In the next NJ Legislature, Lakewood’s Avi Schnall may occupy the “Catbird Seat”

To understand fully the significance of Tuesday’s election for State Senate and Assembly in New Jersey’s 30th legislative district, it is not sufficient to merely understand the politics of the district’s largest municipality, Lakewood.  One must also be aware of economic trends in the Jewish community of Brooklyn and how in recent years, this has resulted in a major migration of young Orthodox Jewish families from Brooklyn to Lakewood.

Flatbush in Brooklyn has for some time been the neighborhood of choice for young Orthodox Jewish families seeking to purchase a home.  Property values in Flatbush have escalated, making the purchase of a first home in that neighborhood cost prohibitive.  Young families need to find an affordable alternative.  And they can find it in Lakewood, where due to the burgeoning migration from Brooklyn, it is about to become the fourth most populous municipality in the state.

To put this migration in perspective, one must compare and contrast the urban community of Brooklyn and the suburban community of Lakewood.  Both communities are not without their unique attractions.

I confess to a lifelong love affair with my favorite American city, Brooklyn, New York City’s Borough of Kings.  I say “American city,” because Brooklyn before 1898, had the status of a separate municipality.  On New Year’s Day, 1898, Brooklyn was merged with Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan to form the present City of New York.  This merger is still known in Brooklyn as the “Mistake of ‘98.”

Brooklyn still is the site of the largest Orthodox Jewish community in the Diaspora.  A Jewish visitor to Brooklyn on a Sunday will arrive in a wonderful world of synagogues, Jewish kosher cuisine, shops where one can purchase numerous items of Judaica, Hasidim with their large, warm families, and four still thriving Jewish sections: Flatbush (Midwood), Boro Park, Crown Heights, and Williamsburg.  Before a Jewish holiday, such as Pesach (Passover), a Jewish visitor to Brooklyn will literally feel an upsurge of energy as the streets are bustling with people purchasing goods for the approaching days of hallowed observance.

Yet my love of Brooklyn goes beyond my veneration of Judaism.   It was the residence of my all-time favorite writer, Pete Hamill.  It is an urban venue of the unique prominent architecture of brownstones and the wide diversity of neighborhoods of other ethnic cultures, including, but not limited to, Caribbean, Korean, African-American, Italian, and Scandinavian.

And for me personally, Brooklyn occupies my soul in terms of my unconditional love of sports.  It is the home of my favorite team in all of sports, the Brooklyn Nets of the NBA.  Even more compelling than that, Brooklyn was the home of my all-time favorite sports franchise, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team with the greatest, most loyal fans in the history of baseball’s National League until the end of 1957, after which team owner Walter O’Malley absconded with the ball club to Los Angeles in search of a personal land grab.

There were two aspects of the Brooklyn Dodgers that have enabled them to live on as ghosts, both having a political ramification.  The first is the role played by Jackie Roosevelt Robinson in America’s historic struggle for racial equality.  The second was their legendary broadcaster, Walter Lanier “Red” Barber.

The “Old Redhead” was wont to use a Southern saying for a ballplayer who was in an enviable situation in a baseball game: “He’s in the catbird seat.”

In the New Jersey 30th legislative district, if Democratic Assembly candidate Avi Schnall, himself born and bred in Brooklyn wins on Tuesday, he will be in the political Catbird Seat. Until recently a Republican, he is only running as a nominal Democrat, agreeing to caucus with the Democrats without bring committed to the passage of their center – left legislative agenda.

If the Democrats retain Assembly control, with their current 46-34 majority or less, as appears likely, they will need every single non-Republican vote to be assured passage of critical bills.  This will give Schnall considerable negotiating leverage for passage of his own legislative agenda promoting his district’s interests and thus put him in the figurative “catbird seat.”

Knowledge of how the Lakewood Jewish community evolved is critical to understanding its current politics.

Lakewood is famed both in Israel and the diaspora for Beis Medrash Govoha, a Hareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva, the second largest yeshiva in the world outside of Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  It was founded by Rabbi Aaron Kotler in 1943, a Lithuanian Jewish refugee from the Holocaust.  In the Jewish world, his memory is revered as” Rav Aharon,” a “Tzaddik,” a righteous man of unsurpassed ethics and justice.

There is a Yiddish word often used to describe Hareidi Lakewood Jews.  The word is “frum,” literally meaning “strictly observant,” but also connoting those who have attained a high degree of piety.

