Lakewood, NJ – Hoping to create harmony in an area that has been plagued by discord, a new coalition that transcends the boundaries of religion and cultures launched last week with a goal of meeting the social and civic challenges faced by residents of the greater Lakewood area.
Titled Lakewood Neighbors, the group’s founding members represent the varied faces of Lakewood, and approximately 70 local leaders turned out for the December 20th event that took place at the Pine Belt Chevrolet showroom on Route 88.
Participants wore name badges and enjoyed kosher sushi and wraps while taking advantage of the opportunity to get better acquainted while discussing ways to repair the deep divides that have formed in Lakewood, Toms River and Jackson in recent years.
Rabbi Aaron Kotler, one of the founding members of the coalition, said that in the past five years, the number of children in Lakewood has grown 57 percent, a number that brings with it a variety of challenges.
“We took the initiative to create a collaborative group,” Rabbi Kotler told VIN News. “Lakewood’s story is not exclusively Orthodox. It is Hispanic, black, white and Christian. We are going to reach out to people and while we won’t always agree at least we will be working together.”
Rabbi Kotler said that he doesn’t expect things to change overnight but he is confident that with so many people working together positive results are an attainable goal. In addition to promoting greater understanding, Lakewood Neighbors hopes to find solutions to difficult problems plaguing the area including school funding patterns that fail to take into account Lakewood’s unique demographics that have private school children outnumbering their public school counterparts by a large majority.
Lakewood Mayor Ray Coles, another founding member of the group, said that he is hopeful that better times are ahead for the township.
“The main obstacle is knowledge, familiarity with each other and our customs,” said Coles. “I have heard from people who tell me that they aren’t happy with the changes in Lakewood but that they love their Orthodox new neighbors.”
Mayor Coles said that his own neighborhood is now mostly Orthodox and that he is happier now than he has ever been in Lakewood.
“I have so much fun with all the little kids that are coming in,” said Mayor Coles. “Just today the school bus pulled up and the kids got off the bus and high fived me and wished me a happy holiday.”
Coles said that he believes that the recent issues that have cropped up in Jackson and Toms River, which have both seen many new Orthodox residents, can be fixed.
“Go back 15 years and the same things that are being said now in Jackson and Toms River were said here in Lakewood,” said Coles. “A lot of people I have a lot of respect for said things that they now regret out of fear and out of ignorance.
Everyone thinks that if you are not Orthodox that the Orthodox want nothing to do with you but nothing could be farther from the truth. We have to look at people as people, and not as groups, and most of the people I speak to in Jackson and Toms River tell me that they love their new neighbors.”
Jackson Mayor Michael Reina, who has found himself in the center of a firestorm as Jackson township deals with its growing Jewish population, was one of several elected officials who took part in the Wednesday night meeting, addressing participants about the coalition’s challenges faced and goals.
“Communication is the first step in understanding what’s wrong, and that first step finally has been taken,” said Reina. “I am looking forward to starting the process where people not only understand each other’s needs but respect them as well.”