Living Side by Side in Peace and Harmony
Unfortunately, we occasionally hear about conflict and tension when Orthodox Jews begin moving into a new community. While the conflict often centers on zoning issues or the introduction of an eruv, the battles tend to mask emotions simmering beneath the surface: fear of the unknown and anxiety about the future. No doubt antisemitism exists, but in many cases, the tension dissipates when caring, concerned people—on both sides—get involved. In the stories that follow, that is exactly what happened.
OCEAN COUNTY, NEW JERSEY
When conflict and tension began to brew in Ocean County, a core group of Orthodox activists set out to change the situation.
By Sam Ellenbogen and
As told to Nechama Carmel
When we first moved here some years ago, black-and-white yard signs adorned front lawns, declaring “Don’t sell! Toms River Strong!” The signs were mostly in response to aggressive real estate solicitors; non-Jewish families had gotten visits from several agents on the lookout for homes for Orthodox families seeking to move into the area. Rabbi Moshe Gourarie was operating the Chabad Jewish Center from his house, a quiet shul that attracted a small crowd. The township was giving him a hard time since the zoning ordinance banned places of prayer in a residential zone. A meeting was held in the town hall over the issue, and 2,000 non-Jewish residents showed up to oppose the shul. Tensions were running high.
The Toms River Jewish Community Council (TRJCC) was born out of necessity; it was a reactionary measure to the tension and conflict. A core group of guys—eleven local businessmen—decided to come together to try and promote dialogue and conversation. (Our office is my [Sam’s] dining room.) We reached out to the mayor, county officials, the sheriff, the local police chief, the fire chief and local interfaith leaders.
We wanted there to be a place for people to express discontent and to air questions. We let everyone know: if there are problems, come to us.
In the years since we started, we’ve spent thousands of hours engaging with residents and community leaders. We’ve become the go-to place for addressing communal issues. Residents turn to us, asking about the eruv. Or on Sukkos, for example, neighbors call asking, “What’s with all the huts?” Nine out of ten times, the calls we receive concern perception issues.
People have valid questions. Many of them never encountered an Orthodox Jew before. When Orthodox families first started moving in, much of the tension was simply due to fear of the unknown. Residents didn’t want Toms River turning into crowded Lakewood. But we didn’t want that either. We moved here precisely because of the quality of life; we, too, wanted a quiet, serene community. Once we helped them realized that, the hate signs came down.
We field calls all day long. Much of the work we do is education. For example, we got a call from the head of local code enforcement. In Toms River, one is only permitted to park on the street or in a driveway. One Orthodox Jewish family parked two cars side by side in their driveway, causing one of the cars to be partially parked on the lawn. In a town where residents take great pride in their manicured lawns, this understandably upset some neighbors. One neighbor called code enforcement to report the violation. I called the Jewish property owner to explain the ordinance against parking on the lawn. He was simply unaware of it.
When a new family moves here, we try to educate them about the community standards: you can’t leave bikes out overnight; you need to take your garbage cans in; you have to properly maintain your lawn and property. Moving from the city to suburbia requires an adjustment. There needs to be open-mindedness on all sides and a willingness to have a conversation. We have found that the only way to have dialogue is to engage in dialogue.
On Thanksgiving we brought food to the police department and to the volunteer firefighters to express our gratitude for all that they do. Recently, we got a call from someone interested in donating a significant amount of toys. We could have chosen to donate the toys to a Jewish children’s organization. But we decided to make it a gift for everyone. We reached out to the police chief and set up a date for a free toy drive. The Toms River Jewish Community Council, in conjunction with the local Police Foundation, will be distributing toys to the community’s children. We are here for everybody. We are one community.
When a problem arises, we try to jump on it immediately. We can’t afford to wait. This is a bit of a problem as all of us are businessmen trying to run our businesses during the day, while also making sure we are available. Since fielding the calls has become a full-time job, we are in the process of hiring our first administrator. As the community continues to grow, we are committed to ensuring that we remain accessible and responsive.
Are there issues? Yes. Is there antisemitism? Yes, antisemitism does exist, but we have dramatically changed the situation in our community. Overall, in Toms River, we now have a great relationship with our neighbors. Residents are welcoming and understanding. We’ve come a long way. These days you would be hard-pressed to find a “Toms River Strong” sign anywhere.
