Battleground Suburbia: Episode 15

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In many respects, a piece in the September 20, 2005 New York Times (please don’t suspect me; it was someone else’s discarded copy) on suburban discord over a new Orthodox institution was predictable in the extreme.

Mention the words “yeshiva/shul seeks to open/build in suburban New Jersey/Long Island locale” and many of us, by now, can easily write the ineluctable script from familiar experience, replete with the recurrent cast of characters: the mayor, either staunchly pro- or anti- the newcomers; the reactions of the locals, ranging from undisguised loathing to evasive posturing; the appearance of anti-Jewish graffitti and letters-to-the-editor; the politicians torn between placating the citizenry and welcoming the revitalization brought about by the newcomers; the local, sometimes, but not always, hostile non-Orthodox clergy (unless they’re non-Greek Orthodox, in which case they’re always sympathetic); and, of course, the incoming Orthos, long on cash but often short on finesse and PR skills.

And, indeed, most of the above make their appearance in this latest installment of Battleground Suburbia: Invasion of the OrthoSnatchers, being filmed on location in Roosevelt, New Jersey.

The article also included another inevitable feature of media reportage in general, one which most of us recognize from news stories that we’ve had first-hand knowledge of: distorted facts. In this case, at least, the errors were innocuous.

The writer describes the new yeshiva high school (total enrollment: 12) in Roosevelt as being “organized by the successful Telshe Yeshiva Alumni, which has started such schools around the country” and as holding “classes 14 hours a day, six days a week,” thereby squeezing three factual mistakes into less than one complete sentence. Ho hum, par for the media course.

There are, however, two things that set this particular story apart from others in its genre. One is the inclusion of assessments from observers who actually seem prepared to tell it like it is, whatever the implications. There is Arthur Shapiro, the Roosevelt town historian who, in the writer’s words, “said he sensed that it was not so much anti-Semitism as anti-Orthodox feelings” that were behind opposition to the school’s entry. Shapiro noted that “[t]his is the only town in the U.S. whose only house of worship is a synagogue, and I find it ironic that people are fighting and debating whether Jews should come in.”

And there is Jonathan Ament, senior project director in planning and research for United Jewish Communities, who averred that the attrition of Jewishness in Roosevelt, which began as an all-Jewish enclave of 1,000 in 1936 but is now only 30-35% Jewish, reflects a national trend. The writer proceeds to cite NJPS statistics — presumably provided by Mr. Ament as well — showing the Orthodox with a 23% market share of synagogue members, and growing; in contrast, the numbers for other Jews is shrinking. Memo to the refreshingly forthcoming Mr. Ament: Call the UJC office to make sure your position is still secure.

The other unusual aspect of the Roosevelt saga is that, because of the town’s unique history, the battle this time around serves as a fitting metaphor for the dynamic that seems to be at play in many of these controversies. As the Times decribes it, Roosevelt was founded by the Roosevelt administration as “an attempt to create a socialism-based town, complete with a cooperative garment factory and cooperative farms.”

To that end, the town was populated at the outset with nearly 1,000 Eastern European Jews, creating what one old-timer interviewed in the article remembers as a kind of Jewish nirvana: “It was as if you took a village from eastern Europe full of intellectuals and planted it in New Jersey where they just continued all of their conversations in Yiddish.”

Roosevelt’s Jewish fortunes have declined drastically, however, to the point where only 30-35% of its current 1,000 residents are Jewish. The town’s only house of worship, the once-Orthodox and now-“traditional” shul, has trouble drawing a minyan, despite removing the mechitza and holding English-only services.

In a review I wrote several years ago of Samuel Friedman’s Jew vs. Jew, I addressed the psychological dynamics that might variously be at play when individuals exhibit anti-Orthodox animus in these recurrent communal confrontations:

The kinds of emotionally charged reactions illustrated above likely have their roots in several sources. For some, encountering, or being confronted—inexcusably so—by those more observant than they, may evoke feelings of guilt and inadequacy regarding their lack of observance and Jewish knowledge. And for some, the very fact of their co-religionists’ open and unapologetic observance is a visceral embarrassment that thwarts their own determined efforts to enter fully into America’s assimilationist embrace, or at the very least, to keep religion in the private domain so as to blend unremarkably into a society which looks askance at publicly practiced religiosity.

Like one of Freedman’s protagonists in Jew vs. Jew, many Jews are, sadly, moved to express their deeper attachment to truly meaningful Jewishness through the living room display of a “line drawing of a davening Hasid, beaver hat on head,” while, paradoxically, fighting to bar from their neighborhoods Jews whose religiosity is far less conspicuous than that of the “Hasid.”

