First published in the Asbury Park Press on April 3, 2020.
As a resident and rabbi in beautiful Toms River, I would like to share a few thoughts to my friends in Lakewood. As someone who was born in Paul Kimball Hospital in Lakewood and spent the first 38 years of my life there, I feel like I have some perspective.
Firstly, I am sorry for that fact that you are right now a beleaguered community. You are a close-knit community and each death shoots a hole into your collective hearts as you are all family. Pillars of your community suddenly are no longer amongst the living. I know that you are shattered.
Your funerals with thousands of people in attendance and eulogies respecting the deceased are now a teleconferenced speaker with a lone voice, if that. I am sorry that there are so many orphans who usually get a week of mourning through shiva, and now our rabbis ruled that no one can come to console you in person, to protect the public.
That little child with large brown eyes full of tears and shock will be comforted someday; for now, I have no words. To the young wife going to have her baby, not knowing whether her ventilated husband is alive, I can only cry for your pain.
To the community leaders who closed down the shuls (synagogues and study halls) even before the state required you to, I commend you. The mothers and fathers holed up in their small apartment without a backyard with their large families for weeks already without a TV, video games or even internet, I celebrate your commitment to keeping them and all of us as safe as possible.
More than anything to my brothers on Hatzolah (volunteer EMT squad), the whole Jewish nation is standing in awe. Without getting one dollar in salary or a pension, you are responding to hundreds of calls with such bravery. You put your life at risk as you and your volunteer paramedics run into home after home. Your comforting empathy and messages of hope, as you send off those patients who need to be transported to the hospital not knowing if they will ever come out, is jaw dropping. To the doctors and rabbis sick at home or in the hospital with COVID-19 yet still serving the community in any possible capacity, you are fulfilling your mission statement of dedication.
Thank you Rabbi Stein and Rabbi Sigfried for donating 15 ventilators to local hospitals. That is truly special of you. Thank you to my many friends in Lakewood and Toms River for donating hundreds and thousands of much-needed supplies to the hospitals and first responders helping to save lives. You understand that there is a “Time to Give and a Time to Take.” Now is time to give.
As I drive through Lakewood for an emergency and I see a shuttered town, it tugs on my heart. The vibrant town is silent. There are no students running to the study halls, no traffic and no children. Even at the busiest time of the Jewish year, pre-Pesach (Passover), BMG, which is open 24/7, 365 days a year, is closed for the first time in history. I can’t fathom the difficulty of keeping approximately 52,000 children and teenagers at home.
This year Pesach will not be the same either. You will not be at the seder with your parents, grandparents and great grandparents as usual. It is what would be for the rest of the world canceling Thanksgiving. Young couples will hole up in small apartments, sad and lonely without their family and community to bond with. Despite that, thank you Lakewood rabbis for protecting your communities with edicts more stringent than that of the state. Your robocalls, letters and emails are saving lives. You are protecting everyone by recognizing your own unique situation.
Most of the world can see the same thing I see; all they need to do is drive through Lakewood. Sadly though, most won’t. They will read a phony story about schools being open, and three unfortunate stories of a collective 100 or so people (of your over 100,000 residents) who didn’t stick to the rules, and they will paint you with that broad brush.
I see what you see and hear what you hear. You are not individual heroes in their eyes. Those three or four stories trumpeted about the internet will be how you are looked at. To them, Lakewood is bustling; it’s business as usual. They will judge you because they are misled into thinking that way, while others are thrilled to validate themselves for hating you already. This is part of your history and may never fully stop. Thankfully, judging all Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Muslims, etc., by the actions of a handful of them is not acceptable anymore for the most part. Maybe one day this will hold true for your community as well.
The fact that you all came together as a community on the festival of Purim before anyone realizing that COVID-19 was here, and the fact that you are a close community in general with many children, may have hurt you more than other communities and towns at this time. However, it will help you recover and rebuild as well. So, try to avoid the social media and the hate; they don’t want to see the truth. Your friends do, because they care to see the truth. We weep with you even though it seems you are crying alone. We pray for you and we will rejoice in your rebirth one day very soon hopefully.
Rabbi Moshe Rotberg lives in Toms River.