Notes From New Jersey: Contemplating COVID-19 and Lakewood.

Here in New Jersey, the second hardest-hit state in the country after New York, we’re scrambling to control the coronavirus. Currently we have 25,590 confirmed cases, with many symptomatic people untested and a 160,000 test backlog at Quest Labs. There have been almost 550 deaths and we’re at least two weeks away from hitting the projected peak. About a quarter of all nursing homes are infected. Newark, East Orange, Orange, and Irvinington are on a complete lockdown and everyone else is supposed to only leave home to shop for essential items or get a little (socially-distant) exercise. 

I don’t know how long this will last. Rutgers University just announced that all summer classes will be taught remotely. My son is bouncing off the walls. My husband just found a bag of masks he bought for some woodworking project years ago and left them prominently on the kitchen counter. For the first time in, well, forever, we won’t have 25 relatives over for a Passover seder next week but will just Zoom with our kids. This is really hard, even for a total introvert like me.

But we are so lucky. We have a roomy house and a backyard and a beautiful set of walking trails (Mercer Meadows) nearby. At brightbeam everyone works remotely and my job is safe; our other kids are able to work from their homes/apartments too. And our neighbors and family take coronavirus restrictions seriously, knowing they are necessary to flatten the curve, an approach that only works if everyone is on board.

But what happens when everyone is not on board? Like in Lakewood, New Jersey?

I’m thinking here of the anti-vaxxers who rely on herd immunity, privileging their own nonsensical beliefs (vaccines cause autism!) over their community’s health. Or the anti-accountability folk, almost all middle and upper-class, who disdain standardized testing because the benefits accrue to the underprivileged by exposing socio-economic and racial gaps in our education system.

It’s so selfish, right? My kids will be fine so don’t bother me with those who won’t. As a Jew, this attitude feels to me distinctly un-Jewish. After all, one of our basic tenets is tikkun olam, which means trying to repair the world, fighting for social justice. 

Lakewood probably has more Jews than anywhere else in New Jersey, about 70% of the more than 100,000 residents, mostly ultra-Orthodox members of the Haredi sect. The city should exemplify tikkun olam. But it’s not. And I’m trying to figure out why.

Over the years I’ve covered in detail the ways in which the 6,000 students enrolled in Lakewood Public Schools –almost all low-income and Latino–are cheated by a system that privileges the 35,000 children who attend private Jewish day schools. In fact, next year’s school district budget of about $204 million projects $50,462,905 (a 21% increase from last year) for tuition to private schools that serve Haredi children with special needs, plus yeshivas that recoup the cost of special education for students who may or may not be eligible for special education. (You can’t just walk into a yeshiva and check.) Transportation, largely for yeshivas, will cost $33,083,756 for gender-specific and yeshiva-specific buses, a 7% increase over last year. The School Board assumes the state will fork over a “loan” of  $61,171,290 which, coupled with the Board’s inability to stay within their means, comes to a grand total of $139,443,915 in loans from the state that Lakewood will never pay back.

Over the last few weeks various media have documented the ways in which Haredi residents have disregarded pleas –including from the the Vaad, a group of eleven men who control all educational, political, budgetary, and construction activity — to follow the rules.  Tuesday police intervened in an engagement party and yesterday 15 men were arrested at an ultra-Orthodox funeral where 70 people clustered  Police have also been summoned to a bat mitzvah last week, four weddings, and to a yeshiva where, despite orders for all public and private schools to close, is housing somewhere between 25-100 Haredi young men.

So it’s no surprise that Lakewood has the highest percentage of COVID-19 diagnoses in Ocean County and proportionately more than the rest of the state.

As such, they’re cheating the non-Haredi population, mostly Latino. Alejandra Morales, the head of La Voz and a frequent presence at School Board meetings, said that her neighbors don’t have enough food.  “We make your businesses and institutions strong; we clean your homes and stores; we cook your food and take care of your children,” she said. “Today, we need your help.” After Gov. Murphy put in place strict social distancing rules, the school district summoned parents to stand on a long line close together to pick up chromebooks for remote learning.

The help Morales’ community needs to stay safe goes beyond food and chromebooks.

Rabbi Aaron Kotler, president of the all-men Yeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha (the largest ultra-Orthodox college in the country) and the leader of the Vaad, blames Lakewood’s infection rate on the Purim holiday, which was on March 9th this year.  Purim is a wonderful, raucous holiday with readings of the Megillah, parades where people dress in costume, and lots of drinking and dancing. The state hadn’t come out with its socially-distancing rules and people didn’t know how serious things would get. Other Jewish leaders agree

But that doesn’t explain the recent engagement parties and weddings and still-open yeshiva. 

From today’s New York Times: “People want to talk about this virus as an equal opportunity pathogen, but it’s really not,” said Dr. Ashwin Vasan, a doctor and public health professor at Columbia University. “It’s going right to the fissures in our society.”

And who’s living in those societal fissures in Lakewood? The Latino community now at high risk of infection. And when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic their children live in the fissures of a broken school system that exercises the tyranny of the majority

I don’t know enough Hebrew to say what the opposite of tikkun olam is. But that’s what is going on in Lakewood right now. COVID-19 is bringing into sharp relief the fissures of society, sinkholes that capture the neediest among us. We live with this every day. Maybe it’s time to take action.

What do you think?

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