Nechama Carmel is editor-in-chief of Jewish Action.
Sam Ellenbogen is in the real estate business. Michael Waldner is in real estate marketing. They live in Toms River with their families and are active members of the Toms River Jewish Community Council.
By Rabbi Shabsey
As told to Steve Lipman and
Leah R. Lightman
A few years ago, when we moved from Boro Park to Toms River to be closer to our children and grandchildren, the Rise Up Ocean County (RUOC) movement was raging. The people behind RUOC felt threatened by the growth of the Orthodox Jewish populations of Lakewood and the surrounding communities. Jews were purchasing homes and moving to Toms River in increasing numbers. The nature of the area was changing. This was a year or two before the creation of the Toms River Jewish Community Council.
The local non-Jews and secular Jews feared many things, including the erosion of the tax base due to the potential conversion of Orthodox homes into shuls. They were also concerned about the brain drain on the public school system as the influx of Orthodox neighbors diminished the local public school student body. Additionally, the Orthodox Jewish community members’ request for bus funding for their students was perceived as a violation of church and state.
And there was the social issue—they were simply not used to seeing Orthodox Jews walking the streets on Shabbos.
Locals organized to block the way for Orthodox Jews to move in, and began to make things more difficult for us. They did not like the rapid changes taking place. There was friction. There was tension. You could feel it.
Most of the Orthodox families moving in didn’t know how to bridge the gap with the neighbors. I saw the need to create bonds of friendship, and believed that if something was not done, we were headed to a bad place. After sharing my concerns with Rabbi Michel Twerski of Milwaukee, he urged me to take action.
Over time, I came to develop a connection with a non-Orthodox Jew who is proud of his Jewishness and is a mover and shaker in Toms River. Eventually we had lunch and he agreed to set up a meeting with Jewish representatives of the community and some of Toms River’s local political figures. After much effort, our first meeting was at a local Starbucks.
Uncomfortable is an understatement for describing the initial moments of that meeting. It wasn’t warm and fuzzy at first. “Gentlemen,” we began, “do you think we really have horns? What are you afraid of? That we are going to tear down the houses and construct multi-dwelling units on every property? That’s not why we’ve chosen to live here. We are family people just like you. We have chosen to live in Toms River since we are seeking quality of life as you are. Let’s all step back, take a collective breath and realize that we have much in common.”
By focusing on shared values and goals, we began to break down barriers. By the time that meeting came to an end, we all saw that we could work together: what united us was far greater than what divided us. Also, we were prepared to give to the community. People want to work with givers, not takers. So we rolled up our sleeves and began collaborating on civic matters, bussing issues, political campaigns and whatever else was needed. Once the Toms River Jewish Community Council came along, the situation improved even more.
The Jewish community has developed strong ties to the police chief and the sheriff in Toms River. A few months ago, the community held a hachnasas sefer Torah. We had ten police and sheriff cars escorting us through a major thoroughfare. They were amazingly supportive. Four or five years earlier, we would not have been allowed to do it.
In the years since we’ve been able to overcome the tension and conflict, I have learned a few things. Being aware of neighborhood concerns is a first priority in avoiding confrontation. Most people are clearly afraid that Orthodox Jews will simply overrun their lifestyle without consideration for things they hold dear. Any change frightens people. It’s important to realize that this is a legitimate fear people have.
There is no one recipe for success in how an Orthodox community can grow and migrate to new areas, but awareness and proactively organized initiatives can help each community as it grows. What works is very simple: Create a vaad or community committee to be responsible for outreach—to political parties, the police department, the fire department, the Chamber of Commerce. We take the initiative to deliver sandwiches and treats to public servants, such as the police, EMS and fire departments on Thanksgiving and holidays. People notice. It creates a tremendous amount of goodwill.
Participate in local events. All townships have open meetings on a regular basis. Community representatives should attend these meetings consistently and introduce themselves, showing participation in local matters and a willingness to live side by side.
Express concern for local legislation and politics by showing activism in elections. This has huge ramifications, especially in local primaries. We do make a difference.
Support the food banks and the homeless in your community. It shows we care. It’s our obligation to engage in community outreach.
