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How Lakewood, N.J., Is Redefining What It Means To Be Orthodox in America

Seventy years ago, Rabbi Aharon Kotler built an enduring community of yeshiva scholars by making peace with capitalism

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People walk along the main street in Lakewood, N.J., Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007. (Mike Derer/AP)

“The Primacy of Torah” was the motto for the grand commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, founder of the country’s largest yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, N.J. The memorial, called an azkarah, was marked with a series of events that spanned an entire weekend last November in and around the yeshiva and the surrounding community. The revered sage was remembered with reflections on his life and contributions in public talks in the yeshiva and throughout the town of Lakewood, as well as in special supplements in the major Haredi newspapers both here and in Israel. Many shiurim—lectures on Torah topics—were delivered to uplift his soul in the world beyond.

The memorial was not a purely somber affair, however. The yeshiva seized the occasion as an opportunity to celebrate the phenomenal success of the institution Kotler had founded 70 years before. Hundreds of alumni from all over the globe returned to their alma mater for the weekend in a type of homecoming. The azkarah culminated in a large “Main Yarzeit Program,” open to the public and attended by thousands of people, which took place outside on an empty lot within the yeshiva campus on which a large new beit midrash, or house of study, will soon rise. Leaders and representatives from various segments of the Haredi Ultra-Orthodox community came to pay their respects in a demonstration of the universal esteem the Lakewood Yeshiva seems to enjoy.

The much-repeated theme of the many encomia to the yeshiva’s late founder was that Kotler, a refugee from Eastern Europe, fundamentally changed what it meant to be an Orthodox Jew in America. Kotler insisted that it was possible to establish in the treife medina—a social environment inhospitable to the values of Torah study and Orthodox Judaism—a community of scholars whose purpose in life would be the study of Torah “for its own sake,” without concern for livelihood, and at the level of the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe destroyed in the Holocaust. But for the arrival of Kotler, the narrative goes, serious Torah study could never have developed in America.

The small yeshiva Kotler founded with 14 students in 1942 is now a mega-yeshiva with 6,600 students and satellite institutions spread throughout North America and beyond. The growth of the yeshiva has in turn driven the growth of the surrounding community of Lakewood; a sleepy resort village in 1942, it is now a large town with over 55,000 Orthodox inhabitants. For many years, the Lakewood yeshiva has been the central and most respected academic institution within the community of Ashkenazi Lithuanian Orthodox Jews in America, and the town of Lakewood has attained a “city upon a hill” reputation as an exemplary community where Torah study is the highest value.

There are assuredly many factors that have contributed to the success of the Lakewood yeshiva, chief among them its determination to be the American yeshiva with the best students and the highest standards. There is another important factor, however, one that went unexamined in the articles published and speeches delivered on the occasion of the yahrzeit: Lakewood’s seamless integration into American society. Although Reb Aharon (as the founder is referred to within the yeshiva world) was radically countercultural, an uncompromising opponent of the American pursuit of wealth and pleasure, his yeshiva has made its peace with American bourgeois values. Many of Lakewood’s alumni sacrifice financially to pursue vocations as educators and community rabbis, and a few do spend their lives in penurious full-time study, but most enter the business world and build lives of white-collar respectability and commercial success, with the attendant trappings of a comfortable suburban lifestyle. Lakewood’s integration of yeshiva ideology and American capitalist lifestyle has been the object of critique from the more hardline Israeli Haredis whose uncompromising stance has put them at odds with the larger society in which they live. But it is these baalebatim, or householders, and others like them who provide the substantial financial support necessary to keep the Lakewood yeshiva, as well as the many other community institutions, going and growing.


Aharon Kotler was born in 1892, in Sislovitz, Russia, and at a young age he was known as an illui, a prodigy. He studied at the famed yeshiva in Slobodka, Lithuania, and then at the yeshiva in Slutzk, where he married the daughter of its head, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. Kotler became the head of the yeshiva in Kletzk, a Polish border town, when he was 29, where he became known as one of the great Talmudic scholars of his time and a leader of Eastern European Orthodox Jewry. Kotler held his position for nearly two decades, moving his yeshiva to Vilna upon the outbreak of World War II; after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, he fled to Japan by way of Siberia together with a small group of students. He crossed the Pacific with the help of a refugee assistance organization, arriving in San Francisco with his family in 1941 at the age of 49. He immediately took the train to New York and threw himself into relief efforts on behalf of the Jews he had left behind in Europe, before founding his new yeshiva the next year.

