Sunday, August 06, 2017

From Exemplary to Embarrassing

Typical Lakewood resident taking a walk with his children (NJRTN)
A fascinating but not so flattering glimpse into the world of Lakewood can be found in a four part series in the New Jersey Real TimeNews.

Not long ago the New York Times featured an article that described Lakewood’s Ultra Orthodox Jewish community in glowing terms. The descriptions of the generous charitable contributions by that community even though they barely could make their own ends meet - was beyond admirable. Truly a Kiddush HaShem.  But now as a result of recent arrests for defrauding government assistance programs like Medicaid, its image has been tarnished - going from exemplary to embarrassing.

Lakewood is a dream come true for lovers of Torah study. Its primary Yeshiva, Beth Medrash Gavoha (BMG) has no peers in this country. It is the ‘Harvard’ or ‘Yale’ of Yeshivos. Having been founded by Rav Aharon Kotler as a pure transplant of the European Yeshiva model of full time Torah study only. It began with as few as 10 students in the 40s and has now grown to over 6500 students. Torah study there is of the highest caliber!

And along with it, the town of Lakewood has had a population explosion. What was once a sleepy resort town is now the 4th largest city in New Jersey.

The residents of Lakewood are mostly right Wing Orthodox Jews (although there is a small Modern Orthodox community there that actually predates BMG). And there are also still enough non Jews there that allow for a public schools system.

The arrests of prominent community rabbis for defrauding the government has shaken that community and tarnished its reputation.

On the plus side - that has resulted in the following event organized by… 
‘The Vaad, the committee of elders who lead the Orthodox community that… Earlier this month, nearly 1,000 people attended a community meeting organized by the Vaad with a panel of experts who explained who was eligible for government benefits – and what to do if a family has been collecting government assistance they did not deserve.’
"This is a time to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Am I eligible for these programs?,'" Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of the Vaad, told the crowd. This crisis in Lakewood is an opportunity for the community to reexamine itself, the rabbi said. "We need to look inside," Weisberg said.  
How did this happen? A variety of factors contribute to it. In my view, first is the fact that the Frum families are very large. Supporting them even without tuition worries can be backbreaking even for those families that have decent incomes: 
Lakewood has one of the fastest growing birth rates in the world. The dramatic increase in young Orthodox Jewish families, which often have multiple children, moving into town drove the birth rate to 45 births per 1,000 people in 2015. That is four times the state average.  
Add to that the cost of Jewish education and it should be no surprise that the financial burden on a lot of families is dire: 
The Orthodox Jewish community's more than 30,000 children largely do not attend the public school system even though their families are among the property owners paying taxes in support of the system. 
This does not give license to anyone to steal. And for the most part, Lakewood Orthodox Jewish residents don’t do that. But it does give rise to searching any and every avenue in the law to maximize what the government is willing to pay legally to recipients that qualify. Lakewood has become pretty adept at doing that.

In theory there is nothing wrong with that. But it is a slippery slope from taking advantage legally and into taking advantage illegality. Financial pressures are so great that doing something like understating income in order to qualify for government aid becomes a tempting way to alleviate their financial burden. Especially when ‘everybody’s doing it’.

And then there is the public funding of part of their educational costs. Lakewood’s parochial schools take full advantage of the public funding available to them. Because of their Lakewood’s large Orthodox Jewish population their votes have resulted in the following: 
The Jewish community has made their voices heard in a big way at the polls. Members of the Orthodox community make up the majority of the school board.
In 2012, the Lakewood School District began spending more on transportation for students than it does for standard K-12 classroom instruction. Much of the transportation funding is spent on the busing of Orthodox children to private schools.
Special education spending has also undergone a seismic shift. Lakewood has a high number of children classified as special needs students. Unlike many other districts, Lakewood pays to send a high number of its special needs students to private Jewish schools. Lakewood spends more private-school tuition for special education students than almost any other district of its size in the state. 
Again - nothing wrong with doing things legally. But it should be easy to understand why this has degenerated into some antisemitic acts by disgruntled non Jewish  residents:
Friction arises as a result of change. In Lakewood, this means the town leads the state in a less enviable category: hate crimes. 
This is how a dream can turn into a nightmare. I only hope that the city fathers can turn the tide there and change the paradigm. Because as things stand now things can only get worse.