Be gracious. When we drive, we can choose to drive safely or recklessly; we can choose to either make a kiddush Hashem or a chillul Hashem. How we behave in public contributes to whether people will accept us or reject us.
Share common goals. Reform or Conservative Jews may feel confronted or excluded when Orthodox Jews move into their neighborhoods. We should make them aware of our common goals as residents.
By working with our neighbors, unbelievably good things have happened in Toms River.
Steve Lipman and Leah R. Lightman are frequent contributors to Jewish Action.
Rabbi Shabsey Gartner, a resident of Toms River and a veteran community activist, is the founder of the Living Kiddush Hashem Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness of the paramount importance of the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem (livingkiddushhashem.org/).
As told to Steve Lipman
In Ocean County, we are seeing unprecedented growth of the Orthodox Jewish community. I watched the yeshivah, Beth Medrash Govoha, grow.
I like the concept of community outreach. The Toms River Jewish Community Council asked me to introduce them to some of the pastors in the community so we could build bridges between ethnic groups.
A couple of friends along with me and an Orthodox Jew formed Love Thy Neighbor USA. [Love Thy Neighbor USA is a grassroots group of activists who embrace community values and work with people and organizations to improve and strengthen relationships between one another, irrelevant of race, religion, color or creed.] One year we hosted a Super Bowl party for the homeless at Urban Air, a recreational place for youth. At least 100 people came. The room was filled with hot food, clothing, hygienic supplies and medical equipment for the homeless.
Love Thy Neighbor has grown; this will be our fourth year. It breaks down the negativity and the stereotypes when people see that the Orthodox community cares about social issues and about its neighbors.
It’s a learning experience for both communities.
Colin Lewis is an activist in the African American community in Lakewood, New Jersey.
As told to Steve Lipman
A few years ago in Ocean County, home of Lakewood and other rapidly expanding Orthodox Jewish communities, there was a lot of misunderstanding and stereotyping with regard to the Orthodox community. Having studied community dialogue while going for my master’s in social work, I wondered if I might be able to help with building bridges.
I reached out to my peers who are engaged in the outside world and are civic-minded like myself. In 2019, we founded One Ocean County (oneoceancounty.com), a nonprofit organization to bridge the divide and foster dialogue. We do this by hosting events, educational programs and other activities that bring together diverse groups of participants.
When we started, people in the frum community were nervous—many said things like, “it’s fruitless”; it will be an invitation to more scrutiny”; “maybe the problems will just go away.” But we persevered.
Initially, we met with local reporters and held focus groups where we discussed common misconceptions about our community. Many of the local people just didn’t know Orthodox people. We tried to educate—we touched on everything from what we read to how we dress to where we live, shop and play. It was a great way to break the mystique and invite people into our culture. We learned that there needed to be a place where people could interact in a positive way and share common ground.
Our first project that was open to the public was in 2019, before Covid. It was a challah bake held in the ballroom of a local hotel. The idea came from an African American community activist who had heard about a challah bake on the Jersey Shore. We didn’t think people would be interested in making challah, but we posted the event on Facebook and had flyers distributed at city council meetings and in downtown Lakewood. Everyone told their friends about it, and local pastors told their congregants about it.
We ended up with 120 women, 80 percent were non-Jews—public school teachers, doctors and nurses. Some women spoke only Spanish; we had a translator on hand. The event was kosher and free of charge; Toms River resident Scott (Shabsey) Gartner sponsored it in honor of his wife Jessica’s birthday.
In the crowded ballroom, women gathered at round tables laden high with ingredients. Each participant received an apron that said “Knead Kindness,” the night’s theme. At every table, one or two Orthodox women led a demonstration on making challah while explaining what challah means to her. We didn’t lean too heavily on the religious aspect of challah. The women went through the steps together—kneading the dough, braiding it, et cetera. We didn’t actually bake the challahs there; the participants took their ready-to-bake challah home with them.
The women had a fabulous time. It was a very fun, relaxed atmosphere. For us, this was the first step to see if it was possible to bring people together. People asked when the next one would be. They wanted to see each other again. Unfortunately, Covid put everything on hold, although we did organize a virtual challah bake during Covid. Subsequently, we had a crafts night at a local library.
