Monday, May 08, 2017
It is Friday in Lakewood.
A few thousand young men in black suits and wide-brimmed black hats are rushing toward Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), the world's largest yeshiva outside of Israel.
Parking in the vicinity of the school is as impossible as finding a spot in Hoboken or Jersey City. Students circle in their Toyotas, Nissans and other compact cars, looking for a place to edge in. Most driveways are filled, too. In the parking lot behind the school offices, cars are tripled-parked, covering both fire lanes.
While the men are in school, their young wives are in the downtown, a few blocks away. Most have a one or two children in tow, and are pushing a stroller. They are shopping for Shabbat, the day of worship, rest and traditional meals that begins just before sunset on Fridays and ends after sunset on Saturday evening.
At Gelbstein's Bakery, women and children squeeze through racks of cooling challah bread. The bakery has been in business since 1934, the heyday of Lakewood as a resort.
The other stores catering to Orthodox clientele along Clifton Avenue, the town's main street, are busy, too. At "His Place," a men's and boys' clothing store, owner Gedalia Tomor watches his sales staff hustle to fit customers with suit jackets of navy blue, dark gray and black.
His family has been in Lakewood 42 years and his father, Herschel, owns the locksmith shop next door.
"This is a great business," Tomor said, standing before shelves of only white shirts. "There're no seasonals (changeover for summer or winter clothes), no closeouts (sales) and where else do you see so many kids wearing suits?"
Tomor manufactures his own brand in China, using Italian and Chinese fabrics, and his expertise in fitting kids has stretched to Hollywood, where several child stars have worn his suits on award shows. He, like all Orthodox men, wears simple black suits and white shirts.
"I'm a normal guy with a normal business," he said. "When I'm in China, people look at me as an American. I'm cool to them. But here, in my own country, people look at you a certain way because of what's going on."
What's going on is the increasing population of Orthodox Jews in Ocean County. For the most part, they are not Hasidim, many of whom have long side hair curls called payot and wear round fur hats. In Lakewood, the Hasidic population is growing, too, but makes up only about 15 percent of the Jewish population.
Tomor recently moved his family to Toms River, because Lakewood is simply getting too crowded.
"It was a lifestyle choice. I wanted my kids to have space to play," he said.
But he feels the icy stares of his new neighbors who, he said, feels "their blocks are getting taken over by Jewish people."
Lakewood's population has grown exponentially in the last 40 years. In the 1980 census, the 25-square-mile town's population was 38,464. By 2015, it had increased to 99,249.
The township, once a popular Jewish resort nestled in the Jersey pines with three lakes providing year-round recreation, is now the state's fifth largest city - crowded, congested and still growing.
"You can't move around here," said Tom Gatti, who lives in an over-55 community and is the chairman of Senior Action Group (SAG), formed to combat what many feel is Lakewood's unabated growth.
The biggest jump of 32,000 residents came between 2000 and 2010, when the population grew from 61,000 to 93,000.
"I don't think anyone dreamed the town would grow this large,'' said Aaron Feldman, who has owned a small kosher grocery on Clifton Avenue, which dates back 45 years. "But it's good. It's good for business."
This population growth is reflected, if not directly traced in part, to the expansion of Beth Medrash Govoha. The yeshiva has about 6,500 students, equal in enrollment to the College of New Jersey.
Schneur Kotler, the son of founder Rabbi Kotler, took over the yeshiva after his father died in 1962 and in the following 20 years quadrupled the student body from 200 to 800 until his own death in 1982.
"My father had a secret sauce," said Rabbi Aaron Kotler, 50, current CEO of the yeshiva, whose brother, Malkiel, 65, is the roshiva or head rabbi. "He didn't want to mold his academic views on everybody. He encouraged diversity in (study) styles. It was an intellectual approach. Less monolithic. He built a model that connected to a lot of people from around the world."
And they began coming to Lakewood to immerse themselves in the study of the Babylonian Talmud. From Israel, of course. And Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, as expected. But also from every country in Western Europe, Canada and Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, and as far away as Australia.
Under the leadership of Schneur Kotler's sons, the yeshiva grew from 800 students to eight times that now.
There are another two dozen or so Yeshivas for men of marrying age in Lakewood. Most, such as Ruach HaTorah, have about 40 students.
The K-12 religious schools have an estimated 30,000 Orthodox students, separated by sexes. One of the largest, Yeshiva K'Tana, educates 800 boys to prepare them for advanced Talmudic studies. Some, such as Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah, have less 20 students. In all, there are about 400 yeshivas, synagogues or dormitories that house Talmudic students.
While Orthodox Jews will clearly shape Lakewood's future, they have long shaped its history.
"This was a Jewish resort as far back as the 1920s," Kotler said. "It was the New Jersey version of the Borscht Belt (Catskills)."
One of those hotel owners was Lithuanian refugee Betzalel Goldstein. His hotel was located by Shenandoah Lake, one of Lakewood's three large bodies of water along the Metedeconk River.
"He knew my father from Lithuania and always told him, 'Come to Lakewood,' " Kotler said.
The men knew each other in the village of Kletsk, which is now part of Belarus. Before coming to Kletsk, Rabbi Kotler had been driven from his hometown of Slutsk by the Bolsheviks.
"He had a school there, but the Russians closed it down," Aaron Kotler said.
In 1941, the Nazis were expanding their persecution of Jews beyond Germany's borders and Rabbi Kotler made his way to America by an unlikely route - through Japan.
"It's ironic that the Japanese became our enemy but they opened their doors to Jewish refugees," Kotler said.
Once here, he started a yeshiva in White Plains, N.Y., but his old friend Betzalel Goldstein told him of a paradise on the edge of the Jersey Pinelands, where property was cheap and Jews were already part of the landscape.
In 1943, Rabbi Kotler started his yeshiva with 13 students in an old mansion that has since been torn down.
The recent acceleration in growth is ushering a new era in Lakewood, one in which the township is closer to resembling some parts of heavily-Orthodox Brooklyn than it is the old Borscht Belt.
High-density housing has replaced old pineland bungalows. Neighborhoods upon neighborhoods of three-story condominiums have sprung up, along with apartment complexes. In the past two years alone, Lakewood has approved housing complexes totaling nearly 4,000 units and another 1,200 single-family homes. Simply put: the town is continually under construction, neighborhoods are in transition and traffic is intolerable.
"The problem is that the (township) infrastructure has not caught up with the growth,' Kotler said.
Kotler said the Orthodox "are easily blamed" for the problems, which also include a failing public school system and abrupt neighborhood gentrification that leaves longtime residents displaced. But along Routes 9 and 88 are new shopping plazas, a new industrial complex that created 11,000 jobs, and a minor league baseball park. Around the lakes, beautiful homes have been restored along curved, tree-lined streets reminiscent of New Jersey's most affluent suburbs.
"The town is gentrifying and expanding," he said. "We try to walk gently but there are problems that need to be solved."
At its current growth rate, Lakewood will become the third-largest city in New Jersey by midcentury. As such, Kotler says, it will need better public transportation for a population forbidden to drive on the Sabbath, higher density housing for the thousands of rabbinical students and their families, a remake of the aging downtown.
"We need smart planning that make sense for everyone," he said.
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