On a recent Friday afternoon in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Linden, teenage girls speaking Spanish were practicing dance steps in a park, older men were working outside on their homes, and three young boys were zipping around the block on their bicycles, payes flying in the wind, as smells of kugel and chicken soup wafted from some of the homes.
“You walk on the street and people say hello, not like in New York,” said Chani Lissauer, who moved from Borough Park, Brooklyn, in January 2018, one of the first of about 40 chasidic families who recently moved to this diverse town of 42,000 in Union County.
An influx of chasidic Jews to Linden has stoked concerns among some residents, and instilled cautious optimism among others. Neighbors worry about noise; that new synagogues and businesses will be built in violation of local zoning ordinances; and that the ultra-Orthodox will overwhelm the school board and local government, voting in blocs to benefit them but to the detriment of everyone else. But some see salvation, with many Modern Orthodox residents hoping that if chasidim come to Linden, a more stable Jewish infrastructure will follow, a boon to their fledgling community.
“We’re happy to be here,” said Lissauer. “I hope everyone is happy we’re here.”
Many people who spoke to NJJN acknowledged that they fear a growing chasidic community in Linden because of what has occurred in other places — Lakewood in particular, but also Mahwah, the Hamptons, and Monsey, N.Y. The character of the neighborhoods changed dramatically, as chasidim made religious and cultural demands, like insisting on separate men’s and women’s swimming at community pools or lobbying to keep stores closed on Shabbat. There were contentious extended court battles over erecting eruvs and building synagogues that tore communities apart and led to anti-Semitic chatter on message boards and social media.
Some people think it’s much ado about nothing. They say that Linden, already a diverse town, can embrace this new group too, that Linden’s particular demographics and existing development make it unlikely that the kind of damaging changes that happened elsewhere will occur here.
Leah Helfgott, a member of the Modern Orthodox Anshe Chesed who has lived in Linden for 15 years, is optimistic. She said she’s already seen some benefits, pointing out that the ShopRite in nearby Clark carries more cholov Yisroel products than before, and that some of their new neighbors gave members of Anshe Chesed mishloach manot gifts at Purim.
“The Purim baskets show their genuine interest in joining our community, not just starting their own in the same town,” Helfgott said.
She acknowledged, however, that there are people in her synagogue who are on guard. “Some people are concerned about the community changing over time and minimizing the Modern Orthodox community,” she said, but added, “I think we will all grow together into a more vibrant Jewish community.”
So far there have been a few minor bumps, like opposition to a new synagogue and noise complaints around Sukkot. Both were resolved without much fuss.
“I think it’s pretty exciting; we love diversity here in the city of Linden,” said Armando Medina, councilman for Linden’s 9th Ward. “We love change in Linden.”
The lure of Linden
We’re not surprised that other Orthodox families are moving into the community,” said Rabbi Josh Hess of Anshe Chesed, which has approximately 130 member families. “It was just, like, what took so long for people to figure it out?”
There has been a Jewish community in Linden since at least the early1900s, when Linden hosted the second largest Jewish population in Union County, according to “Linden, New Jersey” by Lauren Pancurak Yeats. There were at one time four synagogues there, and Anshe Chesed, founded in 1914, is the only one left. It offers a mikvah and, not insignificantly, an eruv, which means the chasidic community can avoid the legal hurdles to erecting an eruv other Orthodox groups have faced in places like Tenafly and Mahwah.
Rising home prices in Borough Park, where there is limited availability, and in Williamsburg, where non-Jewish young people are moving in large numbers, are driving charedi (ultra-Orthodox) families to look for more affordable options. The median price of a home in Borough Park is $891,700, and in Williamsburg it is a similar $891,500, according to Zillow. By contrast, in the Sunnyside section of Linden, the median price is $261,200.
“There was no way we could purchase a house in Brooklyn,” said Lissauer, who calls herself a pioneer. “It was exciting and daunting to own our own house. It was beautiful to come to a new place — there’s the thrill of adventure.”
The homes are small and tidy with facades of brick and wood siding, each with a small front and back yard, and it’s not far from Brooklyn and Manhattan. Several parks dot the neighborhood, including one, at the corner of Summit Terrace and Edgewood Road, dubbed the “Shabbes park” by the Modern Orthodox community.
“It’s close to the city, it’s affordable, it’s nice, and safe,” said Yiddy Klein, who moved to Linden in April 2018 and asked that his real name not be used to protect his privacy.
The move from Brooklyn is being financed by the Kossoner chasidim in Borough Park. The Kossoner rabbi, Rav Yosef Meir Rottenberg, is expected to move in this year. But the move is not limited to a single chasidic sect. Klein estimates that there are another 40-50 families who have purchased homes in Linden but haven’t moved in yet. He envisions a community “as big as Monsey,” he said, suggesting that when Linden is full, they could expand into nearby Rahway and Roselle.
“We’re making a chassidishe enclave,” he said.
