Aug 2, 2017

Uneasy Welcome as Ultra-Orthodox Jews Extend Beyond New York

New York Times
August 2, 2017

JERSEY CITY — To the gentrifying stew of bankers, artists and college graduates who are transforming this once blue-collar city across the Hudson River from Manhattan, add an unexpected flavor.

In a heavily African-American neighborhood, 62 families from a number of Hasidic sects based in Brooklyn and rarely seen here have bought a scattering of faded but roomy wood-frame rowhouses whose prices are less than half what homes of similar size would cost in New York — roughly $300,000 compared with $800,000.

These families are pioneers in a demographic and religious shift that is reshaping communities throughout the region. Skyrocketing real estate prices in Brooklyn and Queens are forcing out young ultra-Orthodox families, which are establishing outposts in unexpected places, like Toms River and Jackson Township in New Jersey, the Willowbrook neighborhood on Staten Island and in Bloomingburg, N.Y., in the foothills of the Catskills.

The influx, however, has provoked tensions with long-established residents, as the ultra-Orthodox seek to establish a larger footprint for their surging population. Residents complain that investors or real estate agents representing the ultra-Orthodox community have been ringing doorbells persistently, offering to buy properties at “Brooklyn prices.” Jersey City, Toms River and Jackson have all passed no-knock ordinances barring such inquiries under the threat of fines or have banned solicitations altogether.

The mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop, said his town took pride in its diversity but had been concerned about “very aggressive solicitation.”

“They literally go door to door and can be very pushy trying to purchase someone’s house,” Mr. Fulop, a grandson of Holocaust survivors and a graduate of yeshivas, said in an interview. “It’s not the best way to endear yourself to the community, and there’s been a lot of pushback.”

New York City and the surrounding suburbs are home to the largest concentration of Jews in the country and because of their high birthrate — five or six children are common — Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jews represent the fastest-growing subset. They are now estimated to number about 330,000 in New York City alone — one-third of the city’s overall Jewish population.

They have become a more muscular political and social force and have turned the generally liberal profile of the area’s Jews more observant and conservative. Lakewood Township, near the Jersey Shore, voted for Donald J. Trump last year by the largest margin — 50 percentage points over Hillary Clinton — of any New Jersey community, according to an analysis by NJ Advance Media.

Squeezed out of their traditional neighborhoods, ultra-Orthodox Jews have taken steps that have raised concerns as they settle into new communities.

Michele Massey, a former Jersey City councilwoman who is the executive director of an organization that oversees a commercial corridor along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, said Hasidim had opened a synagogue on the avenue despite a recent zoning change forbidding new houses of worship.

“It’s not because they’re Jewish,” Ms. Massey said of her opposition. “It could have been any other religion or group. It was simply the zoning law. I’m a person of color. Obviously I don’t care who lives where.”

The Hasidim contend that they have been primarily buying boarded-up or vacant homes and that solicitations have come from outside investors, not from the families that have moved in. They support the city’s no-knock law and point out that the Hasidic families that have moved into the Greenville neighborhood are a minuscule fraction of the area’s 47,000 people, half of whom are black.

“We’re not looking to push out anybody,” said Mordecha Feuerstein, a volunteer for a Hasidic organization that helps people find new homes in affordable places like Jersey City.

What Hasidim have opened in a boarded-up dry cleaner on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, he said, is not a synagogue but a small community center that, like many Jewish institutional buildings, is also used for prayer and study. Next to it is a narrow grocery stocked with kosher foods and Yiddish newspapers. Some Hasidim point out that within a few blocks along the avenue are a Catholic church, a mosque and a storefront church called the Sanctified Church of Jesus Christ. Those were grandfathered in under zoning rules and officials are weighing whether the community center violates the rules.

Underlying the objections of many municipalities is an often unspoken worry that ultra-Orthodox Jews will transform the character of their communities. The ultra-Orthodox may not explicitly raise the specter of anti-Semitism, but they do see a bias against their unconventional lifestyle, modest dress and customs. Orthodox Jews, in general, live in tight-knit communities because of their need to cluster around an infrastructure that includes a synagogue within walking distance, kosher butchers, yeshivas for boys and girls, and ritual baths.

