Bergen Record columnist James Ahearn writes about the school busing story in Lakewood, where Orthodox schools open on Thanksgiving had requested that their public school bus drivers work on the holiday:
Well, the Orthodox aren’t the first group of immigrants to look out for their own. And Lakewood hasn’t seen the acrimonious friction that developed in New York State when Orthodox Jews took over school boards in Lawrence on Long Island, in East Ramapo in Rockland County and in Kiryas Joel in Orange County.
Still, something valuable is lost when one faction in a community squares off against others and the outlook is for more of the same.
Get me rewrite.
First of all, the Thanksgiving story is not the best example of Lakewood’s Orthodox community “squaring off” against others. As Ahearn himself notes, “people involved are trying to fashion a common-sense solution” to the busing issue. (That leads to a rather icky headline, “No cause for thanks in South Jersey township.”) Ahearn is on firmer ground when he writes of an Orthodox-dominated school board that votes against spending increases that would benefit the public schools.
But because he hasn’t exactly thought through all the implications of his essay, and doesn’t speak to any of the Orthodox stakeholders in the town, it’s not clear what Ahearn is asking for. Implied is a warning and suggestion to Orthodox leaders that they think beyond their parochial interests as they wield influence in the town. I’ve written as much in the past. You can’t deny any group the right to wield influence in a democracy, although you can call on them to embrace a larger vision of community. As Orthodox communities both grow and turn inward, they risk alienating their neighbors, ignoring the needs of others, and (here’s the self-interested part) creating a hillul Hashem – that is, desecrating God’s name in front of the gentiles.
But like I said, this sort of argument is only implied in Ahearn’s piece. At the pshat level, as a Talmudist might say, he just sounds grumpy and fed up with those people, and provides fuel for the extremely angry people who tend to comment on Lakewood stories in the Asbury Park Press.
As a Jewish newspaper editor, I have more leeway in criticizing fellow Jews — it’s an inside conversation. Ahearn would have done himself and his readers a favor by talking to some Jewish leaders and observers, perhaps those who have worked with Lakewood leaders on perception issues and share his view, as I do, that the Lakewood model is a troubling formula for democracy and community relations.
It would have given him some cover, and deepened a shallow and potentially inflammatory piece.
UPDATE: Who is Ahearn calling “immigrants”? Not that there is anything wrong with that, but the folks from Lakewood are overwhelmingly American-born, if I am not mistaken — or at least no more “immigrants” than any other American population. I think he means “ethnic group.”