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
Kotler’s vision captured the imagination of a segment of the younger generation of American Orthodox Jews who thirsted for the intellectual and spiritual excitement and the purity of purpose that his yeshiva promised. From 14 students, most of whom were refugees themselves, the yeshiva grew to 200 students by the time Kotler died in 1962. Upon his death, the leadership of the yeshiva passed to his son Shneur, who continued to expand the yeshiva. At the time of Shneur Kotler’s death in 1982, the yeshiva had 800 students, and leadership passed to his son Malkiel and three other members of the Kotler family. Over the past 30 years, the yeshiva has experienced explosive growth. With 6,600 students today, it is by far the largest yeshiva in America; its only global rival is the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which has over 7,000 students. According to Rabbi Moshe Gleiberman, the school’s vice president of administration, the yeshiva has been growing at a 7 percent annual rate in recent years, and that rate is expected to rise.
During Shneur Kotler’s tenure an ambitious program was launched to establish “Lakewood community kollels”—yeshivas for older married students with an active outreach component, staffed by alumni—in Orthodox communities throughout the country. Through its affiliate institutions, the reach of the yeshiva is geographically extensive. In a glossy, marketing-savvy brochure put out by the yeshiva in conjunction with the azkarah, a large map of the United States identifies 165 yeshivas and schools, 48 kollels, and 106 synagogues, all founded by alumni of Lakewood. An additional 33 such institutions founded by alumni are located in other countries.
Like the yeshiva itself, the Orthodox community of Lakewood has enjoyed tremendous growth in recent years. Based on census figures, the town of Lakewood grew to 93,000 residents in 2010 from 60,000 residents in 2000, an increase of over 50 percent in the span of a decade. Lakewood is now the seventh-largest municipality in New Jersey. According to the yeshiva’s administration, 59 percent of the town’s total population, or 55,000 residents, belong to the frum or Orthodox community. Perhaps the most startling statistic is the community’s birthrate: 4,000 babies were born in the past year alone. In order to serve the community, hundreds of communal institutions have been established, including synagogues, yeshivas, and kollels, but the community faces enormous strain in accommodating the unceasing demand for more and more pre- and primary schools. A tour of the town indicates that the growth is continuing unabated. Housing is going up all over, with new neighborhoods being built further and further away from the yeshiva, which continues to serve as the spiritual, and to a great extent, the administrative hub of the Orthodox community. Lakewood has also begun to attract residents from Brooklyn and Long Island who never had any connection with the yeshiva, drawn by the relatively cheap housing and the reputation of the schools and the community. This influx has led to some social tension, with longtime residents and alumni claiming that these newcomers do not share the “values” of Lakewood, such as properly modest dress on the part of women and commitment to the study of Torah on the part of men.
Lakewood is a big business, and the man running the financial and administrative side of the operation is Rabbi Aaron Kotler, the CEO of Beth Medrash Govoha—referred to locally by its initials, BMG—and Reb Aharon’s grandson and namesake. I visited the BMG executive offices the day after the conclusion of the azkarah. The offices are secluded— behind an intercom-protected locked door at the far end of the main cafeteria and up a staircase—and have the understated formal appearance of a high-priced law firm or investment bank rather than a yeshiva, with wood paneling, nameplates outside office doors, and a large conference room. Aaron Kotler assumed the role of CEO in 1995, when the yeshiva reportedly was on the verge of financial collapse. Together with the support of committed lay leaders from the business community, he is credited with stabilizing the institution and stewarding its growth in recent years. Kotler dresses the way you might expect of a Haredi CEO—well-trimmed beard, nicely-cut dark suit—and is very careful with his words. He does not call attention to himself and rarely strays from his message, that BMG is all about the yungeleit, the young married students who sacrifice for the study of Torah.
Kotler shared with me that the annual budget of BMG, including certain of its affiliate programs, is approximately $35 million. He wouldn’t specify the capital budget, other than to say that it is “huge.” He emphasized the responsibility that the yeshiva has to the community of Lakewood and demonstrated his intimate knowledge of a range of municipal issues and familiarity with the relevant state and local authorities and government officials. BMG’s influence over the municipality runs deep. The current mayor of Lakewood is a BMG alumnus, as was his predecessor. A committee of unelected community activists with strong ties to BMG known as the Vaad plays the role of askanim, intermediaries who work with government officials and politicians on behalf of Lakewood’s Orthodox community. Local politicians are happy to play ball with BMG and the Vaad because of the ongoing economic growth of Lakewood and the bloc of votes they represent. Every incoming student at Lakewood is expected to sign a voter registration card. The Vaad notifies the community of its candidate endorsements before every election, detailing the benefits the community received from each candidate. The Vaad’s pragmatic approach—candidates who help BMG and Lakewood deserve the community’s votes—ran into some community resistance when it endorsed Gov. Jon Corzine in his 2008 reelection bid, because of his support of gay marriage.
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