The Lakewood Yeshiva is in New Jersey, but it’s the Texas of Talmud academies. Everything is big, from festivals to real estate deals. Its airy study halls can hold hundreds of bearded men in black pants and crisp white shirts, their fringes swinging at the waist as they spend their days in prayer and study. When the yeshiva opened some 70 years ago, Lakewood’s big business was chicken farming. Today, Torah is the economic engine, and Lakewood is a boomtown fueled by the yeshiva’s scholars and their families. The school makes the entire place feel blessed — to many.
But not all. Citizens and activists both within and outside the town lament its transformation from exurban heaven to holy city. And those critics have found each other on a Facebook group called “Rise Up Ocean County,” which says the yeshiva is fueling ugly, unhealthy, inequitable economic development. The group’s mission: to slow that growth down. Their tactic: Shaming Lakewood on Facebook.
“I can’t stand what those Hassidic’s get away with,” wrote one commenter. “I would trust a rat before a Hassidic.” [Sic]
Rise Up Ocean County’s creators say they don’t hate Jews, but what Jewish leadership has wrought, and that’s why posts about the town can read as Jew hatred. Jews and their allies fear the group could incite violence, like the Shabbat attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, near San Diego.
“[Rise Up Ocean County] is disturbing in a special way in that it’s very sustained,” said Rabbi Eli Steinberg, a Lakewood resident. “Instead of building bridges to help people understand each other as people, this effort is building that impenetrable wall, to scare people.”
The Facebook group is run by a team of seven people who stay anonymous due to their own safety concerns, said an administrator who talked to the Forward, citing a 2018 assault suffered by a couple fighting new housing near their community. The team started it this past October, and it now has more than 12,000 followers. Not even one of the seven actually lives in Lakewood, which they have given up as a lost cause. They live in other nearby towns, like Brick and Jackson, which are in Ocean County, and Howell, which is in Monmouth County, and which they want to keep from going the way of Lakewood. Turning Lakewood into a cautionary tale on Facebook is one way to do that, they believe, but they also have a website and support political candidates.
The Lakewood that once was, according to the administrator, was a very different place, with open space, parks and a “sleepy” feel to it. Historic photos show wide, gracious streets lined on either side by sturdy cars, sidewalks and charming brick buildings. Lakewood is 25 square miles and as of 1960 was home to about 20,000 people. About 102,000 people live there today.
It’s true: The town has outgrown itself, said Marc Pfeiffer, the assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University.
“The downtown is very built-up, very congested, and this intensity is not what the area was designed for,” Pfeiffer said. “On the main drag, there is no breathing room.”
Now the same town center has lots of foot traffic, and morning pedestrians are exposed to the schmutz expelled by packs of school buses. Roughly a third of the Lakewood’s population is school-age.
The yeshiva is what brings people to Lakewood and keeps them there, said Steinberg. He himself studied there and decided to stay and raise his family.
“Authentic and focused Torah scholarship is the most central value in our lives and everything flows out from that,” he said.
Once home to over a thousand chicken farms, Lakewood became the unlikely location of the world’s second-largest Talmud academy because its leader, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, was on the run from the Nazis, whose invasion of Belarus in 1941 shut down his yeshiva there. Kotler felt the United States of all places most needed Torah learning, so he decided to revive his school here.
Like most immigrants, he found in America a goldene medina, or promised land. He called the new school Beth Medrash Govoha and opened its doors in 1943 to 13 students; today there are 6,500. The school is the reason Lakewood boasts the fastest-growing population of any city in the state, according to the Asbury Park Press.
What’s more, under the current leaders, who include two of Kotler’s grandsons, both town and school might grow even more. The yeshiva needs more student housing and might buy a defunct country club in order to build it, reported the Asbury Park Press on April 16.
Old-Fashioned Jew Hatred?
Rise Up Ocean County greeted this news with its characteristic mix of geekery and spleen. “WE SMELL A RAT,” a poster inveighed, followed by a feverish exegesis replete with references to Section 18-902 H 1 (g), and R-7.5 designations and Accessory Buildings and setback measurements — so many setback measurements.
“The golf course is pristine real estate,” said the Rise Up Ocean County administrator who agreed to talk to the Forward. “We have an open space preservation program in Ocean County. That conversation never took place, and it should have.”
The post about the country club garnered 124 comments and was shared 39 times.
“And somehow, despite the rules, regs and set backs for zoning, they will ‘magically’ get approved,” wrote one commenter, invoking a centuries-old notion beloved of Jew haters, that Jewish political power is so disproportionate that it must flow from some occult source.
