How Lakewood, N.J., Is Redefining What It Means To Be Orthodox in America
Seventy years ago, Rabbi Aharon Kotler built an enduring community of yeshiva scholars by making peace with capitalism
“The Primacy of Torah” was the motto for the grand commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Aharon Kotler, founder of the country’s largest yeshiva, Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, N.J. The memorial, called an azkarah, was marked with a series of events that spanned an entire weekend last November in and around the yeshiva and the surrounding community. The revered sage was remembered with reflections on his life and contributions in public talks in the yeshiva and throughout the town of Lakewood, as well as in special supplements in the major Haredi newspapers both here and in Israel. Many shiurim—lectures on Torah topics—were delivered to uplift his soul in the world beyond.
The memorial was not a purely somber affair, however. The yeshiva seized the occasion as an opportunity to celebrate the phenomenal success of the institution Kotler had founded 70 years before. Hundreds of alumni from all over the globe returned to their alma mater for the weekend in a type of homecoming. The azkarah culminated in a large “Main Yarzeit Program,” open to the public and attended by thousands of people, which took place outside on an empty lot within the yeshiva campus on which a large new beit midrash, or house of study, will soon rise. Leaders and representatives from various segments of the Haredi Ultra-Orthodox community came to pay their respects in a demonstration of the universal esteem the Lakewood Yeshiva seems to enjoy.
The much-repeated theme of the many encomia to the yeshiva’s late founder was that Kotler, a refugee from Eastern Europe, fundamentally changed what it meant to be an Orthodox Jew in America. Kotler insisted that it was possible to establish in the treife medina—a social environment inhospitable to the values of Torah study and Orthodox Judaism—a community of scholars whose purpose in life would be the study of Torah “for its own sake,” without concern for livelihood, and at the level of the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe destroyed in the Holocaust. But for the arrival of Kotler, the narrative goes, serious Torah study could never have developed in America.
The small yeshiva Kotler founded with 14 students in 1942 is now a mega-yeshiva with 6,600 students and satellite institutions spread throughout North America and beyond. The growth of the yeshiva has in turn driven the growth of the surrounding community of Lakewood; a sleepy resort village in 1942, it is now a large town with over 55,000 Orthodox inhabitants. For many years, the Lakewood yeshiva has been the central and most respected academic institution within the community of Ashkenazi Lithuanian Orthodox Jews in America, and the town of Lakewood has attained a “city upon a hill” reputation as an exemplary community where Torah study is the highest value.
There are assuredly many factors that have contributed to the success of the Lakewood yeshiva, chief among them its determination to be the American yeshiva with the best students and the highest standards. There is another important factor, however, one that went unexamined in the articles published and speeches delivered on the occasion of the yahrzeit: Lakewood’s seamless integration into American society. Although Reb Aharon (as the founder is referred to within the yeshiva world) was radically countercultural, an uncompromising opponent of the American pursuit of wealth and pleasure, his yeshiva has made its peace with American bourgeois values. Many of Lakewood’s alumni sacrifice financially to pursue vocations as educators and community rabbis, and a few do spend their lives in penurious full-time study, but most enter the business world and build lives of white-collar respectability and commercial success, with the attendant trappings of a comfortable suburban lifestyle. Lakewood’s integration of yeshiva ideology and American capitalist lifestyle has been the object of critique from the more hardline Israeli Haredis whose uncompromising stance has put them at odds with the larger society in which they live. But it is these baalebatim, or householders, and others like them who provide the substantial financial support necessary to keep the Lakewood yeshiva, as well as the many other community institutions, going and growing.
