Recently, residents of Mahwah, New Jersey, noticed utility trucks driving around town, attaching strange-looking PVC piping to telephone poles. Soon they learned their purpose: the establishment of an eruv, a mysterious boundary that makes it possible for Torah-observant Jews to carry objects on the Sabbath.
It’s a crucial step in making a neighborhood inviting to would-be hasidic buyers — which is exactly what worried the residents of Mahwah, who formed a Facebook group called “Mahwah Strong” to “voice their concerns over the installation of an Eruv and the impact it could have on our community.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that this is far from abnormal. Small townships all around New York and New Jersey have been organizing to protest both existing Hasidic communities and forming ones. This may sound unsavory, but the papers are awash in quotes from people insisting that they are not anti-Semitic. Indeed, a Reform rabbi was instrumental in opposing Mahwah’s eruv.
But others see the opposition as anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Hasidic. And the comments on many of the articles certainly bolster this position. At a town council meeting, a Holocaust survivor was shouted down and hissed at while attempting to deliver testimony about the situation.
Whether or not the anti-Hasidic sentiment and organizing is anti-Semitic, a larger question looms: Is it fair to want to keep Hasidim out of your small upstate town?
Deborah Kostroun has volunteered her time for Mahwah Strong. Among the group’s stated goals are keeping the town — which is currently 94% white or Asian — “diverse.” That diversity, however, doesn’t extend to Hasidic Jews, which many in the group view with fear and distrust.
Kostroun explained to me that part of that distrust is rooted in the fact that Mahwah’s residents were never informed of what an eruv was, or why those from outside their community had decided to erect one.
Kostroun also explained to me that the primary worry about a big Hasidic community moving into the area was the effects such a demographic shift would have on the quality of the school district. Many in the township have a high regard for the education their kids currently receive.
She’s not wrong to worry. An unfortunate but well-documented side-effect of the ballooning Orthodox population is the deterioration of the public school system. This stems from the fact that Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews send their kids not to public schools but to private schools, and the public schools in areas like Spring Valley, or Lawrence, end up deteriorating when the majority of residents send their children to private schools.
Another example is Lakewood, New Jersey. Lakewood became a hub for ultra-Orthodox Jews since the opening of Beth Medrash Govoah (otherwise known as BMG) in what used to a be a quiet farming community. The population has doubledto 100,000 from 50,000 in just 16 years. Lakewood is now the eighth largest town in the state.
As in Spring Valley and Lawrence, the public schools in Lakewood have become similarly strapped for cash, and similarly criticized for shelling out money for private lawyers.
But there’s a difference between causing something and being responsible for it. Or at least so argues Eli Steinberg, one Lakewood resident familiar with the funding situation.
“In Lakewood the issues with the school district are because of us, but it’s not our fault,” he told me.
According to Steinberg, the math doesn’t add up. Though Lakewood is a growing town — Steinberg says his personal property taxes increased by 50% over the past five years — Steinberg says the blame lies with state officials who refuse to adjust the funding formula to reflect the unique situation in which a vast majority of a township’s students attend private schools. By not providing for the private school students’ state-required needs, the state is forcing those funds to come out of the public schools.
“It’s not a distribution problem, it’s an appropriation problem,” Steinberg explained.
Still, either way, it’s a problem. It’s not just public schools that suffer when huge numbers of Hasidim move in. It’s other infrastructural issues, too. NJ.com reported on the sheer congestion that happens when a small town’s population doubles.
It’s these issues that seem to be bothering the Mahwah Strong members. In an email exchange after my conversation with Kostroun, the links she provided included those about the deterioration of schools in majority Haredi hamlets, and the emerging scandal in Lakewood with the arrests of many town residents in social services fraud.
If you’re used to being a town of 26,000, your way of life is unquestionably going to change with the influx of a big population of Hasidim. For this reason, it’s understandable why many Mahwah residents are loath to see history repeat itself in their township.
But while these feelings are understandable, the efforts of Mahwah Strong are entirely misguided. Keeping Jewish residents out of the town is not only impossible but also discriminatory.
Amid the controversy regarding the eruv, another emerged, involving residents trying to prevent Jewish nonresidents from using town parks. If the objective of the town’s residents is in fact maintaining the integrity of its school district and their property values, measures can and should be taken to prevent a recurrence of what happened in Lakewood and Spring Valley. State officials should be forced to allocate resources adequately. Town officials should similarly prioritize keeping infrastructure on pace with population growth.
But if ultra-Orthodox residents do decide to move in, the residents of Mahwah and those involved with Mahwah Strong will face a choice. They can continue their attempts to block these families from participating in town life, or work to prevent their school district from losing out on state funding.
Either way, they should immediately cease and desist their unconstitutional — if somewhat understandable — behavior.
Bethany Mandel is a Forward columnist. Follow her on Twitter, @bethanyshondark