A photograph that appeared in a local newspaper last month, depicting a meeting of mostly Orthodox New Jersey politicians, has sparked controversy in the suburb of Teaneck, heightening existing tensions between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in the town of 39,000.
The New Jersey suburbs have, in recent years, become a breeding ground for strife between Orthodox Jews — who have been moving to the area in increasing numbers — and their non-Orthodox neighbors. One of the most recent controversies was over the creation of an eruv — a boundary that symbolically encloses an area, making it permissible to carry on the Sabbath — in nearby Tenafly. The Tenafly Borough Council tried to block the creation of the eruv, leading to a drawn-out court case that was ultimately decided in favor of the Orthodox community.
But the controversies that have marred community relations in Teaneck, which is home to one of the largest and most politically active Modern Orthodox communities in New Jersey, have played out somewhat more subtly than in Tenafly.
Last month, a group of mostly Orthodox public officials from several New Jersey suburbs — including Michael Wildes, mayor of Englewood; Teaneck Mayor Elie Katz; one former and two current members of the seven-person Teaneck assembly, and several officials from Passaic and Lakewood — met for lunch at a local deli. Wildes took a photo of the gathering and submitted it to the Northern Valley Suburbanite, a local paper, with the caption: “Officials speak on municipal issues.” The photo was ultimately published, along with Wilde’s caption, in the Teaneck Suburbanite, the Northern Valley Suburbanite’s sister newspaper. According to the Teaneck Suburbanite, Wildes also described the meeting as a “regional conference on municipal issues.”
At a July 25 council meeting, many Teaneck residents reacted angrily to the absence of women, minorities and non-Orthodox Jews from the photograph, according to an August 1 Teaneck Suburbanite article. Some interpreted the absence of minorities as an instance of racial insensitivity; Teaneck is 56% white and 29% African American, and has experienced an increase in racial tension since 1990, when a black teenager was fatally shot by a white policeman. Three Teaneck council members, Jacqueline Kates, Lizette Parker and Monica Honis, also voiced dismay over not having been told about the meeting.
Katz believes that the entire issue has been blown out of proportion. “The lunch was a social event amongst friends,” he told the Forward. Wildes conceded that political issues relating to the Orthodox community were discussed, but he argued that charges of exclusivity are unwarranted. “There’s nothing wrong when a group of elected officials gets together, of any faith, as long as you participate in other communal events and recognize that your role as a leader is to represent all of the community,” he told the Forward.
But according to Kates, the problem is not that the meeting took place but that it was billed as a conference on municipal issues. “I’m sure they probably were out for a pastrami sandwich,” she told the Forward, “but sending a photograph to the local newspaper calling it a ‘regional conference on municipal issues’ enhances the importance and makes it look like only elected officials who care were there.”
Wildes claimed that such criticism is simply a reflection of anti-Orthodox feelings among some Teaneck residents. “The secular political leadership in Teaneck is driving the wedge [between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities] even deeper,” he said. Kates countered that accusations of anti-Orthodoxy have become common in Teaneck politics and that some Orthodox politicians will unfairly tar divergent opinions as the product of anti-Orthodox sentiments. “I think those people who feel they have legitimate questions feel very frustrated and intimidated to be called ‘anti-Orthodox’ when they have no religious issues with council members,” she said.
The tension over the Teaneck Suburbanite photograph is only the most recent controversy to test the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Teaneck. During assembly elections in May 2006, a series of anonymous fliers were distributed, accusing several of the opponents of Orthodox candidates of antisemitism. When a community relations board asked the assembly to condemn the illegal fliers, the four Orthodox assemblymen, including Katz, refused. Katz recently expressed regret for not condemning the fliers, but resentment over the elections remains strong on both sides.