By Danielle Max, Under The Chuppa Magazine. Photos By CJ Studios. Choosing where to live after marriage is not easy. Jobs, finances, and family all play a part in deciding where to settle down. With property prices soaring in the New York area, couples and young families are taking the plunge by venturing further afield in their hunt for a comfortable life for their growing families.
Although it’s normal for one to have preconceived ideas about what living in a particular place might be like, setting those ideas aside can open up a plethora of opportunities. Luckily, many of those opportunities reside in Lakewood, New Jersey. While it has the reputation for being “yeshivish” and extremely conservative, it’s one of the fastest-growing Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States, attracting newcomers from all walks of observant life.
Raymond Coles, the Lakewood mayor and fellow resident of 29 years, has strongly encouraged Jewish couples to move to his town for it “offers its couples a full range of amenities. These include stores, shops, and restaurants.” Although Cole is not Jewish, he openly understands the needs of his constituency. “You can live a frum lifestyle, if that’s what you are looking for,” says Coles.
Although Lakewood might not strike one as the hottest vacation spot, it has a long history of hosting America’s wealthiest tourists. In the 1890s, Lakewood was a popular vacation spot for the elite. The pine forests and proximity to New York drew illustrious families such as the Astors, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts. Thus, they holidayed at its many hotels and resorts.
For more than 70 years, Lakewood continued to attract holidaymakers who wanted a winter getaway close to the New York City area. “It was easy to get to and the weather and hotels were nice,” remembers Millie Kashuk, a former tourist who spent time in Lakewood in the 1940s. “The hotels catered to Jewish people and they had Jewish singing at night. There weren’t too many other places to go that were Jewish.”
While hearing about Kashuk’s fond memories, it’s important to remember that most resort destinations were not entirely welcoming to Jews. However, multiple Rabbis recalled feeling accepted such as the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. In 1940, Rabbi Schneerson spent his first pesach in America in this warm town, hosted by lithuanian born Rabbi Nissan Waxman, Lakewood’s at-the-time stand alone Rov. An influential figure at the time, Waxman later helped arrange for the visas which would end up bringing over the Rebbe’s daughter and son in law, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Rabbi Nissan Waxman, ordained in America in 1926, spent his early years in Lithuania at the yeshiva in Slutzk. This yeshiva held classes taught by Rabbi Aaron Kotler who taught there under his esteemed father-in-law, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. When Kotler arrived in the US, he periodically met with his former acquaintance, Rabbi Nissan Waxman, who asked him to move to Lakewood and establish a new yeshiva. Lakewood being a resort town was an attractive place to begin this project.
Beth Medrash Govoha was originally established as a kollel in White Plains, New York by Rabbis Nosson Meir Wachtfogel, Shmuel Schecter, and Hershel Genauer, alumni of the Kelm Talmud Torah in Lithuania. Established in the Spring of 1942, it was the first kollel in the United States and consisted of 20 members. When Rabbi Aharon Kotler came to New York from war-torn Europe in 1943, the kollel members asked him to lead the institute. Under pressure from his close friend, Rabbi Nissan Waxman, Kotler agreed to the role on the condition that it be moved to Lakewood and expanded with a yeshiva gedola. As a result, the yeshiva opened with an initial enrollment of 14 students.
Unfortunately, Lakewood couldn’t maintain its popularity and during the 1960s, the town began to decline to such an extent that slum areas cropped up. Ironically, against the backdrop, Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), was growing. Due to the strength and pride of this yeshiva, many people became inspired and its enrollment flourished. As the yeshiva grew, so did its surrounding community.
Today, BMG has more than 6,500 students, consisting of both married and bochurim, and is the second-largest yeshiva in the world. This not only slowly encouraged Lakewood’s residents to stay, but also motivated outsiders to move in. Ironically, it is no longer the only focal point of Lakewood, as many residents unaffiliated with BMG call the town home.