At a time when American Jews, including Orthodox ones, were intent on acculturation, the pursuit of the American dream of material success though higher education and professional training, Kotler insisted that such aspirations were empty, constituting the sacrifice of eternal well-being for ephemeral this-worldly gratification. Kotler believed that the sole purpose of Jews on this planet was to observe the commandments, and above all, to study Torah. Follow this path, Kotler promised, and God will provide whatever material sustenance one needs. Kotler’s bold idea was to establish a yeshiva for adult men on the model of the elite Lithuanian yeshivas, where Talmud would be studied day and night for its own sake, without any ulterior career motivations or concerns for social advancement. Students in Kotler’s yeshiva would not be allowed to attend college at night, unlike students at the few other Orthodox yeshivas that existed in America at the time. An even more radical idea of his was that even after marriage, young men should receive community support to continue their life of study.

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julis123 says:

Too bad the Israeli Haredim can’t learn what it means to work for a living.

Joshua Pines says:

Yiddish has become common, if not preferred, among Lakewood residents, if not the students.

Great article.

Katherine Lipkin says:

I am appalled that these able bodied, highly intelligent students would make use of food stamps and free health care; this is taking advantage of our federal government.

miloslav veytsman says:

I hope is was a sarcastic response

Brad says:

The Greek “orthodoxy” is somehow confusing in this context, as it widely refers to the old Christian church.

chloeross3 says:

Family values supported by the money of all taxpayers (gay and straight, Jewish and non-Jewish) seems like government charity for a specific group. I do not have health care and I need it – not to have children but to have a sense of securitity and less anxiety while having an untreatable disease. I am also Jewish and I must say I admire the Rabbi’s determination to extol Torah and Jewish belief but not, and I am emphatic, NOT at the expense of the American taxpayer. This is stealing and it is wrong. And it is not Torah approved as I understand it. All that money to learn about one religion on the American tax dollar is not right and I am ashamed this is the case. These Haredim who have nothing else to do but have children and learn are not productive. Their spiritual growth is the sole responsibility of their religion and not the rest of us – of any faith or lack thereof. Women work, are baby machines and their husbands learn and they are supported by me??? Ridiculous. The promotion of a narrow mindview, opposition to equality and general bigoted attitudes promited by any evangelical or orthodox faith are offensive and I do not want to pay for them. I have my own bills to pay. And I repeat – I am a Jew.

chloeross3 says:

I agree and have said why. If this were Bob Jones University or Liberty or Mormon State – the hue and cry from US would be deafening. There is no difference.

chloeross3 says:

mine wasn’t

chloeross3 says:

very well written but very sad

itsGabby says:

I agree with you chloeross3; you said it very well.

chloeross3 says:

Thank you so much.

chloeross3 says:

I have no problem with Yiddish – it is a language that should gather all Jews as a common tongue and it should not be allowed to die. But consider that this is another way in which Haredim close their community by intention. Acclimation is NOT a betrayal of faith. For so many thousands of years we have asked for a seat at the world’s table and suffered constantly for it since at least 34 C.E. I think Lakewood is simply another place to grow separatism and divisiveness on a grand scale. A close peep into Haredimish customs and practices screams with inequality for women, ignorance of their own bodies, sexual repression and fanatical values and why? For Torah? Doesn’t it actually say that “Jews not like us; Jews who are not doing what we do are false Jews; not really right with G-d, a shanda and a blight on our people?” Hitler did NOT care who was a frum or a secular Jew. Cossacks did not care. Martin Luther did not care when he rewrote the bible to use us as scapegoats and call us a trash faith. The Taliban does not care. Saudis do not care. Iran does not care. This adherence to a perceived more favored group by G-d is for me, simply a way for some Jews to look down on others. I maintain that we have been looked down upon long enough. It is bad enough to be hated by non-Jews – but for Haredim to imagine they are the Chosen of the Chosen lacks compassion, humility and common decency. Learning as a life’s work may make you like yourself better but it does not make you a better person. QED.

