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Devout Jewish town rejects rabbis’ plan to use wedding hall amid pandemic

Lakewood, N.J., is a famously devout and rapidly growing town centered around the biggest yeshiva outside Israel — Beth Medrash Govoha.

Its citizens devote their lives to fulfilling the Torah’s dictates, including the one many consider to be the first: be fruitful and multiply. When the onset of New Jersey’s strict social-distancing rules meant to slow the spread of coronavirus became increasingly stringent, some of Lakewood’s Orthodox Jews had a hard time letting go of weddings — police broke one up in late March.

As the pandemic dragged on, the community’s leaders tried to figure out how to safely and legally continue to hold nuptials — complete with a hall, musician and photographer. But the plan, announced with much fanfare last week, fizzled. The community, scarred by years of complaints from neighbors displeased with changes in the town, didn’t embrace the it. Neither did public officials.

“The problem was how they made it public,” said Harold Herskowitz, a businessman and activist known for criticizing Lakewood’s religious leaders, who is running for township committee this year. “This is my whole beef with the way the town is run. They just do everything in your face. Jews are not supposed to in everyone’s face.”

Herskowitz said he did not think any weddings had actually been held in the hall since the April 19 announcement of the plan, which was also sponsored by the Lakewood rabbinical council. He said he knew of one that had been scheduled for the hall and that the family — neighbors of his — instead went to upstate New York.

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of the council, did not respond to requests for comment after Tuesday about whether any weddings were held. Rabbi Aharon Kotler, whose name was on the April 19 statement, could not be reached.

Lakewood is a town of about 100,000 people, 70% of whom are ultra-Orthodox, and New Jersey’s fastest-growing municipality. The rapid growth over the past 20 years has engendered tension both within the town and across its neighbors. Grievances about traffic, zoning and school budgets sometimes spilled over into anti-Semitic posts in a Facebook group created in 2019 that had more than 12,000 members. (Facebook shut it down amid pressure from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who said its hatred of Jews violated the company’s standards.)

When the pandemic hit, Lakewood’s Jews knew they might be accused of spreading coronavirus. As in other insular Orthodox communities around New York, their infection rate was relatively high,, something experts have attributed to their lifestyle of large families and frequent gatherings. And there were a few incidents, like the March 26 wedding, in which community members broke the public health rules. Indeed, some did blame the community for the coronavirus — Gov. Phil Murphy condemned them on Twitter.

Then Kotler came out with the wedding plan.

It consisted of a package, costing $4,750, that included two hours in the hall, a one-man band, fresh flowers and a catered meal, according to WhatsApp messages that Herskowitz shared.

“We are pleased that the authorities charged with Covid-19 enforcement have approved a model and venue for weddings that is 100% compliant with the State of N.J. social-distancing regulations,” he wrote in a letter to the community.

Many who got it were not pleased.

“Guys, we literally create hatred with our stupid ways of getting around the law,” wrote a woman in a WhatsApp group that Herskowitz is a member of. “If ur gonna make a wedding, shut up about it!” He saw many similar messages, he said.

The rabbis were especially keen to hold weddings because at this time of year, during the seven weeks between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, there are only a limited number of days on which it is permissible to do so, said Weisberg, of the rabbinical council, in a phone interview. Before the pandemic, many weddings had been scheduled for those days, and it goes against custom to postpone them.

Lakewood’s Jews had continued to have small, private weddings, but those created their own problems, Weisberg said. Inside homes, even limited numbers of guests found it difficult to comply with the social distancing rule of standing six feet apart. Backyard weddings attracted crowds that also violated the regulations.

The hall that the rabbis selected to sanction for weddings, Ateres Reva on Summer Road, was ideal because of its large space, and secluded location near an industrial park, which would make it easy to control the numbers of people coming to the events, Weisberg said.

“We’re trying to kill two birds with the same stone,” he explained. “Creating ceremonies that are religiously meaningful and valid, with a semblance of a wedding structure for the bride and groom, and compliant with the social-distancing rules.”

The state’s social-distancing regulations stipulate that no gatherings be held unless explicitly permitted, and that people must stand six feet apart.

The weddings were going to comply with these rules by limiting attendance to the bride and groom, their parents, the officiating rabbi, a photographer and a one-man band. They required the wearing of masks, gloves and the maintenance of the six-foot buffer between everybody except the bride and groom.

Weisberg said the rabbinical council had permission for the plan from the Ocean County prosecutor’s office, and from township police. But Bradley Billihimer, the prosecutor, said he had not approved it, because wedding halls were non-essential businesses and therefore not allowed to open. Capt. Gregory Stafford-Smith, spokesman for the local police, did not return a request for comment. The office of the state attorney general also said weddings at catering halls were still not allowed.

Herskowitz, for one, is glad the plan seems to have fallen apart.

“They put the governor on the spot and they got all the anti-Semites upset and that’s the last thing that was needed,” he said.

Correction, April 26, 11:37 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated that Rabbi Aharon Kotler is the founder and head of Beth Medrash Govoha, the yeshiva in Lakewood. He is in fact the grandson of the founder, and his brother is the head of the yeshiva.

Helen Chernikoff is The Forward’s senior news editor. Contact her at [email protected] or follower her on Twitter @thesimplechild

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