Representatives of Agudath Israel of America sharply denied and rebutted accusations of an organized strategy of “blockbusting” and the existence of a “decree” to members of the Orthodox community to move into towns surrounding Lakewood, leveled by officials of Jackson Township.
“Jackson Township’s complaint about a ‘blockbusting-style plan’ and ‘decree’ ostensibly plotted by representatives of Agudath Israel of America is totally groundless,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudah’s New Jersey director. “There is no such plan, no such decree. Encouraging members of Agudath Israel’s growing constituency to consider affordable housing opportunities in new neighborhoods is simple, sound advice.”
The township’s claims are based on statements made by Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president of community services for the Agudah, at the organization’s annual convention this past fall, in a talk regarding the housing crisis among Orthodox Jews in the New York area. In the recording, he encouraged young families to be “shtickle pioneers” and buy less-expensive homes outside settled areas of Jewish life, identifying several towns around Lakewood, including Jackson.
A local news outlet’s mistranslation of the Yiddish word “shtickle,” which actually means a little bit of something, and a general misunderstanding of the context in which it was used in the recorded address, became the basis for the claims.
The Shore News Network wrote an extensive article based on Rabbi Lefkowitz’s speech, identifying the term as meaning “something of second class.”
“The term ‘shtickle pioneer,’ as it pertains to Lakewood, means to settle in second-class surrounding towns, in the hopes that enough growth would ‘turn around’ those communities,” said the article.
Rabbi Lefkowitz offered a clarification of his words for those unfamiliar with the term, in wake of the uproar.
“Someone, who does not speak Yiddish, misled the public. ‘Shtickle pioneer,’ in Yiddish, means that the pioneer is a small pioneer and averse to risk. ‘Groise pioneer’ means that you are a big pioneer and ready to take big risks,” he said.
The report labeled Rabbi Lefkowitz’s statements a “decree” to the Orthodox public to settle en masse in the towns he referred to. The report was circulated by the grassroots group, Jackson Strong, and was subsequently referenced by Jackson’s Township Council president, Robert Nixon, at a meeting held Tuesday night, pointing to the remarks as evidence of a “cohesive attempt” to “take over” the town, labeling the statements “reprehensible.”
“To misrepresent remarks made by a prominent community leader… shows that there is a strong anti-chareidi agenda being spewed by Jackson Township’s politicians,” said Rabbi Schnall. Jackson’s mayor, Michael Reina, issued a joint statement together with Mr. Nixon calling the recording “troubling” and announcing that they had contacted federal and state authorities to review the recording.
However, Mr. Nixon told Hamodia that the township “has not, and does not intend to, draw its own legal conclusions about the content of the videos nor the nuances in meaning of particular Yiddish terms in particular contexts.
“The request for an investigation into blockbusting concerns therefore has little to do with Yiddish terms. That debate is merely a distraction from having an appropriate analysis of whether aggressive real estate agent tactics, real estate speculation and the use of LLCs to mask and shelter property owners from responsibility for their property are improperly impacting the real estate market and quality of life in Jackson,” he said. “Quality of life matters for every resident, regardless of who they are, and we have an obligation to ensure the laws are properly followed by residents and real estate speculators alike.”
Rabbi Schnall called the idea of an investigation by authorities “a farce” and said he was certain the Justice Department will respond accordingly.
“For the leaders of Jackson’s government bodies to make such rash claims stokes the already contentious feelings of many in the community,” said Rabbi Schnall. “Elected officials are held to a higher standard … I think the council would have a hard time taking these steps if they were directed at any other minority group.”
The present stir is the most recent in what many have identified as a concerted effort by elements in the town, which borders Lakewood, to resist a growing influx of Orthodox homebuyers. Similar sentiments have surfaced in other communities neighboring Lakewood, such as Toms River, where its mayor, Thomas Kelaher, referred to an influx of Orthodox homebuyers as an “invasion.”
Attorney Roman Storzer, who is representing Yeshivah Naos Yaakov in a court battle with Ocean Township, told Hamodia that the level of anti-Orthodox animus in towns around Lakewood was a “sad state of affairs.”
“There is a lot of fear and bigotry and a desire to keep them [Orthodox Jews] sequestered in the places that they already live,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the Friday edition of the daily Hamodia.