Katherine Lipkin says:

I agree with you.

kotzk1 says:

The article is very well done.

kweansmom says:

I think you missed a major point of this article. Read the paragraph that begins: “Most BMG students at some point leave the yeshiva to make money to support their growing families, usually when they reach their late 20s or early 30s.”

chloeross3 says:

@Kweansmom: With an increase of 4,000 babies in one year alone and this particular sentence – maybe you missed the point. “Given their low declared income, these families are entitled to inexpensive or free health care from the state of New Jersey, as well as food stamps.” The key word here is “declared” in regard to income. Have you ever heard people accuse minorities in general of fleecing the system by having babies to collect welfare? It is never said as compliment. When a journalist qualifies income with the word “declared” it implies that this is what the recipients are telling the government they have in order to fleece the system. Fleecing is an equal opprtunity vice. It can be any color, any faith, any ethnicity. I suspect Mormons fleece the system as well. FYI: it is not okay to have lots of babies and expect or accept welfare – period. I think it is lofty and soul serving to live a Torah existence or an LDS existence or a Catholic existence but the fact is that the expenses of living such lifestyles should not be subsidized by taxpayers. Particularly when the parent faiths or organization have so much money in their coffers that they can and should underwrite this exalted lifestyle absent the government. I did not miss the point and I do not exclude from my point people of any faith who cannot afford their offspring yet keep having them. I had two children and I suspect in my heart I would have liked more or at least another, but I did not have the money to have one more. I sort of believe that any deity who is important to his people also wants his people to be well-fed, cared for and have responsible families. Perhaps the frum in Lakewood should all take vows of poverty and refrain from overwhelming the system in the name of G-d. The same goes for the LDS, the Catholics and any other faith that promotes the birth of many children without considering the costs they incur. No madam, I did not miss any point.

chloeross3 says:

Can you elucidate?

kweansmom says:

I was referring to your comment, “These Haredim who have nothing else to do but have children and learn are not productive.” The article makes it clear that the majority of them do work, but even then have trouble making ends meet. I’m not justifying their making the most of government entitlements. However, portraying them as people who do “nothing productive” and only sit in yeshiva all day for their whole lives is inaccurate. As for how many are making undeclared income off the books, who knows? For obvious reasons, it’s impossible to collect those kinds of statistics.

Just curious, does your point of view also apply to non-religious people who have more kids than they can afford? Single welfare moms, for instance? Would you cut off their free healthcare and food stamps too?

chloeross3 says:

Yes, it does. Gaming the system when you know you are not needy or poverty stricken is just not a very decent thing to do. And it has nothing to do with faith. My point was that these parent organizations of faith with the abundance of money they like to boast and the “have babies” mentality should support their flocks. And it is not about cutting off food or assistance – I am talking about gaming the system by having more children than you can afford. Any children of any kind. Birth control exists. And it does not need to be Rx. Feeding the children and making sure they have warm shelters is essential and I hardly think the children should be the victims of their parents excesses. There are no simple solutions – but please 4k babies in a year. And then assistance for many. Not a good thing or an honorable thing. Falls into a category I like to term “pious hypocrisy” when it is within faith communties. And when folks lie about their income – any folks – they are being dishonest and I pay the cost. Religious or secular. I have two healthy adult children with master’s degrees – I was divorced and received no support from my son’s father. My children put themelves through school. My son was bar mitzvah by the Chabad in Los Angeles. I paid for the entire event with his paternal grandparents. I am not wealthy nor do I think it is a flaw to be middle income or lower income. But people who pay taxes are the support of those children. Why must I do it. And FYI – I am Democrat and a Jew.

Elon says:

How can it gather all Jews as a common tongue when the ancestors of many never spoke it?

chloeross3 says:

I see your point but it was meant more in the desire to not see it die and realize how it did gather so many in the middle ages and after.
Yiddish was lingua franca for Jews all over Europe from Germany East. It was an identifier and way to draw Jews together. Ladino did this some degree but Yiddish was a language spoken throughout Pale of Settlement, in Eastern Europe, Germany and the words traveled through the diaspora. Spiritually it was and is a way to bring Jews into the spiritual fold.
And I also meant to indicate that I happy Yiddish was being revived in Lakewood but that there was a danger of it becoming a divisive factor as well.

kweansmom says:

That’s news to me, but it may be true. Most Lakewood residents I know speak English or “Yeshivish”. Are there shiurim being taught in Yiddish at BMG?

chloeross3 says:

This is what was quoted in the article. Seeing Yiddish renewed and revived is a bright and hopeful thing. This is a language with literature, a huge history and words to express feelings and concepts that modern Ivrit does not. It is indeed the mamaloshen and as such – it is something we should encourage – not just in Haredim communties but in Jewish communities in general – far from an embarassment – people are starting again to realize how important this language was and is to Jews globally. After all as the mamaloshen – it’s good to be kind to mama.