Aharon Kotler was born in 1892, in Sislovitz, Russia, and at a young age he was known as an illui, a prodigy. He studied at the famed yeshiva in Slobodka, Lithuania, and then at the yeshiva in Slutzk, where he married the daughter of its head, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. Kotler became the head of the yeshiva in Kletzk, a Polish border town, when he was 29, where he became known as one of the great Talmudic scholars of his time and a leader of Eastern European Orthodox Jewry. Kotler held his position for nearly two decades, moving his yeshiva to Vilna upon the outbreak of World War II; after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, he fled to Japan by way of Siberia together with a small group of students. He crossed the Pacific with the help of a refugee assistance organization, arriving in San Francisco with his family in 1941 at the age of 49. He immediately took the train to New York and threw himself into relief efforts on behalf of the Jews he had left behind in Europe, before founding his new yeshiva the next year.
At a time when American Jews, including Orthodox ones, were intent on acculturation, the pursuit of the American dream of material success though higher education and professional training, Kotler insisted that such aspirations were empty, constituting the sacrifice of eternal well-being for ephemeral this-worldly gratification. Kotler believed that the sole purpose of Jews on this planet was to observe the commandments, and above all, to study Torah. Follow this path, Kotler promised, and God will provide whatever material sustenance one needs. Kotler’s bold idea was to establish a yeshiva for adult men on the model of the elite Lithuanian yeshivas, where Talmud would be studied day and night for its own sake, without any ulterior career motivations or concerns for social advancement. Students in Kotler’s yeshiva would not be allowed to attend college at night, unlike students at the few other Orthodox yeshivas that existed in America at the time. An even more radical idea of his was that even after marriage, young men should receive community support to continue their life of study.
Kotler’s vision captured the imagination of a segment of the younger generation of American Orthodox Jews who thirsted for the intellectual and spiritual excitement and the purity of purpose that his yeshiva promised. From 14 students, most of whom were refugees themselves, the yeshiva grew to 200 students by the time Kotler died in 1962. Upon his death, the leadership of the yeshiva passed to his son Shneur, who continued to expand the yeshiva. At the time of Shneur Kotler’s death in 1982, the yeshiva had 800 students, and leadership passed to his son Malkiel and three other members of the Kotler family. Over the past 30 years, the yeshiva has experienced explosive growth. With 6,600 students today, it is by far the largest yeshiva in America; its only global rival is the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which has over 7,000 students. According to Rabbi Moshe Gleiberman, the school’s vice president of administration, the yeshiva has been growing at a 7 percent annual rate in recent years, and that rate is expected to rise.
During Shneur Kotler’s tenure an ambitious program was launched to establish “Lakewood community kollels”—yeshivas for older married students with an active outreach component, staffed by alumni—in Orthodox communities throughout the country. Through its affiliate institutions, the reach of the yeshiva is geographically extensive. In a glossy, marketing-savvy brochure put out by the yeshiva in conjunction with the azkarah, a large map of the United States identifies 165 yeshivas and schools, 48 kollels, and 106 synagogues, all founded by alumni of Lakewood. An additional 33 such institutions founded by alumni are located in other countries.
Like the yeshiva itself, the Orthodox community of Lakewood has enjoyed tremendous growth in recent years. Based on census figures, the town of Lakewood grew to 93,000 residents in 2010 from 60,000 residents in 2000, an increase of over 50 percent in the span of a decade. Lakewood is now the seventh-largest municipality in New Jersey. According to the yeshiva’s administration, 59 percent of the town’s total population, or 55,000 residents, belong to the frum or Orthodox community. Perhaps the most startling statistic is the community’s birthrate: 4,000 babies were born in the past year alone. In order to serve the community, hundreds of communal institutions have been established, including synagogues, yeshivas, and kollels, but the community faces enormous strain in accommodating the unceasing demand for more and more pre- and primary schools. A tour of the town indicates that the growth is continuing unabated. Housing is going up all over, with new neighborhoods being built further and further away from the yeshiva, which continues to serve as the spiritual, and to a great extent, the administrative hub of the Orthodox community. Lakewood has also begun to attract residents from Brooklyn and Long Island who never had any connection with the yeshiva, drawn by the relatively cheap housing and the reputation of the schools and the community. This influx has led to some social tension, with longtime residents and alumni claiming that these newcomers do not share the “values” of Lakewood, such as properly modest dress on the part of women and commitment to the study of Torah on the part of men.