Along with the trees and backyards comes the challenge of living without much Jewish infrastructure. Children are privately bused or carpooled to schools in Borough Park. There are no kosher restaurants, grocery stores, or corner pizza shops around, and the Modern Orthodox community relies on shops in Elizabeth, about four miles away, as well as the kosher section at the ShopRite in Clark.
There are a few small shops starting to open that cater to the charedi community: a Friday-only flower shop offering bouquets for Shabbat and a clothing store, both in home basements, and Lissauer said she heard there’s a café in the works. For now, the Chasidic community is using a home as a temporary synagogue, and it has purchased land on Orchard Terrace to build a synagogue; another property has been purchased for a men’s mikvah.
“Eventually we’ll open yeshivas, but there’s no time frame,” said Klein, who also shared one regret about coming to Linden: “That I didn’t come sooner.”
Cause for concern?
The move to Union County has not been entirely smooth. At a May 9, 2017, hearing of the Linden Planning Board, nine of 12 residents who commented opposed the construction of the synagogue on Orchard Street, citing various concerns. According to the minutes, Raymond Hernandez said that the taxpayers “don’t need another tax burden,” and Aviva Vizel worried about “where children will be during services and if they will be outside unsupervised.”
Medina, whose ward includes Sunnyside, was another who at first spoke out against the synagogue plan. According to the minutes, the councilman “stated there are traffic problems and he would like to see residential homes on the property.”
But Medina told NJJN that he had spoken with longtime residents, and reminded them Linden has always been a diverse community — according to the 2017 census, the town is 34 percent white, 29 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic, and four percent Asian — and he said he introduced himself to the chasidim to make them feel welcome.
“Everyone has fears,” he said. “I focus on having a great neighbor, and great people who are going to add value to the community, and that’s really all I care about.”
Later he was asked about his opposition back in 2017. “I’d still like to see homes there,” he acknowledged, “but at the end of the day, someone purchased it, submitted an application, it was approved, and so I embraced it.”
In the fall of 2018, police received a few complaints about noise after 10 p.m. during Sukkot, and Medina said he brought all the parties together to discuss the zoning ordinances, as well as the Sukkot traditions. After that meeting, the Chasidim took their conversations inside, and the police offered some leniency. “We were able to bend a little bit for them,” said Medina. “That was a great example of how we came together and figured out a solution.”
Steven Skolnick of Linden considers himself a “proud Jew,” though he says he is “not practicing.” He and his wife, Karen, a life-long Linden resident, are interested in their new neighbors and curious about their customs. Though the relationships have been amicable, they said that for the most part the chasidim keep to themselves.
“I don’t know if they would become friends of ours,” said Karen, adding, “I don’t think they would want to.”
Beyond insularity, the Skolnicks have heard “stories” about other chasidic communities, “that they don’t pay taxes because they have their house of worship in their homes and … that they don’t have to pay for the bussing,” said Steven. Still, he admits those are just rumors and there’s no evidence that the chasidic residents of Linden are skirting tax laws. Even so, he would like the town to hold a meeting to present the facts “to quell these fears.”
He follows the conversations about Sunnyside on the website Nextdoor, and said some of the postings regarding the chasidim — though clearly in the minority — were negative. The comments have since been removed from the site, but he described them as containing “a bitterness,” and he worries that these kinds of murmurs bring out the worst in people. “I just hope that it doesn’t grow into a hate type of thing,” he said.
Dennis Valvano, a third-generation realtor at DenVal Realty in Linden, has heard all the rumors about what happens when chasidim move in. “The only thing people have to draw from is what they read about Lakewood, and it’s all been cast in a very negative light,” he said, referring not only to tax issues and bussing that “drains money from the school system,” he said, but also the practice of chasidim knocking on people’s doors to convince them to sell their houses.
Such rumors are unfounded, driven by fear, he said. “That’s the ugly picture that’s been painted, and it’s all people have to draw from.”
Victor Gonzalez, who has lived in Linden for 20 years, is particularly sensitive to perceptions based on stereotypes or rumor. Asked if he was worried about his new neighbors, he said, “Nah. Some people might say they have concerns about me, because I’m Hispanic.”
Josh Weiss, president of Anshe Chesed and a resident since 2007, does not think Linden could turn into Lakewood, because it already has a densely developed residential area with an industrial section. “You can’t buy an acre of land and build 10 houses,” he said. He hopes instead that Linden will become more like Teaneck or New Rochelle, he said.
Hess of Anshe Chesed is cautiously optimistic. He’s looking forward to the amenities he thinks will follow the chasidim: kosher butchers, pizza shops, and restaurants, all things he currently relies on Elizabeth to provide.
“Everyone seems to get along fine for now,” he said. “We’re both growing communities, we both care about our yiddishkeit. It could be there might be some issues in the future, I don’t know, but for now everything is status quo and we’re getting along.”
And Helfgott looks forward to seeing more kids outside on Shabbat afternoons as the weather gets warmer, and hopes they will all play together. No matter what happens, she said, “It’s all going to be very interesting. It’s a major plot twist in the history of the Jewish community of Linden.”