By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
As the search for housing for the ever-growing chassidish community intensifies, the lack of potential development sites is increasingly being realized. Various efforts had been undertaken but no real new results materialized. After taking stock of everything out there, a consensus is building in looking at Lakewood, New Jersey, as the next move.
Lakewood has the infrastructure to accommodate chassidish growth. In recent months, Belz has established a development south of Route 70, now considered the southern border of frum Lakewood. In addition, several Satmar developers have indicated that they are offering $50,000 discounts to Satmar chassidim choosing to buy homes in Lakewood.
On January 4, 2015, a presentation titled “A Day in Lakewood” was made by the Imperial Real Estate Agency, a real-estate firm in Lakewood, and coordinated by Yechezkel Steiner. The session began with discussions on all facets of the Lakewood community.
First to speak was Gavriel Manies, LRRC, who reviewed information and referrals regarding housing, health care, nutritional supplementation, and utilities assistance programs. Menachem Berkowitz, representing Chemed, the center of health education, medicine, and dentistry, discussed comprehensive health and nutrition services for adults and children.
Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller was proud to present an overview of Lakewood and its phenomenal growth. Moshe Newhouse described the services being provided by the Imperial real-estate agency.
Shimshon Balsam took stock of the many mosdos presently in Lakewood and their accomplishments. Avrumy Roth of Unique Mortgages demonstrated the possibilities of buying a home in Lakewood.
Gerlad Klein, Esq., walked the audience through the purchase and closing procedures. Lakewood’s current offers of a wide verity of townhouses, duplexes, and single-family homes was presented by Asher Zelig Brodt.
The decision by several kehillos to turn towards Lakewood comes after many years of efforts to establish new chassidish communities in places such as Camden, New Jersey; Philadelphia; Waterbury, Connecticut, Bushkill Falls, Pennsylvania; and various areas in Upstate New York.
A New Community
Plans for acquiring large tracts of property outside of New York City but within reasonable commuting distance have been repeatedly proposed. Historically, the Skverer community was the first to achieve success when they established New Square in Spring Valley, NY, in 1953 under the leadership of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky, zt’l (1899–1968), late Skverer Rebbe.
Kiryas Yoel was established in Monroe, NY, by Satmar in the 1970s beginning with the accumulation of parcels of land that were ultimately incorporated into a village. Today, Kiryas Yoel is the model to be emulated. The establishment of another community similar to Kiryas Yoel is the dream of all other chassidish communities.
Tash, in Boisbriand, Montreal; Nitra in Mount Kisco, NY; Pupa Yeshiva campus in Westchester, NY; Skver in Spring Glenn, NY; and several starts of year-round communities in the Catskills are amongst limited successful attempts at establishing observant enclaves outside of urban settings. Present and anticipated chassidish population growth continues to focus attention on the next new community.
Kiamesha Lake, NY. Vizhnitz of Monsey established its yeshiva for high-school and older boys in Kiamesha Lake, NY, in the Catskill Mountains region. Plans had been contemplated for a year-round community with the yeshiva as its nucleus. Rabbi Mendel Hager, son of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, serves as the Kiamesha Vizhnitzer Rav. Rabbi Mendel began his residence and tenure there as the first phase of 100 year-round homes that were completed in the fall of 2002.
In 2008, the Vizhnitz community was granted Planned Unit Development (PUD) status to expand their housing development in Kiamesha Lake in the Town of Thompson. Supervisor Anthony Cellini said the development will come in phases. “They want to build duplexes now rather than single-family homes because the homes are rather expensive and the taxes are adequate,” he said. “They like to live close together as the Hassidic community is known to, and therefore this new PUD will allow them to do so.”
The Vizhnitzer Kiamesha Lake community has developed impressively. However, growth unrelated to the yeshiva is limited. In conjunction with the yeshiva and the community of South Fallsburg, the Kiamesha Lake chassidish community continues to expand, though slowly.
Sloatsburg, 2002. In the summer of 2002, efforts were made to establish a large yeshivish community in Sloatsburg, NY. The location was considered ideal, since it is only 50 miles from Brooklyn and in between Monsey and Monroe. A major yeshiva had indicated its strong interest in participating in the development. However, due to a host of ecological, technical, and other reasons, that plan stalled on the drawing board.
Bushkill Falls, 2004. In April 2004, a major cooperative effort by representatives of several chassidish communities was undertaken to find large properties at attractive prices for development of homes. The target price for the home offerings were, at that time, to be in the $180,000–$200,000 range. Each home was to be a one-family unit on a half-acre site. Yeshivas and shuls were to be built to accommodate each kehillah. The costs of building the community institutions had already been included in the home prices. Mortgage payments were planned to be kept under $1,000 a month, with annual real-estate taxes under $2,000. In contrast, for example, any new condominium or co-op apartment in Williamsburg at that time that was larger than 2,000 square feet was a bargain at $400,000.