In fact, in Lakewood, Jews owe their might to simple math. At least 60% of the population is Jewish. There are other towns that are even more densely Jewish, like Kiryas Joel in upstate New York, but they’re smaller. And of course lots of big cities have bigger Jewish populations that are a smaller percentage of the whole.
Lakewood is unique. Fortunately, says the Rise Up Ocean County camp.
Another comment: “This has to stop! Why are theses people aloud to destroy and keep building and push all the paying tax payers out and they all live Scott free.” [Sic]
The Rise Up Ocean County administrator acknowledged that the yeshiva isn’t doing anything illegal with regards to the country club deal. Pfeiffer, the public policy expert, said the same.
Yet the comments attest to the widespread conviction that Lakewood’s Jews are selfish crooks.
To counter accusations of Jew hatred, the Rise Up Ocean County administrators like to disseminate information about different faiths, a kind of Comparative Religion 101 for Facebook that includes everything from a piece on Holocaust Remembrance Day most recently to one about the origins of Easter.
“None of us care whether people worship bullfrogs in a forest. It has nothing to do with that,” the administrator told the Forward.
Also, they do care about other issues besides Lakewood’s Jews and their peculiarities. For example, they despised and posted frequently about the former chair of the Ocean County Republicans, whose resignation they happily announced in late April.
Still, the group emerged and is flourishing when hate crime against Jews is on the rise. In 2018, Anti-Semitic assaults more than doubled from the previous year, and incidents like vandalism were close to historic highs, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League released on April 28, the day after a gunman opened fire on Sabbath worshippers in San Diego, killing one.
“We say that the internet is the new KKK hood,” said Alex Rosemberg, a regional director for the ADL. “It’s the mask that people are putting on to be able to say the hateful things they couldn’t have previously said.”
For some people, the internet is just the first step. Both the Pittsburgh and the Poway gunmen were inspired by online hate.
The Ocean County Sheriff’s Office monitors various social media sites, said spokeswoman Donna Flynn, but did not respond to specific questions about Rise Up Ocean County.
So far, nobody has gotten hurt in Lakewood, although there have been several scary offline incidents, Steinberg said. The first week of May, a Lakewood resident found a sticker scrawled with the words “Brick Will Kill The Hasidics,” according to the Lakewood Scoop. The Scoop also reported that on April 30, police in Jackson found a recently vacated home vandalized inside and out with swastikas and the word “Hitler.”
Also, a kid threw a rock through a store window on Shabbat recently, and someone knifed a doll and put the doll in a tree near a school, according to the Asbury Park-Press. Police said that was a prank. Steinberg isn’t so sure.
“These are never big stories until they’re big stories,” said Steinberg, who works for the yeshiva, but was speaking as a private citizen. He has also contributed to the Forward’s opinion section.
The leading Jewish organizations that fight anti-Semitism say Rise Up Ocean County is old-fashioned Jew hatred. Both the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center are monitoring the group and advising Lakewood’s leaders.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper pointed to a February post that included a translation of the Orthodox man’s daily prayer that thanks God for not being made a woman, a slave, or anything other than a free Jewish man.
The post, Cooper said, evoked “anti-gentilism:” the notion that Jews who rejoice in their own group identity are inherently hostile to others. It’s a favorite gambit of David Duke’s, former KKK Grand Wizard and latter-day inspiration for the white supremacists behind the deadly Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. It also raises questions about the limitations of Rise Up Ocean County’s purported tolerance, despite the forbearance accorded frog-worshippers.
What To Do?
“Whoever’s behind this effort is deploying anti-Semitism,” Cooper said. “There are ways to have discussions and debates. This isn’t about democracy; it’s about demonizing a group.”
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, members of the community like Steinberg, and concerned citizens outside it have reported Rise Up Ocean County to Facebook on the grounds that it violates the platform’s standards, which define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on “protected characteristics” like race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation.
The New Jersey Attorney General’s complaint cited such comments as “We need to get rid of them like Hitler did.”
Facebook told the Forward that they’re working with the New Jersey Attorney General’s office to identify and remove specific content on the Rise Up Ocean County group that violates its hate speech standards. The New Jersey Attorney General declined to comment further. Right after the Attorney General wrote to Facebook, Rise Up Ocean County created a closed group to provide more privacy for its most committed followers. That group has 3,022 members.
Steinberg can’t understand why Facebook isn’t doing more to curb Rise Up Ocean County, but the Rise Up Ocean County administrator who talked to the Forward said it’s because the group serves public purposes of political organization and debate — and, again, they don’t hate Jews. The team that runs the group actually works hard to purge it of anti-Semitism, the administrator said.