One community that is rapidly changing is Bloomingburg, on the edge of Sullivan County. A developer, Shalom Lamm, started building a complex of 396 townhouses that he marketed to Hasidim. Opponents claimed the development would quadruple the village’s population of 420 and significantly alter its tranquil, rustic ambience. Thirty homes are occupied and another 70 or so are in various stages of building. Vacant homes nearby have been bought for Hasidic tenants, while a boys’ yeshiva, a ritual bath and a kosher store have opened.

What the village will look like is in limbo, however, because Mr. Lamm pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to corrupt the electoral process by signing up ineligible voters to elect a village government friendly to his project. He will face sentencing in September.

Lakewood is also feeling the impact of a fast-growing minority group. Decades ago the area was rural, filled with hardscrabble egg-raising farms owned by Jewish Holocaust refugees, a few grand hotels and an estate that had once been owned by John D. Rockefeller.

But a yeshiva for post-high-school students, Beth Medrash Govoha, which opened in 1943, began drawing scores of ultra-Orthodox Jews. It became the largest yeshiva in the United States, with 6,500 students, and a community swelled around it.

Lakewood’s population is soaring, increasing to nearly 101,000 residents in 2016 — two-thirds of whom are Jewish — from 45,000 in 1990. The township is soon expected to become New Jersey’s fourth largest municipality, bigger than Trenton and Camden, and eclipsed only by Newark, Jersey City and Paterson.

With adequate homes hard to come by in Lakewood, Orthodox and Hasidic families have been buying properties in nearby Toms River and Jackson. Complaints of aggressive solicitation have followed.

“They were ringing doorbells, telling people, ‘We want to buy your house,’” Toms River’s mayor, Thomas F. Kelaher, said. “‘You won’t have to pay a commission, and if you don’t sell to us you won’t get the Brooklyn price, you’ll get the Lakewood price.’”

Feelings were so intense that 1,400 people showed up at one hearing on a proposed solicitation ban that eventually passed.

“People felt threatened,” Mr. Kelaher said. “This has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. This is strictly based on the type of behavior. We welcome people to move in legitimately.”

In March, Jackson adopted an ordinance banning school dormitories, which seemed aimed at yeshivas that draw students from afar. Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group for ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic organizations, filed a federal suit in May arguing that the ordinance violated federal land-use laws intended to protect religious groups against burdensome local restrictions.

Jersey City, a manufacturing hub well into the 20th century, never had a significant ultra-Orthodox presence. But a few years ago, leaders of Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities, realizing that rising real estate prices were making continued expansion in the borough untenable, began scouting locations outside New York, and Jersey City emerged as an ideal place. It can be reached from Brooklyn by public transportation, and driving is relatively easy outside the rush hours.

An ad hoc organization known as Ya’azoru (Hebrew for “We will help you”), made up of 60 volunteers from Brooklyn and Jersey City, helped settle the newcomers, even busing men to make a minyan of 10 so prayers could take place.

The other day, a Hasidic woman, Gitti B., was standing on her stoop watching several of her five children play with the children of a neighbor, Chaya H. Gitti said she was able to buy a house with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large dining room and a playroom for the same cost in mortgage, taxes and insurance as her $1,600-a-month, two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.

She and Chaya both said they had to lean on their Hasidic neighbors because they no longer lived among parents, siblings and cousins. When she had her last baby, Gitti said, her Hasidic neighbors pitched in, taking care of her children and preparing meals. Their non-Jewish neighbors have also been helpful.

“They told us when we have to put out our garbage, and they introduced us to their pets so we shouldn’t be afraid of them,” said Gitti, who, like Chaya, did not want her last name used to protect her privacy. “They’re nice people.”

Eddie Sumpter, 34, a black neighbor around the corner who was able to buy a bigger house by selling his previous home to a Hasidic family, said he welcomed the newcomers.

“We live among Chinese. We live among Spanish,’’ said Mr. Sumpter, who is a cook. “It don’t matter. People is people. If you’re good people, you’re good people.”

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