Another project of ours is the Lakewood-based “Common Grounds” community garden, where we grow flowers and vegetables. Lakewood Mayor Raymond Coles was an early supporter of this initiative. Lakewood Township donated a seventy-by-fifty-foot piece of township-owned fields and gave us access to town water at no charge. We also launched a fundraising campaign, which brought in over $10,000, most of it from local businesses, to help pay for an irrigation system. The Lakewood Police Department donated funds, and a local group for African-American youth helped build the flower beds and plant the various vegetables and herbs. Of course, the garden is more about growing community than about growing any specific vegetables or flowers. Meeting face to face is a great way to build bridges and foster relations.
In addition to the community garden and #KneadKindness, we organize Super Soul Sundays and Super Bowl parties for the homeless population. We also work with local media, including the Asbury Park Press, to educate people and create awareness of the diversity in Ocean County. In addition, One Ocean County holds tech meetups for young tech enthusiasts in the area. The work of One Ocean County was recently recognized by the Jewish Federation of Ocean County.
What have we learned? That people are genuinely interested in learning about our community. We just have to take the first steps to reach out.
Tova Herskovitz, founder of the Boss Brands digital design and social media agency, is a resident of Toms River. She is the founder of One Ocean County and the Common Grounds Community Garden.
By Sid Laytin
As told to Merri Ukraincik
I moved to Merion, Pennsylvania, about twenty years ago, when I was newly religious and recently retired. I got involved in community projects from the beginning, and I was the logical point person when we launched the effort to build a new mikvah in 2010; because of my background in construction, I already knew the town’s leadership.
The landscape in Merion has shifted dramatically over the years. There was a time when the deeds to some of the houses did not permit sale to a Jew. Now, most homes on the market are bought by a frum Jewish family. Our plan to replace the original mikvah—located in the basement of our elementary school—with a modern facility on another property in town was one more sign of our increasing communal presence here.
With all our growth, however, we are still a relatively small kehillah, not really on anyone’s radar, so we have never faced staunch local opposition. But Orthodox Jews are visible. I attribute our continued success as a community in Merion to the sensitive way we have gone about meeting our needs, being mindful of our neighbors as we expand.
For example, we have generally taken a civic-focused approach here. We have members on the boards of the public library and the fire department. Several others serve as volunteer firefighters. We participate in the annual July 4th parade. Our rabbis give convocations at public events, and we attend them. It’s a healthy way for us to live side by side in one neighborhood.
After we identified a suitable property for the new mikvah, an eyesore we wanted to convert from residential to commercial use, we proceeded carefully to gain public support, reaching out to all the neighbors and to Merion’s residential clubs. We were also sure to do whatever the zoning board requested. We used local professionals for the project and talked to everyone the township asked us to—and we listened to what they had to say.
Though all of us are busy, I made the time to contact anyone who raised their hands at a zoning meeting with a question. I met with them one on one to assuage concerns, or to explain what a mikvah is and why it is essential to our lives as a community of faith. We approached the Conservative synagogues as well. These conversations helped us to both garner support for the mikvah and ensure ongoing shalom bayit with our neighbors.
Personal connections removed the few barriers of resistance we faced. An artist whose home is right next to the mikvah has a secluded yard with trellises and a pool. He feared losing his privacy if we were to add a proposed second story onto the mikvah building. The zoning board rejected the plan anyway, but our investment of time in listening to him and responding to his specific concerns ultimately made him the number-one supporter of the project.
The process of constructing the mikvah gave us the opportunity to build many important relationships with Merion residents of all backgrounds, and it remains important to us to preserve and strengthen them going forward. We invited everyone in town to the Chanukat Habayit to demonstrate our appreciation for their support as we celebrated this milestone.
One of the keys to our success in growing a frum community responsibly has been remembering that we are coming in and asking something of an existing neighborhood. We are deferential and respectful, and we know to compromise where we can. But mostly, we go the extra mile to communicate person to person. In Merion, it’s made all the difference.
A former contractor, Sid Laytin is a resident of Merion, Pennsylvania.
Merri Ukraincik has written for Tablet, the Lehrhaus, the Forward, and other publications, including Jewish Action. She is the author of I Live. Send Help, a history of the Joint Distribution Committee.
