First published in The Asbury Park Press on December 16, 2019. Lakewood Neighbors is appreciative of the APP’s Unity Project, with this article being a perfect example of how it’s building bridges in the community.
When the horror of last week’s shooting in Jersey City was revealed as a possible anti-Semitic attack, I was sitting in a meeting at the home of a local rabbi. I was there as a representative of the Unity Project, which has the goal of opening a frank and constructive dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox residents in Ocean and Monmouth counties.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, we were a mix of at least three Christian denominations, conservative and Orthodox Jews, Latina, black, and white. But after checking our phones and reading the tweets, we were of one mind — shocked, saddened, and more determined than ever to try our best to speak up for sanity and solidarity in our troubled communities.
I didn’t always see things this way. When I moved to Lakewood six years ago, my tack was to keep away from any struggle or conflict. I knew I was moving to New Jersey’s pop-up city, a metropolis rising out of a sleepy exurb unprepared in every way to meet its demands. I knew that to support a growing Orthodox Jewish population, contractors had erected acres of new townhouses, stores, and office buildings. But my new home had everything I wanted at the right price. If things got too unpleasant, I figured I could withdraw inside the walls of my gated community.
But after a while, after more traffic, more land sold, more community fights with local government, I found myself angry and depressed. Had moving to Lakewood been a mistake? And if not, what exactly was in it for me?
Seeking answers, I joined the Unity Project. At meetings and events with Orthodox people since, I haven’t held back. I’ve asked them whether they support overdevelopment. I’ve asked them just how Jewish leadership in Lakewood is involved in civic issues. I’ve told them I feel excluded by highway signs in Yiddish or Hebrew.
I’ve been surprised and heartened by what I’ve learned.
First of all, I was mistaken about who “the Orthodox” really are. What I perceived as a homogeneous religious group is really a mix of diverse believers who differ widely in their views on faith. Their differences extend beyond religion to their opinions on township development. Plenty of people in the community referred to collectively as Orthodox oppose what they see as poor planning and governmental obfuscation in Lakewood, and they object to being made regional scapegoats for it.
Sadly, though, that seems to be happening. Non-Orthodox residents are quick to place blame on their new neighbors for the overcrowding and inconvenience the development in Lakewood has caused. Not surprisingly, this seems to have pushed many Orthodox people to avoid direct contact with those outside their immediate community. The result is an alienation that breaks out in angry confrontations and even bias crimes.
Resolving this state of affairs won’t be easy for anyone involved. We live in troubled times, in which social media acts as a sharpening stone for anyone with an axe to grind against those perceived as different. Hostility is easy; working for real adjustment and solid solutions is a lot harder.
Some may wonder, as I did, whether the effort is worth it. I think it very much is. But we must ground ourselves in the fact that Lakewood development will continue, and for reasons not entirely clear, the textbook on urban planning for this township has been thrown out. In my opinion, this pattern will persist in spite of community resistance and legal action against it.
At the same time, I believe members of the Orthodox community in and around Lakewood need to see they have what amounts to a PR problem. This isn’t to minimize the more serious anti-Semitism they face. But I’ve learned there is an enormous amount that non-Orthodox people can learn from the Orthodox, and that can’t happen unless there is openness on both sides. It is time to stop the blame and start the conversation. A pleasant greeting is a great opener.
So what’s in Lakewood for me? I don’t feel isolated and threatened anymore. I’ve made some new friends. I have learned that the township’s growing Jewish community is full of well-educated professionals intent on raising families in a conservative tradition that values family, education, community living, charitable giving and kindness. They are dedicated American citizens and taxpayers. They are attorneys, doctors, teachers and businesspeople seeking an industrious and enterprising environment.
Who wouldn’t benefit from engaging with a community like this? We may not like living in a crowded new city, but we can learn to listen and even to like one another. And if we establish better communication, we just might accomplish together what we can’t alone.
Why don’t you join us in the dialogue? You’ll feel better for it. I certainly do.
Mary Jander, of Lakewood, is a member of the Unity Project Steering Committee.
Want to get involved in the Unity Project? Send an email to UnityProject@gannettnj.com.