should trust our rabbis to do right by us. That our leaders are looking out for our benefit at all times as opposed to their own. That’s not always the case.”

What’s more, the source is critical of how the town’s all-white, all-male, and predominantly Orthodox civic leaders have left other groups—non-Jews, African-Americans, Latinos and seniors—without representation. The solution, he says, should be a drastic change in Lakewood’s governing structure.

“[The population] is big enough now that they should have a directly elected mayor held directly accountable to voters,” he says. “We need wards where various pockets of minority residents can put their own people on the council. You’ll still have an Orthodox mayor and Orthodox council members, but at least you’ll have other people on the council with a voice for accountability. But that’s not going to happen. At least not in my lifetime.”

Advocating for political change in Lakewood is not easy, and public dissent within the Orthodox community can lead to severe repercussions, according to Herskowitz. “No one wants to speak out,” he says. “They’re afraid.”

Herskowitz speaks from experience. A year after his unsuccessful election campaign against Singer (the Vaad-endorsed candidate), two of Herskowitz’s daughters applied for admission to one of Lakewood’s private Jewish high schools. Following the rule of thumb, they applied to three different institutions, confident that at least one would accept them. But weeks went by and they heard nothing. The schools didn’t even cash their application checks.

With the school year fast approaching, Herskowitz and his wife enrolled their daughters in a private Jewish high school in a neighboring town. Then, on September 5, 2011, just days before the start of the new school year, a prominent and powerful rabbi visited Herskowitz at home.

Herskowitz says he was told that his daughters would be admitted to one of their preferred schools only if he signed a letter promising to cease all political activity. It outlined four specific conditions, including not being involved in Lakewood politics, not blogging, and not involving himself with any websites “at all or about anything.” And if he did want to speak out,  he would need to get permission first.

“They told me I had to sign it right then and there,” says Herskowitz of the letter. “So I snuck into my bedroom, faxed it to a friend and came back to the living room. Then I wrote ‘drop dead’ at the bottom and tore it in half.” The next day, a school representative offered to accept his daughters without the signed letter, but he declined.

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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



  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.