The supposed attraction was that Bushkill Falls was a 90-minute bus ride from New York City. An additional attraction would have been the much-anticipated realization of commuter-train linkups that would reduce travel time to the 40-minute range, though this was not, and is still not, an immediate reality.
The Belzer Efforts
The Belzer community appointed a committee titled Bnei Beischa (“children of your household”) to lead their search project. Bnei Beischa received the endorsement and encouragement of the Belzer Rebbe in Jerusalem. The committee established liaisons with Bobov, Ger, Vizhnitz (Bnei Brak and Monsey), Pupa, and Klausenberg (Boro Park), all of which indicated strong interest in spite of the many yeshiva and shul buildings that were then being built by them in Brooklyn and Monsey.
Tentatively, in response to surprisingly enthusiastic community member responses, the combined kehillos issued Indication of Interest forms to be completed by families considering the possibility. The next step would have been the taking of minimal deposits, under $10,000, to be held in escrow, as serious initial commitments. If enough families, presumably 500, were prepared to make the move, formal legal contracts would have been entered into, and building of homes would have started. If not, the monies would have been fully refunded. Each kehillah was to be allotted space proportional to their membership representation of homes bought.
An initial meeting of kehillah representatives was held in April 2004 at the offices of Agudath Israel. The Agudah was to provide the umbrella services required. Representatives of participating kehillos met again on April 25, moving the concept one step closer to reality. A meeting of concerned rabbis and leaders was to be held shortly thereafter and, hopefully, a supporting kolkoreh (proclamation) was to be endorsed and issued announcing the birth of a new chassidish community.
Simultaneously, in April 2004, plans had been coordinated to create a chassidish development in the Philadelphia area. Rabbi Chaim Wassertheil, Rimenover Rebbe in Boro Park, led that project, which offered four-bedroom garaged homes on 30-by-100-foot lots at under $250,000. The homes were to have Pesach kitchens and other amenities. The new endeavor was to have Yiddish-speaking educational institutions for both boys and girls (separately, of course) and a variety of chassidish shuls. In the Philadelphia project’s hoped-for first phase, the nucleus of 300 homes was to be initially occupied. Its second phase was to be an offering of 3,500 homes. The initial development, named Kirya Hachasidit, was being handled by the First Leader Development Company.
Situated near the existing 2,000-family-strong observant community of Philadelphia, the availability of shuls, schools, groceries, restaurants, pizza stores, and mikvaos was a positive factor. The 20-minute walking distance would have been reduced as the two communities grew and expanded towards each other. The Rimenover effort had been started and the First Leader Development Company invited inquiries and sought submission of family information to help fine-tune the start of a new chassidish community.
In May 2004, the Rimenover effort reported that more than 200 families had registered and that many others had forwarded their indications of interest. The proposed second phase of the new community in the Greater Philadelphia area was to be called Be’eras Hamayim (named after the sefer authored by the renowned Rimenover Rebbe, zt’l) and was to be located adjacent to an affluent area. The homes were to be 2,600 square feet or larger and within a 15-minute commute of professional and industrial areas. The nearby yeshivish community is less than a 20-minute walk away. The Rimenover Rebbe was to head the yeshivas to be established in the new community.
Other Search Possibilities
Various representatives of the kehillos visited a number of areas. Committee members met with municipal members of Waterbury, in what was seen as having great promise. The Waterbury Yeshiva had by then acquired a phased-out university campus. The yeshiva was well on its way to success and the establishment of a viable observant community. Though it did not attract chassidim, the Waterbury Yeshiva continues to attract more and more yeshivish families.
Camden, immediately adjacent to Philadelphia and alongside Cherry Hill, also was reviewed. Camden had virtually unlimited homes available for $20,000 that needed extensive renovation. For a grand total of $50,000 to $75,000, rebuilt comfortable homes were possible. Camden, however, then ranked as the most dangerous city in America and the possibility of a genteel, passive, mild-mannered chassidish community existing in its midst was simply unimaginable. Newark, NJ, too was considered and rejected for similar reasons.
In its last efforts, the Sheva Kehilos search committee negotiated for vast tracts of land near the Goshen, NY area. Goshen, at exit 124 on Route 17, is less than 20 miles from Kiryas Yoel, at exit 131. It seems that much of the enthusiasm and excitement at the beginning of the Sheva Kehilos searches simply dissipated. Large areas in Far Rockaway were also under consideration, but were rejected because of the public boardwalk and public beaches.