Dovid Brafman says:

very pragmatic article

Marc Lamb says:

How are these “students” allowed to progress no further than the 8th grade? Isn’t there some law in NJ that mandates attendance in an accredited high school? If not, there should be. They may be very knowledgeable about the ins and outs of Medieval pilpul and causuistry, but how is one with an 8th grade education able to get into a law firm or any average company. And even if he got in, I think he would have trouble lasting.. the culture shock would be staggering.

Lakewood’s “integration of yeshiva ideology and American capitalist lifestyle” is not something BMG supports or encourages – this is rather a byproduct of American Orthodoxy. What they do encourage is full-time learning, but getting a proper education or skill for a career (other than the few available as Jewish educators) is the last thing they provide. The amount of poverty in Lakewood is catching up to the Hassidic encalves.

Son_of_J says:

Block voting pays! BMG was just granted $10.6 million by the NJ gov’t, while other educational institutions got much much less, even though BMG does not give a secular education past 8th grade. A shanda.

JPlattim1933 says:

but how is one with an 8th grade education able to get into a law firm
or any average company. And even if he got in, I think he would have
trouble lasting.. the culture shock would be staggering.­ ­http://mybestfriendmakes65dollarsper&#46qr&#46net/kkEj

stacy rast says:

I get paid over $87 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I never thought I’d be able to do it but my best friend earns over 10k a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless. Heres what I’ve been doing,

ginzy1 says:

This is the inevitable result of a growing entitlement / welfare state. Beneficiaries will all try to exploit the “free stuff” albeit with different goals & rationalizations. Not unique to NJ or the USA or Israel. See Europe. The only difference is that since the Europeans started earlier they are now coming to grips with the consequences of the generous welfare state (and trying to figure out a way to put the brakes on it) while the Obamanoids are busy pushing their wet dream of a Europeanized USA.


ginzy1 says:

You are forgetting that these are very bright guys who are used to disciplined study for many hours on end, and most of all are all highly trained in what in the last analysis is highly analytic legal thinking.


J’lem / Efrata

ginzy1 says:

For your benefit, I am recopying here my response above to Katharine Lipkin:

This is the inevitable result of a growing entitlement / welfare state. Beneficiaries will all try to exploit the “free stuff” albeit with different goals & rationalizations. Not unique to NJ or the USA or Israel. See Europe. The only difference is that since the Europeans started earlier they are now coming to grips with the consequences of the generous welfare state (and trying to figure out a way to put the brakes on it) while the Obamanoids are busy pushing their wet dream of a Europeanized USA.


J’lem / Efrata

charliehall says:

Yiddish was limited to Ashkenazic Jews. The large Jewish populations of Italy, the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey never spoke Yiddish. And German and Dutch Jews stopped speaking Yiddish in early modern times.

When the students of the Vilna Gaon made aliyah in the early 19th century; they could not communicate with the Mizrachi Jews who had been there for millenia — except in Hebrew!

charliehall says:

I have no problem with this. They are US citizens and are entitled to the same benefits as any other citizen. And unlike the case in most free democracies, their children will never benefit from government support of Jewish schools.

charliehall says:

There is far more gaming of the system by recipients of corporate welfare than by poor people.

charliehall says:

The US has a MUCH less generous welfare state than any country in Europe, (or, for that matter, Israel). Yet none of them approach the extremely generous welfare state mandated by the Torah and our Rabbinic tradition.

Jeffrey M. Green says:

On the one hand, a typical Lakewood graduate is described by the author as: “a 30-year-old adult male with no real secular education beyond the eighth grade,” yet he also says that the yeshiva is an accredited university? How could that be?

Mark says:

First of all, they have a high-school level education, NOT an 8th-grade one.

And many of them are have unusually high IQs.

Columbia University Law School (ranked 5th in the country) takes sometimes as many as 5 of these guys a year because they do so ridiculously well on the LSATs, far better than the average scores of the Ivy Leaguers Columbia accepts. Harvard
usually takes 1 a year. And I personally know a genius yeshiva student (with a perfect LSAT score of 180) who never set foot in a college, who managed to graduate from Yale Law School and get hired by a top international firm.