Outremont, an affluent, picturesque residential borough of Montreal, Quebec, is a tale of two very different communities. Most residents of Outremont are among the city’s non-Jewish, French-speaking cultural elite. It is also home to Montreal’s largest Yiddish-speaking Chassidic population, which numbers several thousand.
There has been tension between the two communities for some three decades. But things have shifted in recent years. For example, the Outremont Borough Council served sufganiyot from a local kosher bakery at its monthly meeting one Chanukah. The fact that a Jewish holiday was publicly acknowledged at a council meeting was a momentous event, explained Mindy Pollak, a member of the Vizhnitz Chassidic sect who has served on the council since 2013. (To the best of her knowledge, she is the first Chassidic woman outside of Israel ever elected to political office.)
There have been other developments as well. Several years ago, the borough’s annual spring fair—usually held only on Saturday—was extended into Sunday, making it possible for Chassidim to participate. Their previous requests for an extension had been denied.
“There’s definitely a change,” Pollak was quoted as saying in the Canadian Jewish News. “The council plays a huge role in setting the tone of what goes on. Past councils have sort of encouraged the conflict.”
During Covid, the Chassidim were compelled to make minyanim on their porches and pray outdoors. Surprisingly, some of the non-Jewish neighbors began to really enjoy the chanting of the prayers.“It was such a beautiful thing,” one neighbor was quoted as saying on the North Americana podcast, “and because the community keeps itself fairly sequestered. . . . A lot of people were touched by the intimacy of it . . . seeing into the sacred rituals of a community that is closed to you. . . .”
Grateful for the support, the Chassidim brought over bakery goods to their neighbors with a note thanking them for their “patience during these hard times” and apologizing for the inconvenience they may have caused by praying on their porches three times a day.
The Chassidim have made other efforts to foster better relations as well. The local branch of Hatzoloh responds to the medical emergencies of Jews and non-Jews alike and oversees the first-aid tent at community-wide events. And when Belzer Grand Rabbi Yissochar Dov Rokeach made a rare visit from Israel in 2018, the Chassidim placed letters in the mailboxes of Outremont’s non-Jewish residents explaining the importance of the visit and providing advance notice about crowds and other concerns. Afterward, they placed a full-page ad in a local paper to thank their “dear neighbors.” Finding constructive ways to deal with potential conflict has helped create a more positive, harmonious atmosphere in Outremont.
By Mindy Pollak
As told to Merri Ukraincik
We [Chassidic Jews] make up about 25 percent of the neighborhood. Our separate worldviews, lifestyles and appearance have all made for a tenuous coexistence between us and the local non-Jewish population.
There has been friction, for example, over the annual building of sukkahs and the yearlong profusion of yellow school buses, with many of our neighbors viewing them as a blight. We are a very visible presence.
In 2011, tensions came to a head on Hutchison Street, a busy residential strip with lots of pedestrians, a café and several synagogues. The smallest shul on the block had won city approval to add a main-level bathroom for its elderly members. But opposition to the project forced a referendum.
I was then in my early twenties, working as a beautician. Though I was an unlikely candidate for the role, I became an activist overnight. Leila Marshy, a writer with Palestinian roots who also lived in the neighborhood, became my equally unlikely ally. She was sitting on her balcony, watching residents who were opposed to the shul’s expansion go door to door with a petition. They were skipping the Jewish homes. She said, “They are interested only in driving the Chassidim out, not engaging them in discussion.” As a Montreal native, she felt an obligation to help her fellow citizens by accommodating their religious needs.
From the beginning, we believed that it was mostly ignorance and lack of dialogue that had sustained the long rift in Outremont. Leila and I became friends, though we have always avoided discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We decided to organize a town hall about the referendum. More than two hundred residents, Jews and non-Jews, attended that first public meeting. We sat on a panel with a representative from the shul, fielding questions, comments and, of course, complaints. Mostly, we gave members of the disparate groups a chance to really listen to one another.
After the event, one woman told me, “You’re normal!” The remark was a bolt of lightning. People began to see that we share common ground.
Although the shul lost the referendum, Leila and I established Friends of Hutchison Street, an organization to promote honest, open dialogue, foster diversity and dispel misconceptions. We held meetings and events and set up tables at street fairs. We posted flyers, and people came out in number. We even hosted a bakeoff. Sixteen Chassidic women participated. A prominent journalist and a Jewish food blogger were among the judges. In more than one instance, these events were opportunities for non-Jewish residents and Chassidim to have their first real conversations with one another. Seeing non-Jews show up to support us at Friends of Hutchison programs after we’d been in conflict on so many issues had a huge impact. I’ve noticed that the more you talk to people, the more the differences fall away.