Moreover, the ability of Orthodox Jews to thrive in a wonderfully tolerant America while practicing, to varying degrees, a selective engagement with their host society, constitutes an implicit, if unintended, rebuke to the great numbers of Jews who have jettisoned parts or all of their Judaism in the belief that one could not “have it all.”

Roosevelt’s brief seventy-year history provides a microcosmic object lesson in the changing fortunes of secular and religious sectors of American Jewry. Its original Jewish populace, socially progressive and proudly Jewish, albeit in a starkly secular way, was unable to transmit its peculiar approach to Jewish culture and values to a second, and certainly a third, generation. This generational disconnect, together with the inexorable attrition of zero population growth and intermarrige, resulted in a community in decline and bound for eventual extinction.

The notion of an Orthodox school and community coming in as saviors to stanch the hemmhoraging of this town’s Jewishness is precisely the sort of “implicit, if unintended rebuke” that has caused non-Orthodox Jews from Tenafly to Beachwood and many points in between to react to signs of Orthodox resurgence as though a huge, albeit invisible, chip sits astride their shoulders.

It’s difficult to imagine that the frequency of these ongoing confrontations will lessen without their emotional subtexts being acknowledged and addressed. The unanswered question is: How?

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5 Responses

  1. JM says:

    Dr. Jonathon Ament’s comment about the other (presumably Reform and Reconstructionist) holding their own in terms of membership is sort of ironic, since they are only able to do so by opening their membership to non-Jews.

  2. Zev says:

    “One is not allowed to buy the Times but reading it is Ok?”

    I’d assume he’s referring to the semi-boycott of the Times that started a couple of years back on account of their anti-Israel bias. People don’t mind reading it, but don’t want to support them financially.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Is it a matter of Jewish Orthodoxy, or a matter of strong religious convictions in general? When Catholics want to open a new Monastery or Abbey in New Jersey, for example, do they encounter the same resistence?

  4. Joshua says:

    Eytan

    “please don’t suspect me; it was someone else’s discarded copy”

    One is not allowed to buy the Times but reading it is Ok? I am not sure why this comment was necessary if people didn’t read the times your audience would be limited and would not know what you were referring to.

    Joshua

  5. Jonathon Ament says:

    I’m willing to bet that Eytan Kobre did not figure on me responding to his column. But since he quotes me, I feel an obligation to share my reactions.

    First, the NYTimes reporter misstated what I told him or, rather, made a claim that I never stated. Yes, I did tell him that the Orthodox are on the increase in synagogue market share. But I said nothing about the other movements–and, in fact, while the Conservatives are indeed shrinking, the other movements are holding their own or growing. The NYTimes reporter admitted his mistake when I called him the day it ran, and there was a correction printed a week later. If you search for the article in the Times archives, you will see the correction posted at the beginning of the piece.

    Second–the chip on the shoulders of suburban non-Orthodox Jews. This is indeed worthy of comment, but it’s hardly a new phenomenon. 100 years ago, non-Jews had this chip on their shoulders when German Jews began to move to suburbia. Later, these acculturated German Jews developed this chip when their Eastern European compatriots began to enter the suburbs. This was even more pronounced when Conservative Jews tried to establish synagogues, day schools, get kosher meat in local stores, etc–i.e., the resistance was greatest from their fellow Jews. This should be of particular interest to Orthodox Jews, since they often found willing allies (at least initially) among segments of their suburban Conservative brethren, which was key to getting themselves a foothold in suburban locations.

    Third–what is the chip on Eytan Kobre’s shoulder? Why is he convinced that my “forthright” pronouncements are an aberration, rhetorically suggesting that I should contact my UJC superiors to make sure I still have a job? The statistics I cited are publically available, part of an NJPS Special Report on Denominations (which I authored). Anyone can download this for free at http://www.ujc.org/njpsreports. And the electronic data set is also available at the North American Jewish Data Bank, so that other researchers can verify that UJC is not making this stuff up.

    A big part of NJPS has been making the data available to the entire Jewish community, through these reports and many, many, presentations. I have made probably 15-20 presentations on Denominations alone to each of the major movements (including their top leaders), on both a national and local level. It has been a positive experience for all. Most importantly, I have seen how each of these movements (including Orthodoxy) has asked hard questions resulting from the data and begun to plan and strategize accordingly for the future. Each wants to impact 21st century American Jewry. To that I say kol hakavod–we all can learn from each other.

    Dr. Jonathon Ament