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.

Back at Lakewood High School,  Pastor Wilson hangs his head as public school parents shuffle out of the canceled board meeting. It’s dispiriting, he says, but moments like these reinforce his reasons for creating U.N.I.T.E.

“Years ago, it occurred to me that we had to come together as a community to see that the children in the public schools are receiving the education they deserve,” says Wilson, a 1976 graduate of Lakewood High. “When a Caucasian child misses out on an education, he still has a chance to make it because of his network,” adds Wilson. “When African-American and Latino children don’t get educated, they end up in the newspaper.”

Lakewood’s public education landscape is one of its hottest areas of contention. In the 2012-13 school year, public school enrollment was at 5,166. More recently, a steady flow of Mexican immigrants (driven, in part, by service-industry employment opportunities) has helped bump enrollment up to about 6,000, but it’s still a fraction of the nearly 30,000 Orthodox children now attending the private learning institutions throughout town.

The public school population reflects the district’s economic struggles. District-wide, 74 percent of Lakewood’s public-school students are eligible under federal guidelines for free or reduced lunch. That’s more than twice the state average of 35 percent. To top it off, Lakewood’s school district faces a $12 million budget gap, increasingly crowded classrooms and the looming threat of teacher layoffs.

Lakewood High is among the worst-performing schools on New Jersey Monthly’s 2016 ranking, placing at number 322 out of 337 public high schools on the list.

“When I first started teaching here, I was told by colleagues, ‘Honey, you need to get out, because this district won’t be here in 10 years,’” says Cara Leach, a special-ed teacher at Lakewood’s Ella G. Clarke Elementary School. She is now in her 12th year in the district. “I don’t think it’s going to disappear completely, but I don’t know if all eight schools will remain forever.”

Tensions peaked last summer when the school district was forced to wrestle with a busing crisis that threatened to drive an even deeper wedge between the Orthodox community and the rest of Lakewood.

State law requires school districts to bus elementary school children who live farther than two miles from their school—whether public or private—and middle/high school students who live 2.5 miles away. Students who live closer than that are eligible for what is called courtesy busing, the cost of which is shouldered by local school districts. But courtesy busing in Lakewood has become financially unsustainable and was to be axed this fall, disproportionately impacting the town’s Orthodox students.

According to Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America, a nonprofit that advocates for civil and religious rights in the Jewish community, the loss of courtesy busing would have meant that nearly 7,000 private school students and 3,000 public school students would have had to walk. And that, he says, was unacceptable.

“When you have 10,000 children left without a way to get to school, you’ve got a problem,” says Schnall, whose organization lobbied tirelessly for a legislative solution to the busing quandary. “You want those children walking two miles through streets that see hundreds of cars every day?”
In August, Governor Chris Christie signed legislation sponsored by Senator Singer that provides state aid to Lakewood for courtesy busing. The pilot program, which was rolled out this fall, gives the district $2.4 million annually through 2019.

“I appreciate the unique transportation challenges that confront Lakewood, where the vast majority of students attend non-public schools,” Christie said in a statement at the bill signing. “But for a robust courtesy busing program, many of these students would have to cross dangerous and crowded intersections to get to and from school.”

Schnall is pleased with the temporary solution, but he says the state’s school-funding formula remains problematic.

This is a common concern within Lakewood’s Orthodox community. New Jersey’s school-funding formula is based on the number of children attending public schools in a district. More public school students equals more state money. But while private school students in Lakewood vastly outnumber those attending public schools, the financial burden of maintaining public schools does not change, nor does the cost of busing.

“In the eyes of the state there are only 6,000 students in Lakewood,” says Schnall. “The 30,000 non-public school students don’t count. They are invisible.”

Wilson and his allies in the minority community maintain that they are the ones who are invisible. “There used to be an incentive for [the Orthodox] to care and come to the table, but now that they’ve got their busing issue solved, there’s no need to care about us anymore,” says Wilson.

He fears that political action will be increasingly hard to muster given the town’s shifting demographics. According to U.S. census data, Lakewood’s Latino population increased by about 80 percent between 2000 and 2010, to 16,000. During the same period, the town’s African-American population dropped by almost 20 percent to about 5,900.

“We’re on our way out,” says Wilson. “Our community continues to shrink. But even if there are just five students left in the school, we need to make sure those five students get educated correctly.”

One of Wilson’s allies is Alejandra Morales, a Mexican immigrant and public school parent of two sons. Her organization, Voz Latina, advocates for the town’s Latino population. Morales, who has lived in Lakewood for 20 years, says she can “no longer remain silent” about her community’s concerns. A substantial percentage of Lakewood’s Latino population, she notes, is undocumented and doesn’t speak fluent English, which further isolates them from engagement in the public debate.

“Many parents don’t speak English and don’t know where they’re supposed to be, so I help them organize,” says Morales in strained English. “But then you see tonight the meeting is canceled? That’s no respect. Everybody here tonight brings serious complaints, but they don’t care. All the time they show us they don’t care.”

Eric Swain has witnessed the effects of a shrinking, fractured and marginalized African-American community firsthand. Born and raised in Lakewood, Swain, 35, spent his young-adult years in the streets, getting into trouble with the law and watching his friends’ lives spiral into increasingly dangerous territory. After turning his life around, Swain founded a community organization in 2012 called Kevin Inc. The group provides mentoring and wholesome community events for Lakewood’s minority youth, including back-to-school barbecues, dances and weekend parties.

“We want them to know that someone cares, so instead of turning to the wrong things, they have an open window with us,” says Swain, who now lives in nearby Manchester. “I’ve been on the streets. I know what that world is like. And I don’t want them turning there too.”

Crime in Lakewood is an ongoing concern. According to the FBI’s most recent nationwide report, there were 167 violent crimes in Lakewood in 2014, an 80 percent increase over the 93 incidents reported the prior year. Robberies nearly doubled, and aggravated assaults rose from 52 to 97. According to the report, Lakewood saw more incidents of violent crime in 2014 than any other municipality in Ocean County.

One of the reasons, says Swain, is that Lakewood’s African-American and Latino youth lack positive local role models. What’s more, Swain says, black and brown residents “simply feel left out.”

“This isn’t about violence or hatred or being anti-Semitic,” says Swain. “It’s about being a voice to bring attention to what’s going on right now. Because everything here is one-sided. The council, the schools. And it’s not fair.”

Ultimately, says Aaron Kotler, the difficulties facing Lakewood are not unlike the struggles countless American towns experience during periods of growth. Old ways are replaced by new ones, and municipal identities are never eternally fixed. But when it happens quickly, he says, the complications are more pronounced.

“Everyone has a right to voice concern— even our fiercest critics,” says Kotler. “Ultimately, Lakewood is a success. We tend to forget that because we want everything to be perfect. But life doesn’t work that way.”

Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.

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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.