Nowadays, the Chassidim are a bit less insular and our neighbors are a little less perplexed by our culture.
In 2013, Projet Montréal, a progressive political party, approached me about running for Borough Council. While a political career had never crossed my mind, I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference. Not that it was easy. When I began to campaign, neither side of the neighborhood knew what to make of me.
Many of the non-Jews were curious. “Oh, you’re the Chassidic woman who is running?” Within my own community, there was concern that having one of our own represent us on the council might make tensions worse. Many felt uncomfortable with me stepping into such a public role. But I got my family’s blessing and, ultimately, the backing of local askanim. So I ran and I won. Journalists joked that I won without shaking the hands of half the voters. I’m currently in my third term.
My job, in general, is about ensuring that Outremont’s bylaws, some of which reflect a subtle or not-so-subtle antisemitism, do not get worse. We currently have prohibitions against the construction of new houses of worship and the burning of bread outdoors. Until we can change things, we can’t live together with mutual respect.
In 2019, Friends of Hutchison asked a local Chassidic contractor to build a public sukkah in the park. We thought it would help our neighbors understand what a sukkah is all about, that it would open minds and lead to a change in the bylaws. People came. They listened and learned, but the bylaws continue to impose a fifteen-day limit on how long a sukkah can stay up; a neighboring borough allows for a more generous thirty days.
My colleagues on the council are willing to listen. I’ve nurtured allies and friends. Within the neighborhood, there are people who have come to appreciate how family-oriented we are, how safe the streets feel. The new municipal administration has been more amenable to our needs. For example, we can hold a public hachnasas sefer Torah with music piped through speakers on the street, which had been prohibited until now.
Recently, the library art gallery opened an exhibition by a non-Jewish Polish photographer who captured images of Chassidim who had come to Poland to visit kevarim. The exhibit was presented jointly by the borough of Outremont and the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Montreal. A fellow councilwoman told me, “I could not have imagined something like this ever happening here.”
Yet progress is slow. The small shul on Hutchison Street still awaits approval to add a bathroom. We are a growing community that cannot build a new shul. But I have developed a thick skin and am hopeful. My emunah that Hashem pushed me in this direction keeps me going.
We, the Chassidic community, can do better too. We need to work harder at building relationships. During the pandemic, men davened on the porches of homes that were very close together. Minyanim often got loud. Chassidim sent their neighbors notes of apology and appreciation, delivering treats as a gesture of goodwill from a bakery both communities patronize. It planted the seeds for new alliances—an important start. One of our dayanim always greets his non-Jewish neighbors warmly. I maintain that we need to follow that kind of example.
Most people here just want to live peacefully with one another.
Mindy Pollak has served as an Outremont borough councilwoman since 2013.
Tips for Fostering Good Relations
Be considerate of your neighbors. Shovel the snow in front of your house. Be careful to keep your home and yard orderly and pleasant-looking within the standards of your neighborhood. Put away toys that are on the sidewalks and in yards. Keep your garbage contained.
Drive safely and courteously. We can either make a kiddush Hashem or a chillul Hashem every time we get behind the wheel. How we behave in public contributes to how we are perceived collectively.
Be a mentsch. Be neighborly. Smile to your neighbors. Be the first to say “good morning.” Check in on the elderly neighbor down the street.
Remember that you are a role model. Get involved in the local community. Try to participate in communal events such as fairs or parades.
Education about Jewish culture is important in developing a good rapport with non-Jewish neighbors. Explain to neighbors about yamim tovim and semachot, the reason for the extra guests and cars on the street, or any other inconveniences such as loud noise, music and dancing.
Positive interaction and communication are key to good relations. Effective communication is a vital tool for relieving tension and clearing up misunderstandings. If we learn to communicate properly with others, our relationships with the people around us may improve drastically.
Special thanks to Rebbetzin Judi Steinig, senior director, OU Community Projects and Partnerships, and Rabbi Shabsey Gartner for their help in preparing these tips.
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