With the shifting demographics, including Modern Orthodox, Sephardim and other Chassidic groups (including Lubavitch, Belz and Satmar), there is also a shift in tolerance levels, affecting the businesses and social life of Lakewood. There are more and more restaurants and other establishments opening up that would have been frowned upon in the past. Of course, there are still plenty of very conservative and religiously ultra-strict groups in town.
While they are not marketed to a specific group or sect, many of the new developments being built around town are inhabited almost entirely by members of the same group. For example, Harmony Park in the southern side of the town is populated by Belz chassidim. Westgate, which marks the western edge of the town, was once very yeshivish but is becoming more modern and diverse. Although there are also more integrated neighborhoods, the lack of an eruv for the town as a whole encourages people to live close to their shuls.
The growth of different communities has also had an affect on the kosher amenities in the town. There is now an abundance of kosher restaurants, ranging from high-end gourmet to gas station sushi. Likewise, different types of family dynamics emerged. Although once men mainly learnt, there are plenty of families where both the husband and the wife work regular 9-5 jobs, shifting a once prevailing trend.
The Good News – Cheaper Property Prices
Overall, one of the larger reasons why different types of communities have flocked to Lakewood is the affordable cost of living. For instance, buying or renting a house is significantly cheaper than in other Jewish communities. Hence, the developers have the frum community in mind. Many new homes include properties with double sinks, double dishwashers, and enough bedrooms to fit larger families.
According to Lakewood Real Estate agent Efraim Feder, renting a five-bedroom townhouse averages at $1,700-$1,800 a month. At the same time, a duplex can cost $2,100-$2,200. Additionally, two-bedroom basement apartments and four-bedroom duplex basement flats are an extremely affordable option in Lakewood as they cost between $700 and $1,100. The average price for a townhouse ranges from $470,00-$510,000 with the higher-end pricing averaging at $560,000-$600,000. Additionally, the majority of Lakewood’s homes only require 10% of the sold price as down payments from young couples. Thus, many Lakewood residents take full advantage of their built-in basements and rent them out in hopes of further contributing to their monthly mortgages.
Unfortunately, basement-included homes come with their own risks. As the demand for property is high, many unscrupulous agents and landlords are renting out basement apartments that are not up to code. Luckily, the mayor has recognized the issue and has warned his residents. “We try to make sure if people want to do this, they know exactly what they have to do and what the requirements are. You can have a legal basement apartment if you follow the rules,” explains Coles. Such rules include windows large enough to escape out of in case of emergency, safety fire ratings, sprinklers, and more.
At times, safety and the standard of the buildings going up in Lakewood is a concern as the speed at which the developments are being built could indicate compromised safety. Luckily, Feder denies that any corners are being cut and maintains that all the new builds adhere to strict safety rules. Likewise, Feder stresses that although there are some concerns regarding Lakewood’s cheaper construction, Lakewood’s homes should continue to look good should their tenants and/or owners take care of their properties. Should they not, however, tend to their homes’ issues, the homes could fall into despair despite their construction.
Lakewood’s Baby Boom
Even with as many as 1,000 homes being built at one time, supply is struggling to catch up with demand. According to a recent study, Lakewood’s population is around the 125,000, with the Jewish community making up well over 60 percent. Its growth is so relentless it is estimated it will be the same size as Newark or Jersey City (close to a quarter of a million inhabitants) by 2030.
One of the reasons behind Lakewood’s large population would be its very high birth rate. With over 4,000 babies born each year, the town seems to be getting younger as the years go on. The latest census data put the percentage of residents under five years old at 17.4 percent, with almost half of all residents aged 18 or younger.
As of right now, the mayor estimates that at the next census, the population will hit 150,000. 75 percent of the population at that point will be from the orthodox community and the vast majority under 18. Eventually, these newborns will filter through into Lakewood’s K-8 schools. “[We say] we add a classroom every week just in new births,” says Coles. And it’s a young town, which is hardly surprising giving the many large families among the Orthodox Jewish community.
A unique fact about Lakewood’s education system is that more students are in private schools (approximately 30,000) rather than in public schools (6,000 respectively). Rest assured, both public and private education are taken very seriously. Over the past five years, the only land the council has released has been to build new schools rather than to allow any retail or residential development.