“We spend countless hours going through [the group,] deleting comments, banning users,” said the administrator. “We do our level best to insure that we are not what people accuse us of being” — anti-Semitic.
Indeed, the person who posted about the country club purchase originally illustrated it with a photo of a rat intended to symbolize the yeshiva.
When another administrator (and this reporter) mentioned that one of the ways the Nazis dehumanized Jews was by calling them rats, the administrator who spoke to the Forward apologized, pleaded ignorance and said the photo would be removed. It was, before the end of the day.
“It’s too simple to just dismiss these people as anti-Semites,” said Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory professor of Jewish History and Holocaust Studies whose fight against Holocaust denial was made into a movie, “Denial,” starring British-Jewish actress Rachel Weisz. And the rat photo? The group’s administrators must be careful to guard against “profiling and stereotypes,” but they do have a “legitimate gripe and a legitimate fear” of losing the community they love.
After all, Lakewood does have the big problems that accompany rapid economic growth: more taxes, more traffic. Fewer trees, not enough houses. And then there are its unique issues. Back to those buses, for example. By law, New Jersey pays for busing for private school students in addition to public, and the cost of transporting Orthodox children to their religious schools has forced cuts on the public schools.
Lakewood is another example of a debate that’s popping up more frequently at a time of rising hate crime. Of course, Jews can and should be criticized for error or wrongdoing. Given the ancient and recent history of anti-Semitism, however, must critics be cautious? And when do Jewish calls for caution shade into silencing? Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg stepped into exactly this morass on May 11 when he criticized Republican Jewish casino mogul Sheldon Adelson of buying his political influence, and was in turn accused of anti-Semitism.
“Lakewood is an interesting challenge,” said Pfeiffer. “You have an internationally known rabbinical college set down in central New Jersey, which has been very successful, and the result is staggering growth, growth that no one ever anticipated.”
“Underlying anti-Semitism” could be a factor in the tensions roiling Ocean County, Pfeiffer said, but what’s happening there also isn’t unique to Lakewood or Jews, Pfeiffer said. A similar animus targets Indian immigrants in the town of Edison.
Even before Rise Up Ocean County started on Facebook, Steinberg said, Lakewood’s Jewish leaders decided to invest in an effort that would correct “misunderstandings and misrepresentations.”
Called the Lakewood Neighbors Coalition, it started in late 2017 and is conducting what is called a “charette” process, in which a large, diverse group works together with facilitators to think about the future. The coalition is currently seeking out and interviewing prospective participants.
Lakewood Neighbors is not supposed to do what government does, wrote a spokesman for the group in an email. It’s not going to address “traffic, or school budgets” in that way: “Rather, it is a broad coalition of diverse people who want to … share the great success story that is Lakewood.”
The Rise Up Ocean County administrator said Lakewood Neighbors is too focused on public relations and not focused enough on actual solutions. Lakewood Neighbors reached out to the Facebook group to try to talk, but Rise Up Ocean County declined to meet with them, said the coalition’s spokesman. Rise Up Ocean County confirmed this account.
For their part, Rise Up Ocean County is organizing a visit to Lakewood, scheduled for Sunday, May 19, which 47 people have said they will attend. According to the description on Facebook, an ecumenical prayer service will start the day. After that, Rise Up Ocean County members will visit “stores and eateries that are friendly to our cause.”
Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center says the Jewish community must do even more.
“We’ve communicated to the leadership of the community that they need to do more outreach, to demystify themselves, to basically say the world as you know it is not going to come to an end if the person who buys a house next to you puts a mezuzah on the front door and doesn’t drive on the Sabbath,” he said. “Unfortunately, we live in a world of social media,” Cooper said. “Social media is the front line.”
Correction, May 18, 3:56 p.m.: An earlier version of this story stated that the town of Howell is in Ocean County. It is in near Lakewood, but in Monmouth County.
Update, May 21, 12:04 a.m.: The latest version of this story adds details that explain why the Rise Up Ocean County team keeps their identities secret.
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Facebook Group Targets The U.S.’ Most Jewish Town
Helen Chernikoff is the Forward’s News Editor. She came to the Forward from The Jewish Week, where she served as the first web director and created both a blog dedicated to disability issues and a food and wine website. Before that, she covered the housing, lodging and logistics industries for Reuters, where she could sit at her desk and watch her stories move the stock market. Helen has a Master’s of Public Administration from Columbia University and a BA in History and French from Amherst College. She is also a rabbinical school dropout. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @thesimplechild.