No Holds Barred: A microcosm of a partitioned America

Our city is being ripped apart and factionalized.

Voters at Ahavath Torah synagogue in Englewood, NJ 300 (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
Voters at Ahavath Torah synagogue in Englewood, NJ 300
(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
The fractious divide that we’ve seen grow over the past two decades in the United States – between black and white, religious and secular – is being felt deeply in Englewood, New Jersey, and the city serves as a microcosm for the political paralysis undermining America. Worse, the Jewish community in general and the Orthodox community in particular are caught in the maelstrom.
My next-door neighbor, the Modern Orthodox Moriah day school, is applying to develop an enormous gym with a 180-car parking lot, which it wishes to build immediately adjacent to the backyard where my children and grandchildren play.
Needless to say, it will ruin our home and destroy our quality of life. Yet, the last thing I want to do is oppose the expansion of a Jewish day school.
Coupled with this is the desire on the part of a Jewish businessman to build an assisted living facility directly across the street from me with another 150-car parking lot. Should I oppose?
Both proposals have torn our community apart, pitting Jew against non-Jew, Orthodox Jews against secular Jews, white against black, with accusations that the religious Jewish community is deploying its considerable resources for favorable zoning treatment and unlawfully transforming a beautiful residential community into an ugly, noisy and polluted asphalt jungle.
Normally, citizens of a community would not have to fight one another with lawyers and ugly op-eds, because the city itself would determine residential and commercial zones.
But not in Englewood, which, as my readers will remember, is an ungovernable free-for-all where Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator and killer, owned the home immediately adjacent to mine and tried to move in in 2009, before I organized massive public protests against him, causing the State Department to restrict him to the island of Manhattan. The effort was joined by governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey in a demonstration on my lawn calling on New Jersey to ban the terrorist strongman from defiling our town. In the end, he was forced to sleep inside his diplomatic mission in New York.
That’s an example of government working to unite people in common cause for good. Yet, 10 years later, our city is being ripped apart and factionalized.
As someone directly affected by the construction of the Moriah day school, I went to several of the hearings. What I saw saddened me. I watched as the Orthodox Jews sat on one side supporting the expansion, and on the other side sat non-Jews and secular Jews – and many African-Americans – opposing them over concerns with how this might destroy the serenity of the neighborhood.
What began as a zoning issue has become one of identity politics. Those opposing the development felt the special permits given in the past and being sought in the present by the school were based on unfair Jewish connections (the head of the Englewood Board of Adjustment was forced to recuse himself because his family is enrolled at Moriah). In turn, some Orthodox Jews accused the opposition of antisemitism.
But it seems clear that mainstream opposition to the project has far less to do with anti-Jewish sentiment than with the effects of a concrete monstrosity on a leafy residential road. If the school was Jesuit or Quaker, would the opposition disappear? Still, the city of Englewood would keep its Orthodox community out of its neighbors’ ire if it would just rule clearly on whether our part of town is to remain residential or become like downtown.
But that’s not the way New Jersey – easily the most dysfunctional of all 50 states – operates. The city officials refuse to lead on the matter. Perhaps in an effort not to alienate any voting bloc, our mayor and city council have remained silent, leaving the residents to duke it out with growing hatred toward one another, forcing black and white, Jew and non-Jew, to battle before municipal boards and the courts.
Indeed, the failure of politics in our time is not only about the rancor between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. It’s also about political leaders refusing to take actions where it is mandated, like on guns, school choice, immigration, or in the case of small cities like Englewood, offer a town master plan that would determine whether institutional structures should be built in residential communities.
WHILE ALL of this occurs in Englewood, it reflects a larger American issue. The tragedy of the great divides that engulf America today is not just that they’re deep and unforgiving, but also that they’re so avoidable. In America today we’ve become like the Yankees and the Red Sox, with each one joining to support a team where they won’t give an inch. Only, politics is so much more serious than sports.
It’s bad enough on a national level. But when it creeps into our very own communities, ripping even neighbors apart, America risks being torn apart at the seams.
The city of Englewood could lead by example by providing a clear and common path on the issues of CareOne and Moriah. Much more important, however, is how we in the Orthodox Jewish community should set an example by creating neighborhood meetings where issues such as construction are discussed and dissent is heard, rather than projects being rammed down residents’ throats through the power of high-priced attorneys and ostentatiously paid “experts.”
When people feel railroaded, they fight back. When they feel heard, they become allies. And Judaism is first and foremost about making a kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name, by making Jew and non-Jew, secular and religious, black and white, feel significant, respected and valued.
When I served as rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years, I made a point of creating an organization – the Oxford University L’Chaim Society – that specialized in bringing Jews and non-Jews together. We had thousands of members, with non-Jews being the vast majority, but we were all united by universal Jewish values.
On Hanukkah, the festival of lights, the Jewish community should recommit itself to fulfilling its biblical mandate of serving as a light unto the nations by working to bring Americans of every stripe together.
The writer, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 33 books, including the upcoming Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.