Lakewood is, for the most part, a Hareidi Jewish community, as distinguished from Modern Orthodox Jewry, the latter a community to which I belong.  There are basically two factors that differentiate Hareidi Jewry from the Modern Orthodox 1) the outlook on Israel and Zionism; and 2) the role of secular studies.

Modern Orthodox fervently support not only Israel but also Zionism, the belief that a Jewish State is not only essential for the safety and security of the Jewish people, but also a doctrine of supreme religious significance.  They believe that the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948 has constituted the beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people.   Israel Independence Day and the anniversary of the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six Day War of June, 1967 are celebrated as Jewish holidays.

Hareidi Jews support the safety and security of the State of Israel, as they make all efforts to protect the lives of all Jews, wherever they live and regardless of their degree of religious observance.  They do not, however, ascribe any religious significance to Israel’s existence.

As for the learning of secular subjects, Modern Orthodoxy advocates the philosophy of “Torah Umadda,” emphasizing the significance of studying both Torah and secular subjects, including science, humanities, and intellectual pursuits in general in order to gain a greater understanding of the world.  By contrast, Hareidi Jews believe in “Torah im derech eretz,” the pursuit of secular subjects to the extent necessary to learn proper behavior in society and successfully pursue an occupation.  They believe that the desire for intellectualism can be satisfied by intensive study of the Torah and Talmud.

Again, I am a Modern Orthodox Jew who fervently devotes himself to the study of secular subjects, most notably history and philosophy.  Yet my belief is that anybody who minimizes the deep intellectual accomplishment in the learning of Torah and Talmud is making a most grievous mistake.

Do not take my word for this.  Listen to the words of one of America’s foremost business developers and editors and publishers, Mort Zuckerman, the chair of US News and World Report and formerly also the chair of the New York Daily News.

Mort is a secular Jew who served from 2001 to 2003 as chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.  This is how he described a visit he made to Beis Medrash Govoha:

“It was at the behest of a rabbi I study with that I went and visited the Lakewood Yeshiva. I had never been to a yeshiva before in my life and I sort of did this out of some degree of curiosity but more out of a sense of moral support for what had been such a central part of this rabbis life but I have to tell you when I got there, I was absolutely knocked out by it. I will tell you that it was the single most intellectually active, energetic, fascinating environment I had ever witnessed. There was a sort of buzz and just sheer concentration and joy in the learning process and it was literally visible to somebody like myself. I mean, I said it afterwards, it made Harvard Law School, which I happen to have attended, look like a kindergarten. It was absolutely extraordinary to see so many people – from various walks of life – in there for the sheer joy of learning about their religious tradition. And the sheer intensity and intellectual demands of this place made it such a unique place to visit. So for me, it was absolutely a stunning experience and I wish everybody could have the chance not only to visit it but to have a guide like I did.”

There are two myths regarding the Lakewood Hareidi community that must be dispelled.

The first is that the men do not work but basically devote themselves solely to the study of Torah and Talmud, while the wives support the families.  That is true generally of Hareidi families in Israel, but not Lakewood, where the husbands not only work but have been largely productive and successful.

The second is that the Lakewood Hareidi are so insular that they have little or no contact with either non-Orthodox Jews or non-Jews. In fact, there are two counter-examples that display most graphically how effectively the Lakewood Hareidi community has interacted with the world at large to attain political objectives.

The first is Senator Bob Singer, who is a giant of New Jersey political history, with close to 40 years of distinguished service in the Legislature and an effective former mayor of Lakewood.  Although not Orthodox, his political partnership with the Lakewood Hareidi has given him a place of high honor in that community.

The second is a renowned Lakewood non-Jew, Larry Bathgate, one of New Jersey’s highest regarded real estate and development lawyers, a top-flight GOP fundraiser, and an intimate friend of former President George H. W. Bush.  Larry has worked closely and continuously with the Lakewood Hareidi community for decades, and I often tell him in jest that he merits the title of “honorary Jew.”

Now the Lakewood Hareidi community has reached a new stage in their political development.  The migration from Brooklyn has also been a vital asset to the spectacular economic growth and real estate boom in Lakewood, which up until now has enabled it to largely absorb its ultra-rapid population growth.  There is an extremely low amount of available office space, and the industrial and corporate parks are filled to capacity with successful business concerns.

There is a problem, however with sufficient quality infrastructure, transportation and otherwise capable of meeting Lakewood’s needs. Understandably, the Lakewood Hareidi community now seeks a seat at the political decision table to effectively make its case.  A first priority is a seat in the Assembly representing the 30th District.

