Inside New Jersey’s Orthodox boomtown
This ‘company town’ is home to the largest yeshiva in the U.S., and its business community is booming. Now Lakewood’s small airport is getting a state-of-the-art makeover. What does it all mean for this once- sleepy town?
In the beginning, God created New Jersey.
OK, perhaps, but many years ago there were also the Delaware Indians, followed by Dutch and British colonists who landed off the Jersey Shore in the 17th century. Then New Jerseyans fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. The state that is now best known for Bruce Springsteen and its proximity to New York City earned the nickname “Garden State,” and for many years, the middle chunk of the state was home to a lot of farms and few people.
By the early 1900s, wealthy New Yorkers ventured out of the city via train and horse-and-buggy carts to relax and decompress in Central New Jersey towns that were by then dotted with luxury hotels. In the 1940s, when Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, one rabbi looked to New Jersey and identified his pastoral promised land.
In Lakewood — an Ocean County township that is not especially close to either Manhattan or Philadelphia — Rabbi Aharon Kotler, a Talmid chacham, or learned man, who left Europe at the outset of the Holocaust, planted roots. In 1943, a year after opening a small yeshiva in White Plains, New York he moved the school to this New Jersey town that would become a pivotal piece of the American Jewish puzzle.
“A place out of town, suburbia, even today is not always so welcoming to yeshivas,” said Rabbi Aaron Kotler, the grandson of the man who birthed modern Lakewood and who has himself contributed to its massive transformation in recent decades. Kotler’s grandfather liked Lakewood because at the time, Jews were frequent visitors to the town and patrons of its thriving hospitality industry, which included several kosher hotels. ”There were not many places like that that would have been theoretically friendly toward a yeshiva. In those days, America was not as tolerant as it is today.”
Today, under the leadership of Rabbi Aharon Kotler’s grandsons, the yeshiva — Beth Medrash Govoha, or BMG — has grown from a dozen students in its first year to more than 7,000 this academic year, making it the largest yeshiva outside of Israel. The result has been not just an explosion in Jewish education, but also enormous economic and demographic changes that have transformed this once-sleepy town.
It’s one of the most significant Jewish communities in the United States, but to people outside of the Orthodox world, it’s largely invisible. For those who do observe Jewish law, Lakewood has become a must-visit spot. Its elaborate yet affordable wedding halls make the spot perfect for something of a destination wedding for religious Jews from around the country.
People who used to schlep to Brooklyn to do their shopping now go to Lakewood for wedding dresses, sheitels (wigs for religious women), modest clothing, fine china, Jewish books and ritual objects. In most American cities, you can find a church on any street corner. In Lakewood, the neighborhood church is a synagogue.
Over the last decade, the majority-Orthodox Lakewood was the second-fastest growing city in New Jersey. Its population increased by more than 45%, or some 42,000 people, between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And that doesn’t even count the corresponding growth in nearby Toms River and Jackson, two towns whose Orthodox populations have increased as Lakewood has become expensive and crowded.
All of that growth is not an accident: Business is booming in Lakewood. Hundreds of thousands of square feet of premium office space have been built in recent years to accommodate new companies and old ones that are growing. Luxury shopping developments keep popping up. More than 13,000 people work at the city’s industrial park, the second-largest in the state.
One small building on the outskirts of town carries the hopes and ambitions of Lakewood’s increasingly influential business community.
If you leave the yeshiva, and start driving southeast, you can be at the Lakewood Township Municipal Airport in 10 minutes if there’s no traffic — a relative rarity in Lakewood, where a three-mile drive can take close to an hour during rush hour. (Rush hour, in Lakewood, is when thousands of young married men depart BMG yeshiva for their afternoon lunch break)
You’ll pass a Minor League Baseball stadium, the gleaming new corporate park and several Jewish primary schools that appear to be bursting at the seams. A mile after you pass Chai Urgent Care (“chai” is Hebrew for “life”), turn right at the small sign that says Lakewood Airport: “The sky’s the limit!”
It’s not much to look at — a couple of small portable buildings that resemble a general contractor’s makeshift office on a construction site, behind a chain-link fence. A few picnic tables sit out front for kids to watch the prop planes take off.