“One of the things the committee has made a priority over the last several years is to make sure schools are developed; that they are being built properly,” says Coles, remembering a time when schools were made up of five or 10 students gathering in a private home. “[The] large buildings going up today, look like the public schools I grew up with several hundred kids… The community is maturing into the fact the schools needs to have all the amenities…”
Even with new schools popping up, parents are still concerned about their children finding spots in school. As of right now, many girls are being denied spots and are forced to look elsewhere. The issue is not one of just space, however, but of communal politics and standards.
In 2016, this issue came to the fore when philanthropist Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz spoke publicly in New York about children being rejected or ejected from schools in response to questions, concerns about their behavior or observance, or in response to other students’ parents’ unease.
Fortunately, placing each and every child into an appropriate school is becoming more of a priority. For instance, the Lakewood Vaad distributed a flyer urging parents of elementary school students who had yet to receive a place at a school for the 2017-18 academic year to be in touch. The Vaad promised to work with the relevant authorities to ensure all students a place. While there cannot be a guarantee that parents will be able to get their children into their first choice school, there is a movement to make sure the system is fair and equitable.
Infrastructure Failing to Keep up With Growth
At this point, Lakewood residents are concerned about the lagging infrastructure. The roads cannot keep up with the rapid pace of development and residents suffer traffic congestion all day, especially on Friday afternoons.
Ironically, there are no plans to halt or even slow down development. There are, however, plans to change the way that new projects are approved and developed. “We’re looking to make [development] smarter,” says Coles. “We’re looking to make sure the new developments don’t recreate some of the mistakes of the past.”
The town is also striving to make the existing road system cope with current and growing demands. Lakewood inhabitants are especially concerned about Route 9, the main street in the town, along which traffic is often at a virtual standstill.
“The township has been fighting with the state to improve Route 9 for many, many years; a lot longer than the 15 years I’ve been on the committee,” explains Coles. “The State has acknowledged it’s too narrow and that it needs to be widened. Fifteen years ago when I first went on the committee, we introduced a series of ordinances that prohibited any development along Route 9 within the right of way that the proposed expansion would go to make sure that when the road was finally expanded, the State wouldn’t have to spend money condemning houses built in the meantime.”
According to Coles, the governor has promised a large sum of money to do some interim improvements, such as putting in traffic signs, traffic lights and so on. “Ultimately,” though, he says, “the only thing that will solve the Route 9 problem is for the State to make it a point to widen it. It’s not just Lakewood looking for that; the towns south of us are as well. In the meantime, we are looking very hard at ways to bring north/south arteries to town.”
One of those arteries is Vine Avenue, providing another pathway from Route 70 to Route 88. “We are pushing very hard to get the approval for Vine, it’s in the State’s hands right now,” says the mayor. “We are working with one of the top attorney’s in the state to get the approval. We are pretty confident we will have approval in the next year or so, and construction can take place soon after that.”
In the meantime, residents have learned to be savvy with side roads and back ways which assist in avoiding the busy Lakewood streets and the Brooklyn-style traffic as much as possible.
Relationships with the Neighbors – Both Positive and Negative
Many Jewish residents are concerned about tension with Lakewood’s non-Jewish residents, as well as within their neighboring communities, such as Jackson and Toms River.
According to a report in Bloomberg News, Thomas Kelaher, mayor of Toms River Township, courted controversy when he said the influx of Orthodox Jews looking to buy property in the area was “like an invasion.”
Kelaher stridently denied that his statement was anti-Semitic as he claims he was referring to how local residents felt at the time. Since many real estate brokers were going door-to-door in hopes of buying homes for Orthodox Jews, many homeowners felt as though their privacy was violated.
