Friday, October 08, 2021

The Way it Was - The Way it Is

Guest Contribution by Henry Topas 

Traffic congestion on Madison Avenue in Lakewood  (
My recent post about the housing controversy in Jackson Township near the city of Lakewood generated the following response by Henry Topas. He is currently the cantor at a modern Orthodox Shul in Montreal. (bio below*). He was raised in Lakewood during Rav Ahron Kotler's day. And until very recently has visited it frequently. I believe that his unique perspective adds insight that few others have. 

I should add that the opinions expressed are his and do not necessarily reflect my own. My experience in Lakewood at my grandson's wedding last summer were entirely positive - as I expressed here shortly after that event. Cantor Topas's words follow with very light editing as per his request.

I was born and bred in Lakewood when it was a nice town.  People, Jew and Gentile alike were courteous to each other.  It was a cookie cutter American red white and blue Republican town.  On Sundays, my father insisted that we dress appropriately even when picking up the Sunday Times at the bus station so as not to offend the Gentiles going and leaving their churches. Everyone respected the other. 

I was at Rav Aharon ZTL's levayah in 1962 when the then governor of New Jersey, Robert Meyner, left his limousine and walked down the street with the bocherim and others following the hearse for a block until it departed up route 9 (Madison Avenue) for New York. 

I remember that day.  I don't recall anyone in the "oilam" saying such things as "Look, the goy governor...etc....etc" .  But now, when I return to Lakewood from my home in Montreal, I am very distressed by the behavior of many in the community.  Standing in line at Walmart, and listening to a child tugging on his mother's skirt and saying "geb dus shikseh die gelt" is an abrogation of kavod habrios. 

The non-yeshiva world, both Jewish and gentile, of Lakewood, have essentially flown the coop. 

My parents, zichram livracha, both passed away in the last 2 years and while they were alive, trips to Lakewood were multi day events.  Now, they will be in and out to the cemetery (and maybe with a stop at Bingo). 

In 1955, they bought a home on the south side of the lake and we would walk every Shabbat to Congregation Sons of Israel on 4th Street where Rabbi Pesach Levovitz was Rov since about 1941.  He was responsible for bringing organized Kashrus to Lakewood and together with the late Betzalel Goldstein Z'L, the first Hebrew Day School.  When they bought that house, there were 5 Jewish families on that side of the lake.  Today, there may be 5 non-Jewish families in the same geography. 

Your great article (I enjoy reading them all but today's is home turf) might lead the reader to believe that Rav Aharon brought this chaos on.  Actually, Lakewood remained pretty tame until the mid to late 1960's when all of a sudden, a different kind of bochur showed up.  Many were not the shteiger's I grew up seeing but were those who chose a 2D or 4D (divinity) exemption and had to park themselves somewhere so as not to get drafted.  I remember (the reaction of) my late father when he felt their presence and behavior was unbecoming that of a ben yeshiva especially at hours when it was known that seder was on.  Dad didn't think "Pinball" was a rishon or an acharon. 

Another factor were the riots in Newark and elsewhere in the late 60's which drove many to the Lakewood area where the density just kept increasing.   Areas of town which had already "changed" in the 50's to the point where one might be afraid to walk there at night, all of a sudden in the late 80's started reverting to being Jewish neighborhoods once again. 

So now, Lakewood is Boro Park on steroids.....or worse. 

While my parents were alive, I begged them to get out because I feared a pogrom, G-d forbid, and still do. I share that with 2 of my brothers who remain in the area.  At a family wedding in Lakewood, I distributed the attached card to the Chattan and Kallah.  They did get out....but so far....only as far as Toms River (south of Lakewood and feeling some of the same pains as Jackson) 

So the Gentiles in Jackson have what to fear.  And sadly, perhaps by their own behavior, so do the Jews.

*Henry (Hank) Topas has been Cantor of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Dollard des Ormeaux, Quebec (suburb of Montreal) for many years.  Originally from Lakewood, N.J. the Cantor learned at the Mesivta of Greater Miami where his Rabbaim were Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Groner ZTL and Rabbi Berel Wein. He came to Montreal to attend McGill University (B.Com 1972) 

The Cantor was trained by the late Cantors Aaron Lieber Z”L, Moshe Schulhof, Z”L and David Bagley Z”L. 
He also has worked in the real estate industry for many years and is currently CEO of the B'Nai Brith Residences of Montreal. 
Married to the beautiful Esther, proud father of 4 (2 in Israel and 2 in Montreal) and adoring grandfather of 16.