(photo credit: Kevin R. Wexler/The Record/MCT)
It is neither easy (nor wise) to write about the town in which you live, especially if it is a small town; especially if it is a small town that is deeply invested in its delusions. I live in Teaneck, a New Jersey township a few miles across the Hudson from Manhattan. Lovely place with a storied history as a progressive community.
There was some happy news earlier this month when the town’s seven-member council selected its Muslim member, Mohammed Hameeduddin, as mayor. An Orthodox Jew, Adam Gussen, was selected as deputy mayor. The local county newspaper, The Record, said: “It’s stated so often that it’s almost a local cliché: Teaneck’s greatest strength is its diversity.” It is easy to get mistyeyed about a town that likes to tout its diversity. The council comprises two black women, four Jews (three of whom are Orthodox) and a Muslim.
However, diversity also means multiple, distinctive interests that may
collide with each other. With nearly 40,000 residents, Teaneck is
diverse, but it is not integrated.
For the Jews, who are about 40 percent of the population, it is a golden
ghetto, where the main street caters to the religiously traditional
Orthodox and Conservative communities. The politics, Jewish and local,
In the May council election, an Orthodox candidate, Joseph Steinberg,
lost support after he was attacked by a right-wing Jewish monthly paper
that is published in the neighboring town of Englewood. Steinberg, who
has a record of civic service in Teaneck, was assailed, in part, for
failing to condemn Barbara Ley Toffler, a Jewish council member who is
not Orthodox. Toffler had antagonized part of the observant community in
February 2007 with a comment in The New York Times.
In a column called “Proudly Diverse Teaneck Is Forced to Re-examine Its
Assumptions,” she was quoted as saying: “People worry that there’s a
group that wants this to become an Orthodox community like some of the
ones in Rockland County [New York]. This has always been an incredibly
diverse community, and from my perspective, I don’t want it to become
any one thing.”
Apart from how people feel about Toffler, it seems cruel and childish to
penalize Steinberg over someone else’s comments three years earlier.
Days before his defeat, Steinberg said in an “open letter” that because
of “the smear campaign, a terrible hillul hashem [desecration of God’s
name] has now spread both within and beyond the Jewish community.”
IN 1949, the US government considered Teaneck a model town, at least for
American propaganda purposes. The government made a traveling photo
exhibition of civic life in Teaneck, then led by town manager Paul
Volcker Sr., to be used in democracy “reeducation” programs in occupied
Eastern Europe and Japan. A generation later, in 1965, Teaneck was
thought to be the first township in the US to voluntarily racially
integrate its schools.
The Orthodox presence here began to grow some three decades ago when
Rabbi Macy Gordon helped bring a small group to the town because the
upper Manhattan area around Yeshiva University was not suited for young
families who wanted a suburban lifestyle. What was a convivial
environment for the fledgling Orthodox community was also attractive to
the Muslim community, which grew with two mosques and an Islamic school
Now, within Teaneck’s six square miles, there are 14 Orthodox synagogues
(with more on the horizon), a new mikve and every conceivable type of
It’s a very cozy place for the frum. The question is whether other
residents – blacks, Muslims, Asians and Reform Jews – are comfortably at
liberty to express concerns or grievances about the Jewish presence
without being branded as bigots.
“BRANDING” HERE in Teaneck, which also has been called “dati-neck,” is
not limited to religious and racial questions, although those are the
cruelest and most sensitive.
“Politics by its very nature is divisive. People need to disagree
without being disagreeable,” Hameeduddin told the local Jewish
newspaper, the Jewish Standard. “If you can’t compromise, then there is
The new mayor has the advantage of a long-term friendship with the new
deputy mayor, Gussen. They know how to talk to each other. They have
been doing it for decades. They were students together at Teaneck public
schools; their relationship began with sports. “That would be the first
thing everybody did, ” Hameeduddin told the Standard.
The selection of Hameeduddin was a marvelous bit of symbolism that put
the town and its nonpartisan council in the news. The post of Teaneck
mayor is largely ceremonial, but it gives Hameeduddin quite a pulpit.
Perhaps he can use this opportunity to remind us that “diversity” is a
vague term that conveys nothing about the quality of civic life. We are
diverse, yes, but no longer the liberal town that resisted the rampant
racial segregation of the 1960s and that made Teaneck such a welcoming
community for an Orthodox flock.
Hameeduddin and Gussen would not have been likely to become friends if
they were young students today, instead of fathers with professional
careers. Most Jewish children in Teaneck attend Jewish day schools,
yeshivot or private schools. They don’t meet other children in the
classrooms or on the sports fields. The Jewish community needs to
determine if it wants to live exclusively in the segregated golden
ghetto or if it is willing to find a realistic way to recreate the
progressive town that made friends of two boys named Mohammed and Adam.