But now the airport is set to undergo a transformation into a new, state-of-the-art terminal building with a high-end kosher restaurant and a large conference center. The project aims to inspire more businesses to set up shop in Lakewood and satisfy a legion of increasingly wealthy professionals already in town.
With charter flights and helicopter rides taking people to New York City and other economic hubs on the East Coast, why not come to Lakewood, the city asks — Lakewood, where you can have the best of both worlds, learning Torah and generating income?
Steven Reinman, the man tasked with making all of this happen, met me at the Lakewood Airport on a blustery Thursday morning in late December. He pulled into the small parking lot 15 minutes late, the result of a bad car accident that stopped traffic on Route 9, the perpetually crowded road that serves as a major thoroughfare for this town of 135,000 people.
Reinman is a lapsed venture capitalist who now serves as the city’s economic development director and airport manager. Dressed sparsely in a white button-down with a pen in the breast pocket and a baseball hat atop his yarmulke, his payos tucked behind his ears, he looked like he could have come straight from a BMG study hall. Instead, he had arrived from his grandson’s brit milah. Stepping out of his car, he offered apologies and a box of pastries he had brought from the celebration.
He guided me into his office in the small terminal building, through a conference room where another worker sat at a desk running air-traffic control. No planes landed or took off in the course of our hour-long meeting.
“In small airports like this, the terminals serve as both a place to conduct business and for the social aspect, for the pilots that kind of hang out together and share war stories,” said Reinman. A video taken at the airport went viral late last year, when a helicopter that took off from a Crown Heights parking lot landed in Lakewood after being trailed by an NYPD helicopter, who did not know the pilots had permission to land in Brooklyn.
The airport, like Lakewood itself, has a history of changing with the times. What began as a small dirt runway in the town’s resort days became a launchpad for parachuters and thrill-seekers in the 1970s. The Lakewood municipality acquired the airport from private owners in the 1990s, and it now houses several dozen private single-engine planes, a couple of banner-towing companies and multiple flying clubs for people who want to learn to fly without investing in their own aircraft.
If a proposed public-private partnership is approved to direct the airport renovation, the all-glass modern terminal will be ready in two years. The airport is located within the town limits, so its facility is meant to also appeal to business owners who want to organize events that may draw attendees from around the tri-state area and beyond.
This next phase will put Lakewood on the map as a business destination, and not just a landing pad for small-time pilots interested in exploring historic airports. “People have woken up to the idea that you don’t have to have your corporate headquarters in New York City. You can have it down here,” said Reinman. “There’s economies of scale, things that you couldn’t necessarily afford to do in New York, you can afford to do here.”
Luring people to Lakewood has, until recently, largely been the purview of the BMG yeshiva. Reinman compared the situation to Hershey, Pa.: ”Somebody could come and open up a business years ago in Hershey town, and Hershey town still remained centered around the chocolate factory.”
Similarly, in Lakewood, industrious BMG graduates could set up, say, an e-commerce warehouse to sell goods on Amazon, but their business wouldn’t exist if the yeshiva hadn’t brought them to Lakewood in the first place — just like a law office or family business in Hershey could thrive because of the people who come to Hershey to work for the chocolate giant, or visit the theme park. (Lakewood, it should be said, has a kosher chocolate factory.)
“One of the drivers [for the business growth] was the level of skill from the alumni of the yeshiva, who, thank God, are very capable people,” Kotler told me. “If they choose to go into business, they have a lot of skill sets to do that. And they’re successful in general.”
The students’ skills may have contributed to the staying power of the economic success, but BMG itself has not been a passive observer to the changes. The yeshiva has been perhaps the largest single force behind the town’s massive growth.
In his 26 years as president of BMG, Kotler, who stepped down from the post late last year, attracted thousands more students to the yeshiva. But Kotler also actively invested in Lakewood real estate. The Cedarbridge Corporate Park, with nearly a million square feet of premium office space, was developed by the yeshiva’s real estate affiliate — a development company also run, until recently, by Kotler. BMG invested $15 million in developing the corporate park, according to the school’s 2019 economic impact report.
The thinking behind the corporate park borrowed from that famous line in “Field of Dreams:” “If you build it, they will come.” That theory appears to have been borne out.
