There Goes The Neighborhood
By Devon Nola
I believe it’s a fair assumption that most social creatures understand when one is the newest arrival to, say, a party or a community, it is their responsibility to ingratiate themselves to the local, existing populace. The most unwelcome guest is the one who arrives late and then proceeds to redecorate. But this is exactly what we see happening, repeatedly, when Hasidic Jews descend on predominantly gentile communities. In every case, the arrival of these orthodox groups is met with hostility and resistance by their host. Is it possible that anti-Jewish sentiment is inherent in the gentile mind or are there natural grievances that need to be explored?
Having lived for 8 years in a neighborhood that is home to a very large and quite powerful Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic community, I can say there are legitimate grievances. I began delving into this phenomenon some time ago when I learned about the chaos surrounding Kiryas Joel, a Satmar sect of Hasidim in the town of Monroe in Orange County, NY. The Satmar purchased land in an unincorporated section of Monroe to relocate some of the sect from Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The community started small, but due to the nature of Jewish ultra orthodox pro-creation practices, it multiplied at lightening speed. The existing residents of Monroe grew weary as they watched their green, sprawling small town become inundated with multi-family dwellings to house the growing Hasidic population. The Satmar fought to become part of the incorporated section, which would allow them access to public funds. It wasn’t long before plans to annex massive acres of public land were put in motion for Jewish-only use and this sparked a fire storm between the two communities. The details of the struggle can be seen in this 2016 documentary, Love Thy Neighbor. Another issue was the exceedingly high numbers of Hasidics, who typically vote in blocs, impacting the local governing board in their favor, at the expense of the rest of the population. Public school funds were being diverted to Jewish-only yeshivas. In some cases, public schools have actually collapsed as a result of this. It’s worth mentioning Kiryas Joel has the highest poverty rate in the nation (although, it is estimated that the dynasty controls $1 billion in assets in the U.S.) More than 2/3 of the population live below the poverty line with 40% receiving food stamps. So, we see a large handout to this community with zero return on investment.
In Rockland County, NY, the once idyllic suburban community of Ramapo has become chaotic with conflict due to the rapidly expanding Hasidic community. The formerly picturesque neighborhoods with manicured lawns inside picket fences have been consumed by high-density multi-family dwellings. In Ramapo, early residents bought single family homes and expected it to remain a neighborhood of single-family homes. This helps to preserve the value and the esthetic of the neighborhood. But suddenly, they found themselves living next to a monstrous multi-family dwelling when the previous home had been leveled by the new orthodox owner and replaced with a structure housing four families. Another house was turned into a yeshiva. In one case, a trailer was dumped on the once-green lawn and the new Hasidic owner was running a business out of it. It doesn’t seem as though rational people should need zoning laws enforced to tell them not to do this. Look around. Is anyone else operating a business out of trailer on their front lawn?
While the exploding demand for housing might be advantageous to property values in the short term, there are pitfalls. The increasing number of tax-exempt yeshivas and synagogues left crumbs in the town’s tax base. Negligent (or greedy) city officials looked the other way, ignoring zoning, building and fire safety code violations. This created environmental implications by putting a strain on the sewer system, creating dangerous traffic congestion and in, some cases, made it impossible for first responders to find an address since there was no municipal record of it. They ultimately overrun school boards and town councils, get zoning laws changed in their favor and in the end, property values plummet.
The neighboring communities, horrified by what happened in Ramapo, took measures to safeguard their town. A significant step was having their local government put in place “no-knock” ordinances, prohibiting the oh-so common practice of hardcore real estate solicitation. Hasidim come out in droves, knocking on doors, using very unethical methods such as intimidation, offering fistfuls of cash, in an effort to get the homeowner to sell. This practice is known as “blockbusting”. It’s intrusive and more importantly, it’s illegal and has been since 1968. Nevertheless, they ignore the law and come back, repeatedly, in the hopes of wearing down the homeowner. They often threaten the if they don’t sell. Many towns are now adopting this “no-knock” ordinance as a direct result of relentless orthodox solicitation. Violation of the ordinance carries a fine anywhere from $100-$1250, depending on the town.