In July 2006, Nadvorna chassidim, under the leadership of Rabbi Zev Alter Rosenbaum of Williamsburg (son of Rabbi Yerachmiel Usher Mordechai Rosenbaum, zt’l, 1926–1990, Clevelander Strozenitzer Rebbe in Williamsburg and author of SifseiReim) entered into negotiations with the Scranton School Board to purchase the East Scranton Intermediate School building on Quincy Avenue in the Hill section of Scranton. Having an impressive infrastructure of shuls and yeshivas already in place, Scranton has the virtues of mikvaos, kosher food, transportation, and affordable housing. In addition, the municipality of Scranton was most receptive to the possibility of new residents.
A bid of $400,000, together with a substantial cash deposit, was submitted for the unused 23,235-square-foot school building built in 1927. The building has been closed since 2002 and was put up for sale. The building had been appraised at $350,000 to $375,000. The sale required the approval of the Lackawanna County Court, generally just a formality.
Approximately ten area private homes were also contracted for purchase at the time of the bid by Nadvorna in anticipation of the Nadvorna Rebbe’s move from Williamsburg to Scranton. The school building was to be the nucleus of an anticipated 1,000 families that would move there within the very next few years.
The Nadvorna bid was accepted by the School Board, by a 7–0 unanimous vote. Subsequent to the Nadvorna bid, another real-estate enterprise submitted a higher bid. The Times-Tribune of Scranton spelled out its position on the matter, articulating clearly that the Scranton School Board must honor its sales contract. Though a higher bid materialized, “The Scranton School Board, however, must stand by an agreement it had reached earlier to sell the property for $400,000 to the Nadvorna Hassidic community of Brooklyn, NY. That group plans to use the building as a school that would be the anchor for the relocation of 80 to 100 families to the Hill section, and eventually the relocation of up to 1,000 families.”
In August 2007, the Lackawanna County Court rejected the Nadvorna bid on technical grounds, favoring the subsequent larger bid. Though the basic location ingredients that originally attracted the Nadvorna group remain unchanged, the entire effort seems to have lost steam and failed with the court rejection.
The New Community Attempts
In 2008, the Satmar community had announced the formation of its Vaad Hadirois (Committee for New Homes) and the opening of an office for the purpose of soliciting interest and establishing a new community. The office began distributing applications for the purchase of new homes in a proposed new community. It was being established with all anticipated amenities in a developed area in an undisclosed location within commuting distance of other observant communities in the New York City metropolitan area. The new homes were to be freestanding and from 1,500 square feet to 3,800 square feet on land parcels of at least one-quarter acre.
The First Steps. Completed applications were accompanied by refundable $5,000 deposits. Applicants were asked about shul affiliation, an indication that the new community was not to be exclusively Satmar, but that the welcome mat was out for other chassidish followings as well.
The proposed land tract consisted of more than 1,000 acres, as opposed to Boro Park or Williamsburg which is each on less than 700 acres. Satmar’s information disclosure indicated that it was not in Brooklyn nor was it in the Catskills. Nevertheless, it is a year-round area. More than three years and tens of millions of dollars had been invested in searching for and developing the acquisition. Vaad Hadirois strongly discouraged private speculation as well as individuals visiting the immediate area so as not to create confusion or resentment.
Six different building plans are being offered in a variety of sizes. The target date for the first homeowners to move in to their new homes was Pesach 2009. Upon submission of the first 150 applications, construction was supposed to begin immediately.
First-Come, First-Served. The first phase of development was to be the completion of 150 homes. Plainly, the first group of purchasers were to have the benefit of lowest prices. In addition, they were also to have the option of opening businesses to serve the community, such as the grocery stores, pharmacies, shuttle transportation services, etc. First choice on new homes, for growing families or for children being married, will be theirs as well.
Chassidish Demographic Growth
The chassidish community as a whole has grown and continues to grow at phenomenal rates. The mean (average) chassidish family has seven children, who generally will marry young and start families of their own. The chassidish population as we know it today in the United States arrived after the Holocaust. Baby boomers were the first wave of chassidish births. These baby boomers today, as opposed to others in the general population, are grandparents and great-grandparents. With so many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, bli ayin ha’ra, there are almost a thousand Satmar weddings annually in Williamsburg alone! (Seven times seven times seven times seven equals 2,401.)
To date, the most formidable effort in recent years is that of Satmar in Bloomingburg. Studying the success of observant communities in Israeli cities such as Ashdod and Elad, Satmar’s initiative will ultimately prove successful, be’H. However, the main direction that is developing is Lakewood, which is eclipsing Monsey, Kiryas Yoel, and all other choices. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.