“That was why we built the park,” said Kotler. “That was then attractive for companies to want to locate here, knowing that there was a highly educated workforce. The men are educated here. The women are educated here. They go into business.”
As a result of all this growth, “the lifestyle has changed,” said one prominent Lakewood businessperson who requested anonymity because of his connection to major local economic dealings. ”There are quite a few people that are making a lot of money, and they’re living very affluent lifestyles.”
The new airport will be designed to appeal to these Lakewood residents, although there are limitations to just how luxurious the Lakewood airport can get. Its runway is 3,200 feet, which is not long enough for higher-end private jets of the Gulfstream or Bombardier variety to land there. Those planes can land just 10 miles away at the Monmouth Executive Airport, one of the largest private airports available for public use in the country.
So what will the new Lakewood Airport be able to offer higher-end flyers? The redesign will feature a new helicopter landing pad, so that helicopters don’t have to land on the same runway as planes. Certainly its conference center with a gourmet kosher restaurant will be unique for a municipal airport. Mostly, the airport’s pitch to the business community is about Lakewood itself.
“I like to think that we have a nice community here,” Reinman noted. “We have a nice mix of people and activities, and so on. If your planes are the right kind of planes, this is a great place to be.”
The airport redesign is not meant to only attract Lakewood’s wealthiest residents. In recent years, recreational activities centered at the airport have become more popular.
“The airport is situated right in the middle of the industrial park,” said Matt Applegate, a Lakewood native who owns Aerial Sign North, a banner-towing company. “From manufacturing to computers to bakeries, you have everything right there. You have the baseball stadium. Since we’re in the center of that hub of all this activity, there’s just so much room to grow.”
In the summer, parents and young children come and picnic at the tables set up outside the airport fencing, a result of overcrowding in city parks. Kids can stand against the fence and watch planes take off and land.
“There’s no amount of things that you can put up that’s going to be too much,” said Reinman. “People need entertainment options. And this is clean, good, fun. Interesting. Educational. And it’s local.”
Some summers, the airport brings in a helicopter operator to take people on short aerial tours of the nearby Jersey Shore at a cost of more than $200 a head. “There was a time when that would have been out of reach for many people,” Reinman noted, “but not lately.”
Many of the growing industries in Lakewood are in the information services field, things like accounting and back-end healthcare support and financial services. “People joke that it’s the healthcare back office capital of the United States,” said Kotler.
The town’s thriving economy is “a boon for the airport,” said Applegate. “Everybody’s business is increasing. You have so many more people.”
Aaron Kotler no longer has an official day-to-day role at the yeshiva, but he still holds court in Lakewood like no one else. His home sits at the end of a cul-de-sac just steps from one of BMG’s main buildings. When I pulled up, cars belonging to Kotler’s visitors were crammed so tightly along the curb that I had to park blocks away.
He brought me into his study after sending off a young man who was seeking counsel over whether to accept a pulpit at a synagogue in Texas, far from his family. Kotler sat in an armchair in front of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Behind him were black-and-white photos of students learning, along with a tallit and three shofars. By the time our meeting ended an hour later, more than a dozen young men had gathered around a large dining table for lunch with Kotler.
For someone like Kotler, who grew up in Lakewood, this scene would have been hard to imagine during his childhood. The yeshiva had 250 students when Kotler’s grandfather — who never actually called Lakewood home — died in 1962. Growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s, the younger Kotler was one of very few Orthodox Jews at his school.
“There were three of us in the entire Lakewood, versus today where there are, bli ayin hara, over 50,000 children,” Kotler recalled, invoking protection against the Evil Eye. “I’ll never forget when I went to Brooklyn once for Shabbos to my grandmother, and I saw about 30 or 40 kids in a Shabbos afternoon group. I was like, ‘Wow, this must be the international convention of Orthodox Jewish children.’ I didn’t know there were that many in the world.”
Growth was slow but steady, and by the time Kotler took over as president in the mid-1990s, BMG had close to 2,000 students. More and more men who had studied at BMG were putting down roots in the city. Reinman, the airport manager, was one of them: He attended BMG in the 1980s and stuck around. He estimated that there were fewer than 1,000 Jewish families when he first moved to town more than 40 years ago.
