LAKEWOOD-Over the past year, racial and religious tensions between Lakewood’s predominantly Orthodox Jewish population and residents in surrounding towns have escalated, culminating in violence for the first time this week.
As Lakewood Township runs out of open space to build sufficient housing for its exploding Orthodox population, community leaders last year encouraged Orthodox Jewish families in Lakewood and Brooklyn to consider moving beyond the borders of Lakewood. Rabbi Schmuel Lefkowitz advised at a conference of Agudath Israel of America that land investors and families looking to join the population boom in Lakewood, to invest in properties and buy homes in the surrounding towns of Jackson, Brick, Howell and Toms River.
Over the next few months, gold fever struck realtors and land prospectors, now referred to as “Schtick [little] Pioneers” by Lefkowitz. Realtors from from agencies that cater to the Orthodox population went fast and furious, relentlessly knocking on doors, buying foreclosures and open land in those neighboring towns. Many residents in those towns complained about realtors knocking on their doors for days on end, asking them to sell them home. Jackson Township Councilman Rob Nixon said those real estate buyers were engaging in “panic peddling“.
Eventually the towns of Toms River, Jackson and Brick established no-knock registries as a quality of life control measure to regulate the volume of real estate door knocking. Toms River went as far as a complete ban on real estate soliciting in some neighborhoods bordering Lakewood. Most residents supported the measure. Realtors would now have to list the neighborhoods they wanted to canvass.
Facebook pages popped up just as quickly as for sale signs in neighboring towns. Jackson Strong, Toms River Strong and others, where angry residents could communicate their frustrations with each other and talk about their now changing communities as homes in their neighborhoods were being purchased at a high rate by Orthodox families, many seeking to escape their urban lifestyles in Lakewood and New York City, others, hiding behind LLC’s, purchasing homes and land as rental investment properties.
For decades, the five communities, co-existed peacefully. Since the middle of the twentieth century, Lakewood has been home to the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva and has since grown into one of the largest Orthodox Jewish population centers outside of Israel. Most still coexist peacefully.
In the 2000 census, Lakewood, a mixed community with a large Hispanic and African American population, was home to 60,000 people.
Fifteen years later, that population has nearly doubled to 100,000 making it the most populous town in Ocean County. The increase was mostly in the Orthodox Jewish demographic, causing a near overload and failure in the Lakewood public school system, which is now overseen by a state monitor in an attempt prevent a complete collapse.
Tensions between Lakewood’s Orthodox and non-Orthodox neighbors continue to escalate.
In 2016, residents in Toms River and Jackson complained after Lakewood Shomrim (An Orthodox founded community security force), called the Lakewood Civilian Safety Watch (LCSW) was accused of patrolling neighborhoods in those towns. In Jackson, Mayor Michael Reina and the township ordered police Chief Matthew Kunz to advise the LCSW to not patrol their town. Toms River followed suit, ordering an immediate cease and desist.
The orders resulted in then Lakewood Police Chief Robert Lawson to testify that LCSW does not patrol outside of Lakewood, despite several of photographs submitted by residents showing LCSW operating in Jackson and Toms River. Lawson criticized the elected officials for their meddling saying they are politicians just worried about their political careers. Lawson was not showing his cards though. A month later, he retired from the Lakewood Police Department and was immediately hired to be the head of security at the BMG Yeshiva.
Chief Kunz in Jackson, according to an Asbury Park Press report defied local leaders and endorsed LCSW on the department’s Facebook page, prompting a disapproval response from Reina.
Coupled with aggressive real estate tactics and aggressive home buying by Orthodox families and what many perceive as an encroachment into their communities, the Jackson Township municipal council requested the State of New Jersey to investigate possible blockbusting in Jackson. That request was denied by the state.
On social media residents in both communities have verbally battled, humiliated and mocked each other.
Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher called the growth of Orthodox Jewish families in his town, an invasion. Lakewood Mayor Manashe Miller, a member of the Orthodox community demanded an apology by his Republican peer. That was back in March. Kelaher has yet to issue a formal apology. Instead the 83 year old mayor and former U.S. Marine Corps Reserve officer denied that his comment was anti-Semitic and said he maintains a good relationship with his Jewish residents.
Neither side is innocent in the back and forth.
Toms River Police earlier this year took issue with false reports claimed in Lakewood newspapers which misrepresented facts found by investigating officers in a possible bias crime incident.
On Purim, many Lakewood children dressed in redneck garb, wearing Jackson Strong shirts. Many Orthodox on Lakewood websites and social media pages openly criticize residents of Jackson, referring to the community as ‘ignorant’ and ‘rednecks’.
Lakewood residents have openly called for Department of Justice investigations into what is described as “pure anti-Semitism” at Jackson Township council meetings.
An outreach meeting between mayors of Jackson, Howell, Lakewood and Manchester yielded no relief or plan to resolve the differences and problems that face those communities.
This past winter, a Jewish male made headlines when he paid a homeless man to pour a cup of hot coffee on his head.
Parks in Toms River and Howell have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
Police in all of the towns surrounding Lakewood aggressively investigated those crimes, some leading to charges.
This week, however, things began turning violent.
A woman in Howell has been accused of assaulting a young male in front of the local Wal-Mart.
In Lakewood, a black man from Jackson, Elijah Chandler was driving his vehicle in Lakewood when he was struck by an Orthodox man who he said ran a red light. The Lakewood Orthodox population, like many others in New Jersey is notorious for bad driving etiquette and disregard for other drivers. Leaders in the Orthodox community have said on several occasions this pattern of driving is attributed to the large number of former city dwellers who are not yet familiar with Ocean County’s open roads and high speed limits.
After the crash, Chandler exited his car, and according to witnesses, pulled the man from his car and engaged in a verbal argument with him and several other Orthodox men who had descended upon the crash site.
Chandler yelled bias slurs at the men, “Go back to your own country, you kike.” One man off camera shouted, “Get out of here, coon!” to Chandler. A video of the incident can be found on Facebook.
He was subsequently arrested and charged with multiple offenses including bias crime, assault and harassment.
Lakewood Police did not say whether charges were filed against the offending driver or the man who rebutted Chandler’s hate speech with his own verbal racial assault.
As the tensions rise, few, if any religious or political leaders from Lakewood and surrounding towns have offered solutions on how to curb the rising tensions, which this week have escalated to violent acts and will most likely continue as the situation on the ground heats up here in “Four Towns”.