Time for honest conversation about Lakewood N.J.

Time for honest conversations about Lakewood | Di Ionno

Over the past several days, I’ve been having an honest conversation about Lakewood — with myself.

The words of a reader continue to run through my head:

“We are very easily ‘othered,'” he said. “We’re the guys in the black hats.”

The man contacted me after I had written about how the burgeoning Orthodox — or Haredi — community has transformed the township over the past decade. It was the first in a series of my columns about Lakewood, five of which appeared before the arrest of 26 people there on charges of welfare fraud made headlines statewide.

That reader and a few others voiced concerns about what they perceived as an anti-Semitic tone in the column, which was headlined: “In Lakewood, new scrutiny on business as usual.”

I was expecting it. It was part of the narrative I had in my own head – that Jewish readers would be hyper-sensitive to any light shone on the township’s troubles and claim “anti-Semitism.”

The column was factual and I let the numbers tell the story of explosive population growth and overdevelopment, and the high cost of special education and transportation for Haredi students that have left the public school system broke and in danger of failing.

But, it turned out, that readers voicing concerns about anti-Semitism were far, far outnumbered by readers making negative comments clearly aimed at Lakewood’s Orthodox community as a whole:

The anti-Haredi narratives exploded in the comment fields of that first column and the others about Lakewood that followed.

“They all” do this. “They all” do that. Sweeping statements that welfare fraud was rampant in town. Or that unlicensed religious marriages allowed Haredi women to take “single mother” charity care. And that “the Jews” don’t pay property taxes because of religious exemptions.

Narratives. We all have them running through our heads. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit we all have a tendency to revert to the learned scripts. It’s a stubborn part of human nature that we expound on our differences rather than explore our similarities.

I plead guilty to this, too. When I saw Haredi and Hasidic Jews, I thought “diamond district” or “city landlord.” Then I saw the poverty in Lakewood among some of the young Haredi. The rusted out Toyota Corollas. The ill-fitting clothes and wigs on some of the women. The men’s black suits, tattered at the cuff.

Before I started covering Lakewood, I assumed the Haredi would be secretive and suspicious. In Lakewood, I found they’ll talk your ear off.

Some of the Haredi have their own narrative: that anyone who asks for an accounting of how business is done is anti-Semitic. It’s a page out of the “offense is the best defense” playbook. In Lakewood, people who are pressing for answers about conflicts of interest or insider contracts in government, development and education circles have to declare that “I’m not an anti-Semite” before they begin.

Lakewood is a fascinating story about how the Haredi, with roots in Lithuania, chose this 25-mile-square slice of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens and transformed it into an international destination for their sect.

It is also a typical socio-political story, no different than that of the Irish in Jersey City, the Cubans in Union City, or African-Americans in Newark.

And when power is grabbed, people take care of their own. It, too, is human nature. Politics 101.

So, what makes the Haredi different?

“We are so easily ‘othered.’ We’re the guys in the black hats.”

If we’re honest, what makes the Haredi different is that they are so different. They’re out of step with modern American culture – in my book, not such a bad thing. Just as Amish Country attracts tourists, Lakewood stories have an added element of curiosity.

But why all the vitriol?

The false narrative of “rich Jews” runs deep in American culture. After those arrests of 26 members of the ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood, all charged with public benefits fraud, a hate group circulated a flyer resembling a “Wanted” poster with pictures of three of the bearded Haredi charged.

I’m going to repeat the language because it speaks to the hate and anger by some that follow Jewish communities into every corner of their lives.

“THIEVING JEWS NEAR YOU”

$2 MILLION STOLEN

These Jews, including a rabbi, lied about their income in order to steal millions in public benefits.

1.4% of the American population is Jewish.

48% of American billionaires are Jewish.

DOES CRIME PAY FOR JEWS?

These posters were put under windshield wipers of cars parked on public streets.

On the same day, a banner was hung over the Holocaust Memorial at the Congregation Sons of Israel on Route 9, in the heart of the town.

(((HEEBS))) WILL NOT DIVIDE US.

Beneath both diatribes was the web address for Vanguard America, a white supremacist group. Blood and soil, the group’s web name and calling card, has roots in 19th-Century German farmlands, later adopted by the Nazis.

New Jersey Attorney General Chris Porrino has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the vandals.

Last week, Rabbi Aaron Kotler and Lakewood Committeeman Meir Lichtenstein met with Porrino about their concerns of growing anti-Semitism, fueled by the arrests and the ongoing media coverage.

“The state has very good resources to bring tolerance and understanding,” said Kotler. “He listened very carefully to us and offered those resources.”

Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the attorney general, would not comment on the meeting, but explained some of the state’s programs to combat bias crimes. They include a training and education program – and the muscle of a State Police presence at religious centers if needed.

Kotler said the Orthodox community is arranging town-wide meetings to increase understanding – and also address some of the issues, such as unbridled growth and increased spending on education, that divide the community. Honest conversations, all around.

“There are things here worthy of discussion and we want to bring the entire community into those discussions,” Kotler said. “But since the arrests, it (the divisiveness) has gotten worse. People are upset and stereotyping.”

Lakewood Police Chief Gregory Meyer said that, in addition to the circulation of hate posters and banners, there have been several incidents of harassment.

“After the arrests, it seemed a lot of frustration boiled over,” Meyer said. “Mostly it was people yelling stuff out of car windows (at Jewish residents). We had a report of a guy pulling up to (Jewish) children. We checked it out and it was an older gentleman who was legitimately lost asking for directions. But it shows you how people are scared.”

Meyer said the incidents “were dying down now” and that he hopes it stays that way.

“To be honest, I think there has been a little media overkill,” he said, responding to my question.

Kotler agreed, saying each new round of stories fueled more angst.

“The Orthodox are being presented as a monolithic community with no concern for others,” Kotler said. “That’s far from true. Where are the stories about the good things that are happening here?”

In an honest conversation, that’s a fair question.

Mark Di Ionno may be reached at mdiionno@starledger.com. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.

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