“We had a thing called the ‘Lakewood List,’ which was a list of families’ phone numbers so you know who to call because we didn’t have cell phones in those days. The list was two double-sided pages,” said Harold Herskowitz, the owner of a local toy store who has lived in Lakewood for more than 30 years. “Now that list, it looks like three phone books glued together.” Back in the ‘90s, there were three other Herskowitzes in Lakewood, none of them related to him. Now, the ‘Lakewood List’ has something like five pages of Herskowitzes.
When Herskowitz and his wife decided to stay in Lakewood, they thought of themselves as “frontier people,” settling the Wild West of Central New Jersey for the long term. “We sort of decided, this is a nice neighborhood. I like the town. It was a nice, small community. Everybody knew everybody else, and everyone helped everybody else,” he explained.
Back then, the people in Lakewood who were viewed as “very, very wealthy” were those who “lived in three-bedroom homes and drove around in 15-year-old cars.” Now, there are the signifiers of wealth you’d see anywhere — fancy cars, mini-mansions, designer clothes. “There definitely are much more wealthy people,” he observed.
Herskowitz has unsuccessfully run for public office a number of times to take on incumbents aligned with BMG officials, arguing to voters that the town’s infrastructure has not kept up with the growing population. Some of that is basic urban planning matters — things like traffic jams and car accidents and zoning, so that developers cannot build new townhouses in areas that are not suited to new neighborhoods.
“I got to go to the dry cleaner. I got to pick up my kid from school. I got to go get groceries, and to sit for an hour to drive two miles is not normal,” Herskowitz said. “People just don’t understand how much it’s affected businesses.” He gets calls from customers who tell him they ”don’t want to schlep a mile to your toy store.”
Despite the new construction and the influx of people, there are serious affordability problems, with some longtime residents priced out of Lakewood. According to census data, 24% of Lakewood residents live in poverty — more than double the statewide poverty rate, which is 9%.
These tensions are also felt by people who are younger than Herskowitz and newer to Lakewood. Tova Herskovitz (who is not related to Harold) moved to Lakewood 11 years ago when her husband was a student at BMG, and now they live in nearby Toms River with their young children.
She loves Lakewood. “It’s not just being able to afford a house. It’s just the quality of life,” said Herskovitz, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “It’s almost like when you hear people talk about the 1950s, where the kids would just be outside all day long. And then the mothers just come outside, call their name, and they come in for dinner.”
Still, the town is indisputably undergoing changes, and people don’t quite know what will come of them. “I kind of think of Lakewood as, like, an awkward teenager. It’s turning into something, something new, and no one’s really sure what to do,” she noted. “It’s kind of like a growth spurt, it just grew too fast, and it can’t fit into its clothing anymore.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in Lakewood’s K-to-12 school system, which is not a system so much as a loosely connected network of hundreds of separate boys’ and girls’ schools. Kotler, who is perhaps the strongest booster of a bigger and more business-savvy Lakewood, ascribes to the system a particularly American ideology. “It’s entirely free market,” he argued. “You move here, you want to open a yeshiva, you can. And if you can raise the money or put together the money and you can get the parents to send their kids, you’ll be successful.”
It’s a perspective he borrows from the yeshiva. The thousands of students at BMG can set their own course of study, choosing what topics or texts most interest them. But they have to prove that it’s worthwhile in the free market, Kotler said. “You want to start a program, you’re free to. But you’ve got to attract students to your program.”
Applied to primary education, the attitude seems to work, insofar as students are in schools. But the system is not easy to navigate. And it’s only going to get more challenging: 48% of Lakewood residents are younger than 18, and 17% are preschool age or lower.
Herskovitz and her friends have to drive their children to Lakewood through the morning traffic slog — or they can organize buses, but they have to do it on their own. “Opening new schools has not kept up the same pace as families are moving in. It’s a real problem,” she said.
Many of the people in Herskovitz’s community in Toms River have no connection to the yeshiva, but they are drawn to the area for everything else it has to offer: proximity to family, connection to a growing entrepreneurial scene, thriving Jewish life and culture, and schools, even if difficult to navigate.
