A town that touts its diversity

Teaneck is 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.

Muslims 311 (photo credit: Kevin R. Wexler/The Record/MCT)
Muslims 311
(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, are nasty.
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 in Teaneck.
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 kosher establishment.
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 no democracy.”
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.