Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Need Does Not Justify Questionable Tactics

Lakewood Mayor, Menashe Miller - We should follow his example
The truth is that I know very little about the village of Lakewood, New Jersey. Other than the fact that it is the home to Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), the largest Yeshiva in America. Perhaps even the world. It has grown from its origins in the 1940s as a handful of elite students recruited by its founder Rav Aharon Kotler to over 6,000 students today. And it is still growing. Exponentially with each generation it seems.

I am not here to discuss the legitimate question about whether this kind of growth was ever the intent of its founder… or whether it is even a good idea.  Although many argue that Rav Kotler never intended for that kind of growth –  preferring it to remain a Yeshiva for the most elite of Talmidei Chachamim, I will leave that for another day. I am here to discuss the  sociological fallout of the community that has grown around it.

When a population grows at the rate Lakewood’s Orthodox community has, it has an impact on its non Orthodox and non Jewish residents. Many of whom have been living there for decades. By virtue of its growth, the entire character of that village has changed. It has been transformed from being a quiet little summer vacation hamlet to a town its majority residents call ‘Lakewood - Ir HaTorah’ (City of Torah). Orthodox Jews have become so dominant in that town, that its democratically elected mayor is an Orthodox Jew.

I do not see anything inherently wrong with that. People can live wherever they choose. If a community has an attraction for a specific demographic, why should it not be able to grow in that direction? So God bless the Jews who have chosen to make Lakewood their home. 

This does not mean that the large Orthodox Jewish community which Lakewood has become no longer needs to be sensitive to its non Jewish or non Orthodox neighbors. On the contrary. I think it obligates them to be more sensitive to their needs than ever. One cannot just move into town and take over at the expense of the minority.

I often read stories where this seems to be a problem in communities that have had a rapid increase of Orthodox Jewish residents and have become the majority. There is a backlash of resentment by some of the non Jewish residents at the direction a town has taken. They claim their issues have been ignored because of their town’s new makeup. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the specifics of those claims to say whether they are legitimate or not. On the other hand, I have heard that the Mayor of Lakewood is very sensitive to his town’s minority non Jewish and non Orthodox population. Thus making a Kiddush Hashem.

It appears that not every Orthodox Jew or organization in Lakewood is following the Mayor’s example. Which can make the Kiddush HaShem at the hands of the Mayor be overshadowed by a possible Chilul HaShem. I am referring to an article in JTA that accuses Orthodox residents of Lakewood seeking to expand their borders by means of a ‘blockbusting’ tactic: 
A New Jersey township is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate haredi Orthodox community leaders for alleged “blockbusting,” or trying to pressure large numbers of longtime homeowners into selling their property to Orthodox Jews.
The incident is the latest example of tensions between a large and growing haredi Orthodox community in the Lakewood area and its non-Orthodox and non-Jewish neighbors.
For months, numerous residents in communities near Lakewood, in southern New Jersey, have accused real estate agents representing haredi Orthodox clients of aggressively pressing non-Orthodox homeowners to put their property on the market. Members of the Orthodox community have denied the claim.
On Tuesday, the Jackson Township Council said it was alarmed by videos circulating in which Orthodox leaders at the haredi Agudath Israel of America’s November convention encouraged Orthodox Jews to buy property in communities near Lakewood, the Asbury Park Press reported.
“Those videos very strongly indicated what I think many of us had feared or have attempted to prove, and that is there seems to be a cohesive attempt to blockbust our neighborhoods, to look at Jackson as a place to be taken over,” Rob Nixon, the council president, told the newspaper. 
I don’t know exactly what kind of tactics are being used. But surely urging people to knock on doors asking them to sell their homes is a bit more aggressive than looking for homes that are already for sale.

I’m skeptical about the ethics of doing that kind of thing. Just because the need is there by virtue of rapid growth does not make such tactics ethical.

In my view, if this aggressive tactic is being countered to the extent that the Federal government has been asked to get involved - then I think it should stop.  Might (via a large and now powerful religious group) does not make right. It might instead be making a Chilul HaShem.

It is never good when Orthodox Jews are seen to be disadvantaging its minority population. At the very least, the optics are terrible even if those tactics would not be technically unethical. Orthodox Jews are seen as bullies using heavy handed tactics to get their way at the expense of others, not caring where their chips may fall.

The pressure to expand Lakewood’s boundaries must be enormous. I understand the need. But before one acts on those needs, one must consider the consequences. It is just not worth getting what you want in ways that foster the enmity and hatred of your neighbors.

What about the sorely needed housing by the ever growing Orthodox population? For one thing, those looking for homes should seek only those that are already for sale. For the rest, perhaps they should look to cities that do not have this kind of congestion. I know a few places outside of the East coast that have a very nice and friendly Orthodox atmosphere with existing Orthodox infrastructures that would welcome new residents. And they will not have to resort to blockbusting tactics to find good homes.