“The whole point was to get away from the hubs of New York, of Modern Orthodox and where there was so much influence of outside society,” said Adam Ferziger, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel who studies Jewish religious movements. “But now, Lakewood is this metropolis itself, and has all those things.”
Through all of this, the undisputed beating heart of Lakewood remains the yeshiva. “There still is a very, very strong core of tens of thousands of families that are living Kollel lifestyles,” said the Lakewood businessperson, referring to the married men who study full-time at the yeshiva’s Kollel and earn a stipend. (This is a different cohort from the men who are studying to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree.)
Last summer, the stipends given to the Kollel students increased for the first time in decades, from $4,200 annually to $13,500 annually. The effort will cost some $50,000,000 — an extraordinary sum that was raised almost entirely in Lakewood, a person with knowledge of the fundraising efforts told JI.
In the past, that money would mostly have come from wealthy BMG graduates who live in places like New York, Los Angeles or Baltimore. The fact that the donations came mostly from people who have stayed in Lakewood represents a major shift.
Lakewood’s nouveau riche may be giving back to their town’s central institution, but questions remain about the long-term impact of the influx of wealth on a place that began as a quiet, serious monument to learning.
“Throughout modern Jewish history, economic growth has been the harbinger of cultural change,” noted Ferziger. Lakewood is “a society that’s stratified, it’s a society that has very strong social controls, that are getting harder and harder for those social controls to be sustained.”
When I was meeting with Kotler, he pulled up a photo on his iPhone of a sign he saw at a local liquor store. “Because of our values, we are no longer selling wine over $99.99 or whiskey over $249.99.”
“I’m still old school, because I thought $249 for a bottle of whiskey was still a lot,” said Kotler. ”Poverty is a challenge. Wealth is a challenge. And having neither is a challenge. Life is always a set of opportunities. So with greater wealth comes interesting opportunities, and some challenges.”
One challenge Lakewood does not worry about is maintaining robust Jewish life. The entrepreneurial spirit of the town extends to its synagogues, too. Herskovitz described the communal vibe of people joining together to build a new synagogue in her Toms River community.
“Everyone’s pitching in to help,” she said. “The shul where I am, the Aron Kodesh [Torah ark] was made by one of the first people who moved into the community. He was a plumber. He was really good with his hands, and he built it out of wood and spray-painted it.”
Philip Roth wrote novels that preserved a particular postwar Jewish aspiration — the move to the suburbs, to respectability, to having manicured green lawns — in amber. Roth’s New Jersey feels thousands of miles away from the New Jersey of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, though they were there at the same time.
In Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s debut short story collection, one story tells the tale of a group of secular Jews in a bucolic New Jersey suburb who seek to shut down a yeshiva run by a Holocaust survivor. A Jewish lawyer named Eli is appointed by his friends to confront the man who wears only dark suits and speaks a Yiddish-tinged English. Eli is tasked with getting the rabbi to, at the very least, wear normal clothes — nu, he’s not in the shtetl anymore, can’t he blend in with the Protestant neighbors?
The attorney goes to meet with the rabbi, who is often surrounded by weary children, orphans who came to the U.S. as refugees at the end of the war. He begins to soften when he hears the rabbi tell his story.
By the end, Eli sheds his own clothes and runs around town in the rabbi’s heavy black suit. His secular friends have him committed to an insane asylum. But through it all, the yeshiva remains open.
Lakewood is not a community where elders fear that young people will stop keeping Shabbat to keep up with business needs, or to make neighbors less uncomfortable. This, Kotler argues, is the ultimate vindication of his grandfather’s vision.
“My grandfather was completely countercultural. He was a cultural revolutionary to say that traditional Judaism can thrive and flourish here, and we can build Torah, build yeshivas, and we can do it here in America,” said Kotler.
Marshall Sklare, an influential Jewish sociologist, famously wrote in 1955 that the history of Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. “can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay.” That prediction turned out to be incorrect.
“The models that sought to minimize their Judaism failed or are failing, which is tragic,” Kotler explained. “Tragic for them, for us, for everybody. Tragic for the world because the Jews are a great asset for the world.”