Lakewood is a big business, and the man running the financial and administrative side of the operation is Rabbi Aaron Kotler, the CEO of Beth Medrash Govoha—referred to locally by its initials, BMG—and Reb Aharon’s grandson and namesake. I visited the BMG executive offices the day after the conclusion of the azkarah. The offices are secluded— behind an intercom-protected locked door at the far end of the main cafeteria and up a staircase—and have the understated formal appearance of a high-priced law firm or investment bank rather than a yeshiva, with wood paneling, nameplates outside office doors, and a large conference room. Aaron Kotler assumed the role of CEO in 1995, when the yeshiva reportedly was on the verge of financial collapse. Together with the support of committed lay leaders from the business community, he is credited with stabilizing the institution and stewarding its growth in recent years. Kotler dresses the way you might expect of a Haredi CEO—well-trimmed beard, nicely-cut dark suit—and is very careful with his words. He does not call attention to himself and rarely strays from his message, that BMG is all about the yungeleit, the young married students who sacrifice for the study of Torah.
Kotler shared with me that the annual budget of BMG, including certain of its affiliate programs, is approximately $35 million. He wouldn’t specify the capital budget, other than to say that it is “huge.” He emphasized the responsibility that the yeshiva has to the community of Lakewood and demonstrated his intimate knowledge of a range of municipal issues and familiarity with the relevant state and local authorities and government officials. BMG’s influence over the municipality runs deep. The current mayor of Lakewood is a BMG alumnus, as was his predecessor. A committee of unelected community activists with strong ties to BMG known as the Vaad plays the role of askanim, intermediaries who work with government officials and politicians on behalf of Lakewood’s Orthodox community. Local politicians are happy to play ball with BMG and the Vaad because of the ongoing economic growth of Lakewood and the bloc of votes they represent. Every incoming student at Lakewood is expected to sign a voter registration card. The Vaad notifies the community of its candidate endorsements before every election, detailing the benefits the community received from each candidate. The Vaad’s pragmatic approach—candidates who help BMG and Lakewood deserve the community’s votes—ran into some community resistance when it endorsed Gov. Jon Corzine in his 2008 reelection bid, because of his support of gay marriage.
BMG’s pragmatic approach informs student life in the yeshiva as well. The Lakewood yeshiva is unusual in that it is a type of graduate school for older students. Most students arrive at the yeshiva when they are around 22, after they have already devoted a good number of years to intensive Talmud study, at a time when they are thinking of marriage and starting a family. A rule prohibits dating during the student’s first six months at the yeshiva (referred to as being “in the freezer”), but nearly all students get married soon after, within their first two years. Of the 6,600 students at Lakewood today, approximately 1,200 are single and 5,400 are married. Lakewood students are highly valued in the Orthodox marriage market. The young men meet women through the involvement of parents and the help of intermediaries, shadchanim, who earn a fee if a marriage results. I met a young married BMG student who runs a successful matchmaking business—no doubt his vantage point in the beit midrash provides him with a critical competitive edge. The yeshiva supports the efforts of students to get married by offering a range of classes on topics thought to be critical to a proper Jewish home, as well as premarital counseling. Married students receive a small stipend from the yeshiva; $85 a week, according to one student I spoke to. Yungeleit are able to get by financially through a combination of the income of the wife, who typically works while her husband studies, the yeshiva stipend, government support, and support from parents. BMG is an accredited college and grants undergraduate and masters degrees. Students therefore are eligible for student loans, Pell grants, and work-study pay. Given their low declared income, these families are entitled to inexpensive or free health care from the state of New Jersey, as well as food stamps.
