First published in the Asbury Park Press on April 1, 2020.
LAKEWOOD – After seeing and hearing all the negativity targeting Lakewood in this novel coronavirus pandemic, a Howell man decided to take a drive and see for himself.
The video travelogue that 28-year-old Boruch Perlowitz created reveals a township that is ostensibly on lock down, its residents sheltering in place and steering clear of favorite places, sometimes denied by chained and locked doors. As Perlowitz depicts it, usually bustling Lakewood is as sleepy as any other town in New Jersey.
“I said, let me find out the truth for my neighbors and friends,” said Perlowitz. “I wanted to do complete honest reporting. If places were open, I would say that places are open.”
Perlowitz’s video aims to counter a narrative in social media that paints Lakewood as a lawless place where residents openly defy Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order shuttering businesses, barring large gatherings and requiring social distancing. Perlowitz said that narrative has engendered enmity toward the town’s largely Orthodox Jewish community.
Since Murphy’s restrictions took effect two weeks ago, police and public officials have highlighted about a half-dozen instances in town where people gathered in numbers that appeared to violate Murphy’s orders, but officials said those incidents were the exception in this densely packed town of some 103,000 people.
Nonetheless, Lakewood has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Ocean County. As of Tuesday, 438 coronavirus cases were linked to the town, about 40 percent of all cases in the county. The Lakewood Vaad confirmed Tuesday that six rabbis in town had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
In his 4-minute video posted on Vimeo, Perlowitz takes a quick tour to some of the places in Lakewood where people typically gather in large numbers. His first stop was Beth Medrash Govoha, the rabbinical college at the heart of the township with a student population close to 8,000 students.
“These doors apparently are all locked shut with chains from the inside,” he says in the video as he tries to pull open the doors to the school. There wasn’t a soul nearby.
The host then drives by a strip mall where businesses are closed and the parking lot empty. He does the same at several synagogues, a desolate residential street and a playground by Lake Carasaljo. Every time, the scene is largely devoid of people. (The Press witnessed the same quiet during afternoon tours this week and last.)
In the video Perlowitz explains that the high number of COVID-19 cases could be due to cultural factors, like the rooted tradition of communal life and celebrations, like Purim, that took place just days before the state, like much of the nation, began to shut down. He also noted the large number of children in town and speculated that children might have passed the contagion on to their parents.
Public health officials have said the issue in Lakewood is its density. They have discouraged any efforts to scapegoat or place blame for the spread of the disease.
“Corona has changed the way we live and celebrate. This is the season that’s more similar to Christmas and people like to buy new clothes for Pesach (Passover), but you see the stores are closed now,” Perlowitz told the Press.
The video was welcomed warmly in WhatsApp groups. Many people forwarded the link to the Press to counter the narrative that people in Lakewood are universally non-compliant.
“Instead of judging other neighborhoods, let’s pray for the welfare of all Americans and human beings today,” he says to close his video.
Gustavo Martínez Contreras covers Lakewood. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 732-643-4061.