Watch Troublemakers in Ramapo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSo6Whf6XXE
We have seen these conflicts in virtually every suburban neighborhood on which the ultra-orthodox Jews descend. Mahwah, in New Jersey, got a jump start. After seeing the take-over in neighboring townships, they weren’t going to wait for the situation to accelerate. The first sign of an eruv prompted the residents to put it into high gear. An eruv is essentially a symbolic boundary designated by white PVC pipe fixed to utility poles. This marks the area in which the orthodox Jews can engage in tasks the Torah forbids on the sabbath. Apparently, G-d’s divine vision can’t see passed PVC. In the case of Mahwah, the eruv was put up by orthodox Jews from Orange County, NY. Holy expansionism. Mahwah residents were already experiencing a problem in their community park, where the out-of-state Hasidim were crossing the state border, by the bus load, sometimes exceeding 100 people. It made the park so over-crowded that local Mahwah residents weren’t bringing their own children to play for fear of injury based on the number of occupants.
Mahwah had very clear ordinances about signage within the community. There are to be none. This ordinance, which is legal, had always been enforced. Not even so much as a ‘missing dog’ sign had ever been posted. Residents of a township have the right to determine things like signage, overnight parking, etc., in their community and the ordinances are there to protect these decisions as long as they aren’t discriminatory or selectively enforced. However, the Bergen Rockland Eruv Association didn’t see it that way and filed a law suit, claiming the Mahwah residents were discriminating against them based on their religion. The Eruv Association insisted that the orthodox families had the right to religious freedom and the eruv was there to preserve this. Apparently, the rights of the non-orthodox, who actually live and pay taxes in Mahwah, don’t figure into this equation.
In the end the Mahwah township council members, following the advice of their legal representation and under pressure from state government, voted 5-2 to settle. The Eruv stayed, the township paid the Bergen Rockland Jewish association’s legal fees of $10,000 and the settlement stated that nothing would prevent the eruv association from expanding the boundary in the future. Ahh, but the Mahwah residents didn’t walk away completely empty-handed. The settlement stated that the PVC pipe would be painted to blend in with the pole. Jackpot.
And this brings us to Lakewood, New Jersey, the latest victims of these unfriendly take-overs. Lakewood is in Ocean County. What was once a rural vacation community is now home to one of the largest yeshivahs in the world. The population is exploding, as it often happens with Hasidic communities and with this comes all the problems we’ve seen in the other towns. Blockbusting, diversion of public-school funds for private Jewish institutions, taxpayers’ money and funds for public school buses have been siphoned to bus children to and from the Jews only school, over development of lands, negative impact on the environment due to over population, traffic congestion, etc. plague this community. Even a senior community was overrun by these orthodox Jews. A serene, gated golf community, The Enclave, was where affluent people, 55 and over, thought they would take their last breath. They forged friendships and joked how the only way they would leave their community was feet first. Sadly, that’s not how things turned out. Aggressive solicitation began. Seniors are often a vulnerable community to predatory practices, and when they were told, “you better sell, you don’t want to be the only non-orthodox left in the community”, many panicked and relented to the pressure. Eventually the golf course was slated to be replaced by multi-family dwellings to accommodate more Hasidim. Beginning with the first few orthodox that moved into The Enclave, trouble began to brew. The security bar at a side entrance, which wasn’t preventing strangers (or aggressive solicitors) from entering the community on foot as it should, was to be replaced with a proper gate operated by a card swipe. One orthodox man, who used this entrance on his way to synagogue on the sabbath, objected. He wasn’t permitted to use the technology that would open the gate. When the board wasn’t persuaded to reconsider the new gate, he filed a discrimination complaint with New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. It begs the question, why on earth would one buy in a gated community full of goyim? Future plans to have regulations put in place at the pool so that men and women would have separate swim times was also on the orthodox agenda. This was instituted in another community and violators were fined.
A group, Rise Up Ocean County, is fighting back. RUOC is a collective of engaged citizens from approximately five townships, including Lakewood. Their mission is concise: Mobilizing to preserve and improve the quality of life in Ocean County. They have had enough of the yeshiva’s practices of “fueling ugly, unhealthy, inequitable economic development”, as quoted by the Jewish commentary outlet, ‘The Forward.’ RUOC is working on a documentary on this ordeal and here you can see a little taste, which exposes the 10 orthodox Rabbis that make up the Vaad, or council. They wield their power far beyond the religious community to influence public policy in their favor. If this power or their actions are contested, they rely on attacks of antisemitism. I’ll be honest, if this is the definition of ‘Semitism,’ they give their neighbors ample reason to be disgruntled.
While Hasidim pride themselves on their love of community, it seems many of them don’t apply this fellowship in universal terms. What is it that drives such an institutional collective dismissal of the Other? Why is it they don’t learn from their past? I’m fairly confident that other than finding them a bit curious, no one would reject them if they didn’t insinuate themselves into lives outside Haredim. Learning to live cooperatively as opposed to competitively with their neighbors might result in much more harmonious existence for everyone.