Broad Concerns Over “Rise Up Ocean County”

LAKEWOOD -
A home in Toms River.

A recently formed group known as “Rise Up Ocean County” (RUOC) has drawn accusations of anti-Semitism with a movie trailer released online as a preview to what it says will be a full-length documentary on the growth of the Orthodox community in Lakewood and surrounding towns.

Drawing particular ire was an opening monologue of one clip that adapts the words of a well-known Holocaust era poem by German cleric, Martin Niemoller, lamenting the results of failing to combat evil that affects others until confronted with it personally.

However, Rise Up Ocean County’s narrator applied the theme to the cause of grassroots movements in towns surrounding Lakewood that discourage residents from selling their homes to Orthodox Jews.

“First they came for my house, but I did not speak up. I said I am not willing to sell, and closed my door, then I put up a no-knock sticker and felt accomplished,” the recitation begins, continuing to list other things “they came for,” including “my forests” and “my school board.” The section ominously concludes, “They came back for my house and ignored my sticker, because there was no one left to speak for me.”

The narrative of other sections of the short clips largely focus on demographic data relating to matters such as the projected cost to bus increasing numbers of private-school children, high levels of dependency on social welfare programs, overdevelopment and the number of homes that would be needed to support the growth of the area’s Orthodox community at present rates. These segments, too, are introduced with dramatic statements.

“We have been asked repeatedly why we focus so much of our efforts on Lakewood and have been accused of anti-Semitism and been called fascists. The reality is that we have 240,000 reasons why,” says the anonymous narrator. The number 240,000, the film claims, is the projected population of Lakewood by the year 2030.

While most of the actual script is a presentation of facts and projections, their recitation is accompanied by foreboding background music, and the visuals are a steady stream of scenes showing Orthodox men, women and children.

“The images and the music, the whole presentation basically tells you what this group is really about,” Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a spokesman for the Lakewood Vaad, told Hamodia. “They’re taking a bunch of disjointed issues that one by one might have two legitimate sides, but what they’re doing is weaving them all into some devious conspiracy theory that starts to sound like Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Rabbi Weisberg said that representatives from the Orthodox community have met with law enforcement officials to discuss the possible threat posed by RUOC’s video releases, social media presence, and its somewhat vague call to action. The authorities, he said, have taken these concerns “seriously.”

While free speech enjoys wide constitutional protections in America, expressions deemed as “incitement” can be stopped by law enforcement. As the internet — and especially social media — have become the stage of choice for many “hate” groups, authorities sometimes act to combat such speech by forcing the service provider to remove the content. Rabbi Weisberg said that officials agreed that RUOC’s clips either “cross the line or come very close to it,” and that several legal responses remain open.

A spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, the body responsible for law enforcement in Lakewood and surrounding towns, declined to comment on the matter in response to an inquiry by Hamodia.

RUOC first launched its website and social media presence this past October. Its development was tracked by some community activists, but was largely ignored until the release of the film clips last week and the announcement of the full-length documentary in mid-February.

While other internet forums have attempted to shine a negative light on Ocean County’s rapidly growing Orthodox presence, RUOC’s level of “professionalism” has elicited a higher level of concern.

“Most of what’s out there against Orthodox Jews is very amateur and rough around the edges. But it’s clear that a lot of time and resources were put into this, and the result is something that is peddling hate, but doing it in a way that could appeal — and I think has appealed — to a broader audience,” a local activist who requested anonymity told Hamodia.

RUOC emphatically denies any accusations of anti-Semitism, saying in a response to an inquiry from Hamodia that it is focused on “behavior, not religion.”

“If similar material were posted regarding the growth of black or Hispanic communities, of course we would not be able to escape being labeled racist. It is the kneejerk response whenever we discuss any demographic, but saying that we are doesn’t make it so,” wrote an anonymous responder from the group’s “media inquiry” email address. “Given the identical circumstances that exist in Lakewood today and the same projected population explosion, rest assured that our pictures, videos and posts would reflect the majority population. And yes, if it was obese white Christians, we would feature them.”

RUOC’s spokesman said that the group “welcome[s]” growth based on Lakewood’s “4,000 live births per year,” but says the projected growth from “outside of the area, primarily Brooklyn” is “not organic.”

“The amount of new homes, the strain on infrastructure and public schools and the destruction of a delicately balanced environment are our concerns,” he said. In response to what form of action RUOC advocates, the spokesman said that it encourages residents to attend relevant public government meetings to assert “public pressure to do everything in their [local government’s] power to slow and properly manage the projected growth.”

Rabbi Weisberg said that despite public denials of anti-Semitism in their public forums, the content of the films defies such statements.

“Their words and their actions don’t match,” he said. “It seems their goal is to operate under an air of legitimacy and to play on the latent dislike of Jews that some people have. That’s why it’s important that it gets called out for its blatant anti-Semitism, so that no half-respectable person is comfortable being associated with them.”

While focusing chiefly on overdevelopment and related “quality of life” issues, RUOC’s website seems to take a general interest in highlighting negative views of Orthodox Judaism, featuring a link to a film glorifying individuals who have abandoned Torah observance and prominently displaying a large advertisement for an organization that “assists” people seeking to leave the Orthodox community.

Several observers who have followed its development have said that, although the group claims over 4,000 Facebook members, they believe that far fewer are Ocean County residents who are actively involved in RUOC or who subscribe to its message.

RUOC’s website seems to have several “administrators,” but a dossier recently compiled by an anonymous social media “watchdog” presents pages of evidence that the central figure is a Toms River resident in his mid-50s, Richard Ciullo. Mr. Ciullo runs an advertising business known as Ninja EA, which, among its services, offers social media marketing and video production. Ciullo was also implicated — and, in at least one instance, charged — with a list of several petty financial crimes, including writing bad checks and “theft by deception.”

As is the case in New York’s Rockland County, and other areas where Orthodox communities have seen substantial population growth, Ocean County has seen its fair share of pushback against the influx to the area of Jewish families and institutions. Actions and rhetoric have become intense at times, especially as more Orthodox Jews move into townships that neighbor Lakewood, such as Jackson and Toms River. The “Toms River Strong” movement, which sought to discourage residents from selling their homes to Jews, was copied in surrounding towns.

These tensions have given rise to several online forums targeting Orthodox growth in the area. An activist who has carefully tracked “Strong” movements and related social media trends said that he felt that the quality and tenor of RUOC’s clips and its stated intention to release a full documentary pose a far more serious threat.

“I think it’s a legitimate fear that something like this could go viral on the internet around the world, and if the wrong person watches it, he could decide to pull out a gun and go look for Jews — not just in Lakewood, but anywhere,” he said.