The problem has been the lack of availability for such a seat.  The 30th Legislative District, consisting of Lakewood and the municipalities of Howell and Wall is a solid Republican district.  Indeed, the Lakewood Hareidi community is overwhelmingly Republican, and if Avi Schnall were not the Democratic candidate, both incumbent Republican Assembly members, Sean Kean and Ned Thomson would have overwhelming support in the Lakewood Hareidi community.  And Senator Bob Singer is beloved throughout the 30th.

The Lakewood Hareidi gave a solid majority vote to Jack Ciattarelli over Phil Murphy in the 2021 gubernatorial race.  Unlike the non-Orthodox elements of the Jewish community, which are almost universally liberal on social issues, Hareidim (plural of “Hareidi”) are anti-abortion, pro-school choice, and strong advocates of parental notification.

The perceived urgent need for representation in the legislature motivated the most politically involved elements of the Lakewood Hareidi community to seek a seat in the Assembly in this election, even on the Democratic ticket, rather than wait for a GOP opening.

So enter Avi Schnall. He is, at Jack Benny’s age of 39, a wunderkind in the world of Jewish leadership.

Since 2014, Avi has been the Director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel, the national advocacy organization for Hareidi Jewry, known colloquially in the Orthodox world as “the Agudah.”  The Orthodox Union serves a similar role for the Modern Orthodox community.

A note for followers of Jersey political media:  The Associate Director for Legislative Affairs of the Jersey Agudah office is Shlomo Schorr.  He is indeed a rising star in the worlds of New Jersey journalism and politics.

I can say in the most complimentary way that the Agudah is one of the most effective Jewish grassroots organizations of the past century.  A single episode in my life bears this out.

The pressures on Orthodox Jews to assimilate are often seemingly irresistible.  If Orthodox Jews ever begin to give in to these pressures, the continued future of the entirety of American Jewry and Judaism will be on a vanishing path.

That is why the Agudah will assist any Jew, Hareidi or Modern Orthodox, who is faced with pressures to work on Shabbat and/or Jewish holidays.  I had a family woman friend, a nurse, who had been given orders by a leading New York hospital to work on Shabbat.  She received the order one morning at 8:30 am and called me in an alarmed mood at 8:45 am.  I called the Agudah at 9:00 am, and they took charge of the situation.   By 12 noon, the order was lifted, and the woman never again faced pressure to work on Shabbat.

Avi’s most effective leadership of one of New Jersey’s most significant grassroots Jewish organizations and his extensive experience working with legislation in Trenton make him uniquely qualified to serve in the New Jersey Assembly.  It also must be said that this very devout Orthodox Jew is running a very unorthodox campaign.

Hareidi Jews do not watch television, out of a desire to protect their families from morally corrupt influences.  They also avoid social media websites.

So Avi is eschewing both television and social media websites and relying on campaign volunteers going door to door distributing campaign literature. There are signs that this rudimentary form of voter contact may be working.  Lakewood is experiencing more early voting than ever before, and its numbers exceed by far the early voting in neighboring Wall and Howell.   There is little doubt that the early voting is motivated by the presence of Avi on the ballot.

Will Avi win?  I will not hazard a prediction.  But I must say that in a time of Jewish torment, with Israel endangered as never before and antisemitism resurgent throughout the world, with the election of a fascistic Trump in 2024 a rising possibility, and with Biden’s resolve on behalf of Israel being sorely tested by anti-Israel elements in the Democratic Party and within his administration, all Jews can derive pride, regardless of party or ideology, in the progress of Avi Schnall.

Alan J. Steinberg of Highland Park served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.





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2 responses to “In the next NJ Legislature, Lakewood’s Avi Schnall may occupy the “Catbird Seat””

  1. It’s remarkable how you can say the Haredi/Orthodox population explosion is a good thing and also say (correctly) that Trump is a fascistic threat. These people—like all religious fundamentalists—LOVE Donald Trump because their default is theocratic fascism; their entire culture revolves around hatred of actual education that democracy depends on, and the idea of equal rights for women, gays, etc.

    Really, the Hasids you celebrate here are far more like Hamas than any political coalition in a Western democracy

  2. Interesting distinctions and matter of fact accumulation of power in the increasing numbers who block vote in Lakewood. What is deplorable is what has happened to the Lakewood Public Schools given the same power block, the bloviated salaries of the school attorney, superintendent, lack of accountability that put the minority, e.g., brown and black, students second. This is all public record with little to nothing done to protect and serve the most vulnerable. Check out NJ Education Report, AP Press accounts. Curious what Mr. Steinberg might add to this?

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