Philip Lefkowitz
Philip Lefkowitz

Lakewood Reverberations — The Art of Saying Hello

The recent scandal in Lakewood New Jersey involving a number of Orthodox families, including a Rabbi who carries the name of his illustrious forebearer, the Lutzker Rav, has attracted national news. The accused are charged with defrauding a number of government programs crafted to help families in grave financial difficulty. We, their neighbors in communities adjoining Lakewood, are feeling the negative reverberations of these alleged crimes.  Yet negative attitudes toward the influx of Orthodox Jews to Jackson, Toms River and other nearby communities began much before this tragic event.

A chance review of a website dedicated to comments regarding the local Walmart in the Lakewood area reveals that the most prominent complaint is not about the service or the facility itself. It rather concerns the nature of the customers, those from Lakewood (Orthodox Jews).  They are generally described as discourteous, pushing and shoving other customers whenever it suits their needs. Indeed, when my son first went shopping for our family in Lakewood, the cashier stated, in an ever so matter of fact manner, in spite of his yarmulke and tzitzis clearly exposed, “You aren’t an Orthodox Jew, are you?”  The question was placed to him because he used words such as please and thank you and engaged her in casual, cordial conversation. When he responded that I am Orthodox, she replied, “But you don’t act like the others. You are courteous and respectful.”

There is a well-known story circulated in the yeshiva world regarding American Jewry’s 20th century Posek, the Gaon, HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. On the weekly occasions when he visited the Staten Island Yeshiva, where his son Rav Reuven is Rosh HaYeshiva, to give a Shiur to the Talmidim, he would often eat lunch prior to traveling back to the Lower East side of New York. On one occasion when he and his driver had already left the yeshiva and were well on their way back to New York, he asked the driver to return to the Yeshiva. Upon arrival, Reb Moshe made his way to the kitchen and in his cordial and sweet manner thanked the cook (A non-Jew) for a delicious lunch. This was his custom on every occasion he ate at the Yeshiva. For whatever reason, he had forgotten to offer his thanks on this particular occasion and felt it so important to do so, that he had returned to the Yeshiva. What motivated Reb Moshe to take this step? Perhaps it was based upon the dictum taught by Shammai in Perek, “Greet every person with a cheerful face.”

The lack of a “cheerful face” on the part of all too many Orthodox Jews in Lakewood over the years, has created the impression among their non-Jewish and even Jewish neighbors, that they look down upon those who are not Orthodox observant and do not wish to have any relationship with them. Over the years, this coldness to their neighbors, has created a negative atmosphere in which any disagreement, or even minor misunderstanding, can be inflamed into a major controversy.

Imagine my surprise when I moved into a 55+ senior community in Jackson only to find that I was clearly not wanted there by my neighbors. I was astounded all the more so by this sentiment as the majority of seniors living in the community were either Jewish or Italian, a good many of them hailing from New York City. As I was raised in an Italian-Jewish community in Brooklyn Bensonhurst, I can attest to the observation by the comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, “Jews and Italians – same corporation different division.”  Their clear negativity toward my family and I was based upon my being Orthodox and as one person put it, “They see you as the tip of the spear of the invasion of the Lakewood Orthodox into our otherwise tranquil community.” This occurred about a year ago, just after Rabbi Lefkowitz of Agudah fame, made his much misinterpreted statement that Jews suffering the overcrowding and cost prohibitive real estate in communities like Boro Park, Monsey and Lakewood, should become “a shtikle pioneer” and move to nearby communities such as, in the case of Lakewood, Jackson and Toms River. So desperate were my neighbors to keep out the Orthodox from our 55+ community, that when the bylaws were being reviewed, they were modified in an attempt to discourage Orthodox seniors from considering purchasing homes. The vote in favor of this alteration was about 85% of the community. So that you may better understand the situation, I share with you a letter I wrote to the Board of Trustees prior to that vote.

“I understand the following amendment to Westlake’s rules will be voted upon at a meeting to be held on June 13th at 9 A.M. at the Clubhouse.

“Shall article 1 be amended to include a new section 1.37 as follows.

1.37 (New) “Residential purposes” shall be used solely as a place to live. Holding or conducting regular meetings, presentations Assemblies or other gatherings to which members of the public are invited, shall not constitute a residential purpose and are prohibited. For purposes of this restriction “members of the public” shall mean individuals other than personal friends and members of a resident’s family.”

The Constitution’s First Amendment contains limits on government interference with very well-known unalienable rights: religion, speech and press. The First Amendment specifically restricts government interference with an activity necessary to exercise the first three named rights: the need for people to gather to practice religion, to talk about issues and to distribute information. The right of the people1 to peaceful assembly is protected as follows:

“Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble …”

I am by this letter formally protesting the above change to Westlake’s by laws as it violates the basic right of the American citizen to peaceful assembly.

Westlake has been functioning for more than a decade.  Mere houses have become homes replete with furnishings and activities reflecting the unique attitudes of their owners.  Not only is this suggested change in violation of the American Constitution, it represents an attack upon well-established activities already held and accepted in individual homes in Westlake.  Although a recent arrival to Westlake, I can list several such activities held in individuals’ homes this rule would immediately curtail.

*the regular recitation of the Rosary

*regular sessions of Bible study

*gatherings for Egalitarian Conservative Jewish prayer meetings to allow a mourner to recite the Kaddish prayer for a loved one

*regular gatherings for Christian prayer meetings

*gatherings to discuss various and sundry topics of interest to the residents

*gatherings to support causes considered important to the individual home owner

I am confident that by making formal inquiry I could increase and detail this list appreciably.  It is apparent to me that those who propose such rules believe that Housing Associations can obviate at will the fundamental rights guaranteed to the American citizen by the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights simply by a majority vote. How terribly sad that there are individuals today who wish to limit the very rights the American Revolution was fought to protect.

Westlake is not an island state unto itself.  Its very existence is premised upon the laws of this great nation which it must respect and obey.  Given the negative responses to the influx of Observant Jews, or as some would have it, the “Orthodox” and the fact that activities have developed in Westlake for years that would now be outlawed by this amendment, one can assume that this is yet another not so veiled attempt at making life for an observant Jew uncomfortable in our community. As there is no Synagogue in Jackson, observant Jews gather in various homes to fulfill the religious requirement of praying in a quorum, a minimum of ten men which is known and respected even by the Jackson Township as legal prayer meetings in spite of other questionable actions the Township has taken to curtail or at the very least, limit, the influx of observant, law abiding and productive Jewish citizens to Jackson. As such as other observant Jews purchase homes in Westlake, I am confident they too will want to gather in prayer on a regular basis in individual homes as Christian residents already do and is their right in accord with the American foundational concepts of free exercise of religion and public assembly

For your edification I have included a copy of an address I gave several years ago on the topic of religious freedom before the leadership of the state wide interfaith organization of Illinois – Reclaiming Religious Liberty.

I urge you to remove this proposal from the ballot.”

This situation in communities such as Jackson is becoming ever more acute as the influx of young Orthodox Jewish families to the community grows day by day. Is it possible this horrible situation could have been avoided or ameliorated simply by those who came before us, utilizing the dictum of Shammai, “Greet every person with a cheerful face?” I believe the answer to this question is a resounding YES.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
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