If it weren’t for the academic establishment’s hostility towards the yeshiva students’ conservative social values, they might even take more of them…

Between vouchers and charters and the privatization of public schools, tax payers in this country are now funding more religious schools than ever before. Most free democracies that offer public education, offer secular education. Most of the religious schools are private entities in these countries. Personally, I think vouchers and charters are a bad idea, there are too many problematic issues that have yet to be resolved.

RS1961 says:

Yeshiva students may have a “high school degree” from their own high schools. However, the actual value of these degrees – the criteria that were met in order to earn the degrees – remains to be seen. The quality and breadth of their secular education is, from all accounts I’ve read, shoddy-to-non-existent when it comes to things like literature, math, and the hard sciences.

So while these guys may have the study skills that allow them to excel on the LSATs et al, how will they actually fare in professions that rely upon knowledge that is a cumulative stockpile of information gleaned over many years of schooling? A high IQ is a nice start, but it’s certainly no guarantee of professional success in and of itself:

* Can they succeed in fields that require critical thinking, a contextual knowledge of the larger world, or a strong foundation of science or math or the arts?

* How will they fare in professions that require them to work in direct proximity with, or even for, women?

* Can they successfully complete higher education and succeed long-term within fields such as medicine, economics, pharmaceutical research and development, architecture, journalism, graphic design, hotel or restaurant management … ?

So, great – they can excel on one test in one professional area, and maybe even be lucky enough to land a job in that field. But should we really believe that the schooling that yeshiva boys receive prepares them to successfully perform in a full range of professional careers that are available outside of their little bubble, within mainstream secular world?

And if not, are their so-called high school diplomas worth any more than the paper on which they’re printed?

herbcaen says:

maybe you should join the Lakewood community

chloeross3 says:

@herbcaen: What a thoughtful invitation but I am not observant and do not think it would be a good fit. It was kind of you to ask. Gut Yontov.

Eliezer Abrahamson says:

Basically a decent article, except for one – very prominent – aspect which is both irritating and frustrating, and that is the rather condescending attitude the writer has regarding the fact that most Lakewood yeshiva graduates eventually get jobs and earn a living.

The writer seems to imply that the (ostensible) approach of Israeli chareidim to reject work entirely is somehow more authentic and the approach of Lakewood yeshiva (and of virtually all American yeshivos) is the result “Americanization.”

The reason this is irritating is that it implies that the “real” traditional Jewish approach has always been to discourage men from working for a living, which is obviously absurd. (The opposite – and, in my experience, far more common – claim, i.e. that it has never been the traditional position to encourage Torah scholars to devote themselves to full-time study with community support, while not obviously absurd, happens to also be quite incorrect.)

The reason it is frustrating is that it the article seems to fit a common pattern in which chareidim will be criticized no matter what they do (much like general anti-semitism). Thus, if chareidim avoid work they are parasites, but if they work for a living they are bourgeois hypocrites who aren’t fully devoted to Torah.

Ephraim says:

As a Former graduate of this program, I feel the need to clear a the air with a few facts.
Most if not all of BMG’s graduates and attendees have graduated from High Schools and many like my self have graduated high school in NY, necessitating acquiring a Regents diploma.
In addition, many graduates find that the time spent in BMG serves them well in Grad school, (The BMG experience serves as undergrad).
Many like myself will take the necessary pre-requisites to gain entry in to graduate school, where experience and empirical data has shown parity or greater acclimation and success in comparison to the standard Liberal arts major being mass produced in every university across the country.

Many however decide to eschew university and pursue business at some point.

shotskeziel says:

You don’t get to be a protected class if you choose to have 10 kids by 30 years old.

You’re no better than the average drug addict who does the same. The only difference is that you are addicted to religion.

I am so glad I left Judaism years ago.

It’s no better that the polygamist cults where abuse runs rampant (and we all know abuse is the elephant in the Jewish home no one speaks of).

Take off the wigs, shave the beards and the curls and embrace life.

Why live as if it’s 2000 years ago as opposed to living IN the 2000′s.

The crutch of Judaism around your neck as a man born to an orthodox family is staggering.

Got rid of it, and I am more than thankful that GOD (I spell it out) led me to the light.

You all keep being miserable and depressed.

You create your own problems.


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How Lakewood, N.J., Is Redefining What It Means To Be Orthodox in America

Seventy years ago, Rabbi Aharon Kotler built an enduring community of yeshiva scholars by making peace with capitalism