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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Teaneck, circa 2017, stands as the epicenter of a Bergen County Orthodox community that has seen unprecedented growth in recent years, both in population and influence.

It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be that way.

Back in 2002, I participated in the development of a plan to grow the Colorado Orthodox Jewish community. Rabbi Ari Rockoff, then working at Yeshiva University and partnering with me on this project, uncovered a fascinating memo from the 1950s in the Yeshiva University archives. The memo was an analysis of cities that showed promise for development of Orthodox communities and recommended key areas that Yeshiva University should focus resources to seed and grow new communities. Boulder, Colorado, was identified as having serious potential for Orthodox growth. Another somewhat larger town in New Jersey was marked as far less conducive to Orthodox population growth. The name of this small town in New Jersey was Teaneck.

How did Teaneck and Bergen County come such a long way from a study that predicted no future for Jewish growth?

I share some data points related to key macro factors that have created a Bergen County moment:

Schools

There has been a significant expansion in the number of elementary schools in Bergen County over the past two decades. We are now experiencing an extension of this growth as our local high schools are seeing record numbers. Frisch, TABC and Maayanot are all admitting freshman classes that are at, close to and even beyond capacity, and Heichal Hatorah is seeing record numbers in the few short years they have existed. A number of groups are working to open new high schools in our community, with one set to open in September of 2018 and two more looking to open in the coming years.

The numbers only tell part of the story. Where the students come from is even more revealing. There was a time when many Bergen County students went to schools outside of the area. Today, families from Monsey, Manhattan, Westchester, South Jersey and other areas often look to send their kids to schools in Bergen County. Bergen County families who continue to send their children to schools outside of Bergen County seem less and less inclined to do so.

Bergen County has become a favored home for school leaders in the Northeast. A disproportionate number of school leaders live in Bergen County yet work outside of the area. My list is probably incomplete, but includes educational leadership from prominent schools such as Har Torah in Queens, Hillel Yeshiva in Deal, Kushner Academy in Livingston, Magen David in Brooklyn, Ramaz in Manhattan, Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Queens, SAR in Riverdale, Yeshiva of Central Queens, and Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan.

Children raised in Bergen County seem to be making their mark in large numbers in the world of chinuch as well. To cite one example, this year I interviewed approximately 20 individuals at the Yeshiva University Jewish Job Fair to fill a position at The Moriah School and was pleased to see that six of those individuals, a very high percentage, were themselves Moriah graduates.

Yeshiva University

Yeshiva University is, and has been, the flagship Modern Orthodox institution in America. Bergen County’s proximity to Yeshiva University, located over the George Washington Bridge, has always translated itself into a close relationship between the institution and the community. Today there are close to 5,000 alumni living in Bergen County. The relationship has grown far deeper as of late. Rabbi Ari Berman is the first president of Yeshiva University to live in Bergen County. He was brought to Yeshiva University by Moshael Straus, the first chairman of the board in Yeshiva University’s history to reside in Bergen County. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president of university and community life, resides in Bergen County. Many of the roshei yeshiva at Yeshiva University reside in Bergen County, as do a growing number of scholars who work and teach there.

Jewish Organizational Leadership

The growing number of leaders of Jewish organizations who live in Bergen County is a formidable list. It includes many of the most influential Jewish leaders in the United States today. It includes Dr. Alan Kadish, president of Touro College; Abe Foxman, director emeritus of the ADL; Jerry Silverman, CEO of Jewish Federations of North America; Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp; Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union; Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division; Rabbi Steven Burg, director-general of Aish Hatorah; Yossi Prager, executive director for North America of the AviChai Foundation; Michael Miller, the CEO of the JCRC of New York; Elissa Maier, the COO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools; and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of the World Values Network. Two of the three past presidents of the RCA, Rabbis Shalom Baum and Shmuel Goldin, are from Bergen County. There were no presidents from Bergen County prior to their service.

Politics

Bergen County has begun to show political clout. NORPAC, a nonpartisan political action committee founded by Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood, supports candidates who demonstrate strong support for Israel. It is based in, and was founded in, Bergen County. Jason Greenblatt, of Teaneck, is one of President Trump’s top advisers. Dr. Mort Fridman, also of Teaneck, is the incoming president of AIPAC and the first Bergen County resident to hold that position. One can understand why the Orthodox Union chose, a few years ago, to open their New Jersey political office in Teaneck.

Services

Of course, there is a panoply of service providers that have developed parallel to Bergen County growth, enhancing the cultural experience for the Orthodox community. A visit to West Englewood Avenue or Cedar Lane reveals the exponential growth of kosher food establishments and restaurants. There are also sefarim stores, Jewish gift shops, numerous Jewish sports leagues, and a slew of chesed organizations and gemachs.

Moral Implications of the Bergen County Moment

With growth and influence comes responsibility. We need an honest and reflective community conversation that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of our community, asks important and difficult questions about future trends, and charts out a direction that will sustain our status as a religious bastion and a trendsetting community in the Jewish world.

I share some of the issues that I suggest we will have to contend with:

The State of Israel continues to find itself unfairly targeted and maligned by numerous governments, organizations and individuals around the world at the same time that support for Israel seems to be weakening in segments of the Jewish community that were once strongholds of support. What role will Bergen County play in this effort? Will we support, develop and lead organizations that show passion and vitality in defending and supporting our Israeli brethren?

Our children are growing up in a confusing world, facing new challenges that did not exist in previous generations. Can we ensure that all of our children have a place in a yeshiva, that those who are in yeshiva are inspired toward religious growth, and that our homes model the same vision to which our schools aspire?

Are we working to ensure that the next generation of Jewish leadership grows up in Bergen County? What programs, initiatives or practice should we consider toward creating a society that nurtures leadership and leaders?

How do we ensure that the unprecedented financial success our community has seen does not lead to hedonism and misplaced values? How do we ensure that we are using this wealth to make our community and the world a better place?

What role will we play in setting the agenda for the larger Modern Orthodox community and how will we create mechanisms and environments to do this?

Swelling numbers translate into political influence in local townships. Can we continue to create a model for partnership with the local community that advocates for the needs of our community while continuing to ensure a strong public school system for our neighbors? Can we model neighborly relationships in the way that we respect our environment and the sensibilities of others? The path that civic leaders in our community have taken to date has been exemplary in showing civic leadership and duty. Can we continue to sustain and grow our involvement and sense of responsibility in this area?

How do we ensure a continued spirit of cooperation throughout the community and not fall into the trap of disunity and fragmentation? How do we ensure that communal resources are utilized effectively without superfluity or waste?

Researchers will comb archives in 50 or 100 years from now to better understand the Orthodox community in Bergen County in the year 2017. They will see the growth that I have described above. Will they see this period of time as an inflection point that led to a flourishing spiritual renaissance that lasted for many years?

History waits for us to write the answer to this question.

By Rabbi Daniel Alter

 Rabbi Daniel Alter is the head of school at The Moriah School.