Monday, November 06, 2017

When a Population Explodes

Dr. Shani Bechhofer
I have been following the politics of Monsey (Ramapo) from a distance – comfortably in my home here in Chicago. Distance gives me a bit more of an objective view of things, I think. What I see going on there is quite revealing. I believe that if we pay attention we can see one of the many negative consequences of uncontrolled growth by a religious community. An issue that is rarely discussed.

Please do not misunderstand. I am not in any way arguing for a limitation on anyone’s reproductive rights. I am only suggesting that it is a real problem and probably the underlying reason for the Monsey strife as well as other problems.

It is no secret for example that the OTD phenomenon has grown into immense numbers over the last couple of decades. Those who are familiar with that problem can testify to its magnitude which in part can be attributed to the immense growth of the religious community itself. But this is not my issue here. 

The negative phenomenon to which I refer is the explosive growth of the Monsey’s population. Which in recent years consists mostly of large families of Chasidim. They need housing. Unscrupulous builders are happy to accommodate them by building monstrosities that overwhelm to ambiance of a city whose charm has always lain in its countryside atmosphere. Lots of green and lots of open space; low traffic volume and plenty of  parking..

That was the original draw of Brooklynites - mostly Chasidim who first bought homes there.  They were looking for cheaper housing and a way out of the concrete jungle of Brooklyn. 

As time went on, non Chasidic Yeshiva types took up residence there too as did a modern Orthodox Jews. For a while everyone there seemed to be living in perfect harmony – each in their own section of town. There were a variety of Shteebles, Yeshiva type shuls and MO shuls.

But that era seems to be over. The population explosion of Chasidim whose young families are desperate to get out of Brooklyn (where in any case the million dollar and up homes there were beyond their financial reach) have chosen Monsey as their destination. They need big homes. Lots of them. The problem is there were simply not enough of those available there. Along came some unscrupulous builders and decided to remedy the situation by building large, ugly condos – tons of multi unit buildings that will overwhelm the town and cause all kinds of infrastructure problems. 

Meanwhile quaint little shops have given way to shopping malls that cater almost exclusively to religious Jews - rivaling that of  Boro Park in its hey day. The country look is disappearing and being replaced by the ‘Boro Park’ look. Not exactly what the residents living there now were looking for when they originally moved. 

How has all this happened? Builders have found ways to circumvent or bypass local zoning laws. They have apparently colluded with the current local politicians to be able to do it legally. Many of 

Monsey residents are upset by all this. Rightfully so, in my view. So upset, that they have decided to run a slate of candidates for city government in opposition to the current machine politicians. 

From an impeccable source who shall remain nameless the facts are the following. This is not about an antisemitic group fighting religious Jews fearing that they are taking over the town.This about religious Jews fighting with religious Jews. On the one side it is mostly the developers, the Chassidic courts whom they support, and those who benefit from patronage jobs and funding . On the other side it is everyone else.

One Chasidic Rav revealed that he has a master-plan for Monsey to become Brooklyn, with Chasidim pushing out the non Chasidim - forcing them to move to Lakewood.

Interestingly both the Yated and Matzav published letters opposing all that construction and urging voters to oppose the ‘corrupt politicians’ now running the town. I believe this shows where the true sentiments of even the Charedi Monsey residents lie.

Meanwhile the Chasdidm that favor the construction apparently have plenty of  money, and have recently promoted their side with a glossy 24 page mailing, half in English and half in Yiddish. According to my source these mailings are full of lies, half-truths, and distortions - slickly packaged. And they personally threaten and badger supporters of their opposition!

Unfortunately - I'm told that institutionally the Yeshivos tacitly support the machine candidates even while their public and even some of the  Chassidic public supports the opposition.

I enquired whether there has been any encouragement from rabbinic leaders for either side. I was told that there is one Charedi leader that encourages the opposition but that he does not want his name mentioned. (Big surprise.) So I am not going to reveal it.

It is noteworthy - if not surprising - that  non-Jews in Monsey (Ramapo) oppose the type of construction going on there currently, too. Unfortunately many of them vote for the machine candidates automatically. Which is unhelpful to their own cause.

All of this does not address what I believe to be the root cause of the problem. Which is how I began this post. When you have a population that has experienced an explosion of growth – they have to live somewhere. And if there is no more room in their home courts in Brooklyn (where they cannot afford to live anyway) they are going to go into another town for homes and will ultimately change its character. Not necessarily for the better. In the case of Ramapo it may end up looking like Brooklyn.

As it happens, one of the most brilliant and capable people I know is running for city government there. Her name is Shani Bechhofer. She is the wife of Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer. If you care about your city and want to restore sanity to its building codes, I think it is imperative to vote for her and her ticket. If they lose, so too will all the residents of Monsey.