When it comes to Lakewood itself, Mayor Coles maintains that such friction no longer exists and that despite tension when newcomers arrive, most of Lakewood’s community gets along quite well, “Years ago there was some tension when the town began to change, but that’s the same in any town when two different groups come together and there’s a culture clash.” He attributes this more positive feeling to increased interaction, learning, and understanding. “Once people get to know each other, and what their priorities and needs are, [that tension] dissipates.”
Coles estimates his neighborhood is 70 percent orthodox but still feels as though it’s the nicest it’s been in almost 30 years. “I look at my neighborhood now… There are a lot of little kids around. Sometimes it takes me 10 minutes to walk into the house because kids are coming over to say hello or wanting to play with the dogs. It’s just a nice neighborhood.”
Many long-time residents, Coles included, see that the changing population helped turn Lakewood’s destiny around. “We were on a downward track; there were a lot of issues in town. There were a lot of areas where people didn’t want to go. Today you’ll see young mothers pushing baby carriages in those areas. There are very few areas in town that people wouldn’t feel safe going even late at night. From that standpoint, Lakewood has been a tremendous success story.”
While there are still some growing pains, the growth of the Jewish community in Lakewood is something impossible to have predicted ten or twenty years ago. When BMG was established, no one could have imagined that this corner of New Jersey would see a vibrant and growing Jewish community, offering all the benefits of the city but with a slower, friendlier, and higher quality of life. It’s no surprise so many people are making the move.
Lakewood Quick Facts
Location: Ocean County, New Jersey
Proximity to New York: 70 miles –1 Hour 20 Minutes – but traffic can be bad, so hit the road in the off-times or be prepared to spend up to three hours in the car
Proximity to the Ocean: 20-minute drive
Closest Airport: Newark is about a 50-minute drive. Philadelphia is about 90 minutes away
Size of Population: 125,000
Size of Jewish Population: 60,000+, and growing (second in size only to Brooklyn)
Average House Price April 2017: $304,500 (zillow.com)
Number of Shuls: Around the 120 mark (and, like everything else here, growing). Minyanim run throughout the day at some shuls, so you can daven Shacharit up to mid-morning (Belz and Satmar having minyanim past 11am) and catch you can Maariv at the end of a long day
Number of Jewish Schools: Approximately 35 boys and 25 girls K-8 schools. Countless high schools and other higher learning institutes
Education Costs: Tuition costs a reasonable $5,000 a year on average. There are very limited bursaries since cost is already low. Day care for younger kids averages $200-$300 a month.
Kosher Restaurants: Everything from fine dining to fine pizza (with prices below Brooklyn at $10 a pie). Trust us; you won’t go hungry here! (You can even get kosher food – including sushi – at the7-11 in the middle of the night).
Kosher Stores: Five plus kosher megastores (think Walmart-size)
Eruv: There is no eruv for the whole town, they are constructed on a community-by-community basis, so be aware before making Shabbos plans
Healthcare: Lakewood boasts the Center for Health Education, Medicine & Dentistry (CHEMED), which provides primary health care, health education and a host of other services – including an OB/GYN Department – to Lakewood residents. It offers services to patients on Medicaid and Medicare plans, as well as private insurance. CHEMED also operates a sliding fee scale for uninsured patients.
Emergency Services: Hatzolah and Chaverim both operate in Lakewood and have hundreds of volunteers. The town’s police department regularly calls on Chaverim for assistance.
Before choosing a community, it’s important to take the time to do research. While pondering whether or not Lakewood is the right place to settle, make a list of the pros and cons. Unlike previous years, Lakewood is made up of multiple communities and neighborhoods. Some are geared strictly towards a particular group or sect, while others are more diverse and open. By simply taking a tour of the neighborhood or even by spending a Shabbos or two in town, Lakewood stands a fighting chance at convincing any young couple or growing family to move into it.
You also need to consider employment, and be realistic. Some people commute to their jobs in the city, while others find work in Lakewood itself. Local resident Yosef F., who has been living in Lakewood and working in Brooklyn for years says unless a job pays more than $60,000, take a good look at whether it makes sense to commute. According to his estimates, commuting costs are probably around $10,000 a year.
(TLS – Provided by UTC.life)