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.