Most BMG students at some point leave the yeshiva to make money to support their growing families, usually when they reach their late 20s or early 30s. Finding jobs or establishing careers that would provide an adequate income to comfortably support a large, growing family would appear to be a daunting task for a 30-year-old adult male with no real secular education beyond the eighth grade, but BMG alumni seem to have figured out how it can be done. Some go for quick college degrees at state universities or private universities like Touro; others are able to use their BMG degrees in Talmudic law, together with credible board scores, to get directly into masters degree programs in business and accounting. Some are able to gain admittance to law schools: BMG alumni can be found at Columbia and Harvard law schools (not many, to be sure). Many go directly into business, joining a family business or starting their own, which can provide the flexibility of being able to continue to devote many hours on a regular basis to the study of Torah. One full-time student I met owns two drugstores in town and showed me how he is able to track cash register transactions in real time on his smartphone.
Visiting the batei midrash of BMG—the yeshiva has eight main study halls—it is easy to envision how the students could function well in corporate jobs at banks or law firms. Each beit midrash is tightly packed with row upon row of chairs, and the students appear to tackle their studies with their chevrusas, or study partners, in a disciplined, workmanlike manner. They are mostly from the Lithuanian community of Haredi Jews and therefore wear dark business suits rather than the long coats of Hasidic Jews and are generally clean-shaven and well groomed. English, not Yiddish, is their primary language, which they speak unaccented. Wearing a yarmulke, or even having one’s tzitzit strings showing, is no longer a barrier to employment, at least in the New York area. Many careers are of course foreclosed by the lack of secular education, such as the sciences or engineering, but these students have a very practical focus on earning a good living. The material comforts provided by a successful business career—a large house, resort vacations, fine clothes—are not considered, in and of themselves, inconsistent with a life of piety.
The “Primacy of Torah” was an apt phrase for the motto for the azkarah, as it hints that there is something else that serves as a necessary supplement to the study of Torah, namely making money. The pragmatic approach of Lakewood stands in stark contrast to that of the Lithuaninan Haredi community in Israel, where the prevailing ideology is one of “Only Torah.” Yeshiva students there are expected to devote their entire lives to the study of Torah; secular education and jobs are actively discouraged. According to Dr. Benjamin Brown, a Hebrew University lecturer whose research focus is Orthodox Judaism and Haredi society, Israeli Haredis view their American counterparts with a measure of condescension: The bourgeois lifestyle of American Haredis may be acceptable “for them” in America, but not in Israel, where the Haredis hold themselves to a higher, less compromising, and more austere standard. Torah study itself in America is also considered by Israeli Haredis to be on a lower level, which Brown believes is supported by the fact that “American bochurim [unmarried yeshiva students] come to learn in Israel, not vice versa.” The same perspective was shared with me by Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, a Haredi religious court judge in Jerusalem. According to Pfeffer, the “mainstream” Israeli Haredi “looks upon his Lakewood counterpart as being part of the American experience of affluence and luxury and generally believes that Torah greatness cannot emerge from America—even from Lakewood.”
I asked Aaron Kotler what he thought of these assessments of Lakewood by Israeli Haredis and, not surprisingly, like a good CEO, he declined to respond. Kotler does not appear to harbor within himself any doubts concerning the rectitude of Lakewood’s religious path and its scholarly achievements, and he would therefore have no need to defend himself and his institution. He may also recognize that behind the critique there lies covert respect or even admiration. Pfeffer noted that Lakewood, and the American Haredi community more generally, is perceived by Israeli Haredis to be more “tolerant,” allowing its members “greater freedom of choice in leading their lives: the choice to work rather than learn is not shunned, the dress code is not as rigid … and the ‘prohibitions’ (against iPhones, iPads, etc.) are more flexible.” Although some see this greater tolerance and flexibility as evidence of weakness and compromise, others “admire the American model and wish there could be more tolerance and freedom of choice in the Israeli Haredi experience,” he said. As the constraints barring young Haredi men from entering the workforce and business world in Israel are beginning to loosen, and with the political pressure unleashed in the last election on Haredi society to “share the burden,” the Lakewood model may become more than a secret wish. The “primacy” of Torah may one day rival or supplant the Israeli Haredi ideology of “only” Torah—another example, perhaps, of the steady Americanization of Israeli society.
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