An old college room mate from back East sent me a news link he knew I would appreciate. The article notes the migration of the Hasidim (Orthodox Jews) from the town of Lakewood, New Jersey to an upscale neighborhood in the adjacent town of Toms River. This has stirred up resistance among the existing population who don’t appreciate their new Hasidic neighbors.
The overwhelming purpose of a 5,000+ square foot home on a large lot is to display wealth and status. In spite of their large size most of these homes are only occupied by three or four people. These homes announce that the owners have achieved something special in life and can afford an impressive lifestyle. Everything about these properties reflects the concept of leisure and exclusivity. It’s all a conspicuous display of resources that are intentionally not being turned to productive activity.
The Hasidim live apart from modern society, reject corrupting outside influences, and value family and community above materialism. They adhere to a strict segregation of the sexes, marry young, and have unusually large numbers of children which attend private religious schools. Unlike secular Jews they rarely attend university or seek employment outside their immediate community. Think of them as a cross between the Amish and Mormons.
So here’s the problem. The Lakewood/Toms River area has seen exponential population growth in recent years, almost all of it Hasidic. And they inhabit their homes in a way that disrupts suburban sensibilities. Observant Jews are forbidden to operate machinery or conduct business on the Sabbath. Consequently they live in tight knit communities within walking distance of Temples, Yeshivas (religious schools), and extended family.
In an urban environment everyone walks everywhere and it’s perfectly normal for buildings to house more than one family and for residential and non residential activities to coexist in the same structure. The Hasidim have adapted to the suburban landscape by taking large single family homes and occupying them as if they were small city apartment buildings with ground floor shops.
Why not conduct religious services in the grand living room ? Why not convert the three car garage to extra bedrooms for the kids? Why not operate a home business in the bonus room? Why not run a day care center in the basement and back yard? Why not rent out rooms? Why not manage a Kosher catering service from the giant kitchen?
All this infuriates the neighbors who point out that all of these activities are absolutely illegal. How dare people use their homes for productive activities? That’s low class. It’s unhealthy. It’s dangerous. People left big cities to escape such things. It will drive down property values…
The other thing that bothers non Orthodox neighbors is that the Hasidim are so numerous and geographically concentrated that they quickly come to dominate the electorate and vote themselves into positions of political authority. The public schools are defunded while municipal resources are channeled to other services valued by the Orthodox community. The non-Orthodox population cries foul and insists that the rules are being perverted and exploited by an insular clique with no regard for outsiders. But it’s the same basic arrangement the white majority has always used with ethnic minorities, except now middle class whites are on the receiving end and they don’t like it one bit. In the end it’s easier to move away than fight the Hasidic machine.
The once obscure downtrodden town of Lakewood is in the process of becoming one of the largest cities in New Jersey as a result of high birth rates and an influx of Hasidic residents from older Jewish communities in places like Brooklyn. The overflow is transforming surrounding towns as well. Urban planners often talk of retrofitting the suburbs by turning dead shopping malls into lifestyle centers, but here’s a model of how the existing suburban fabric is changing by being inhabited by an entirely different subculture.