A clash of cultures in the Five Towns
In the Five Towns these days, how you feel about life
in this predominantly Jewish area of the South Shore often depends on which
religious group you belong to.
[CORRECTION: In a story yesterday on the growing Orthodox Jewish population
in the Five Towns, Lisa Gray, a neighbor of Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High
School for Boys in Woodmere, said she sometimes is awakened by honking horns of
parents picking up children from late-night sports and other activities.
Because of an editing error, the story misstated the source of the noise. Pg.
A15 ALL 6/12/06] Lisa Gray, a member of a Reform Jewish congregation, describes
being awakened by honking horns as late as midnight as Orthodox Jewish
worshipers leave the recently built yeshiva across the street - and again at 8
a.m. Sunday when school resumes.
On Fridays, she steers clear of Central Avenue, the main shopping strip,
because drivers double-park for last-minute purchases before the start of the
On Saturdays, she dreads driving through streets clogged with walkers,
sometimes 10 abreast, en route to the shteeble, or small synagogue, that opened
two blocks away in what had been a private home.
But nothing has galvanized her anger like the election of an Orthodox
majority to the Lawrence school board last month. Gray, a PTA president, said
she fears for the future of her two public school children and thinks about
"I am now a minority in the neighborhood I grew up in," she lamented. "The
Orthodox chose to move here and that's fine. But they're not looking to
coexist. Their attitude is, 'This is how we live our lives, and if you don't
like it, move.'"
What is happening in this affluent community is nothing less than a seismic
demographic shift, spurring typical tensions over traffic, land use and yes,
But something else is fueling bad feeling: A discomforting religious
subtext runs just beneath the surface of many conflicts, pitting people like
Gray in the assimilationist Jewish world that once dominated the area against
an unabashedly observant, confident and increasingly politically savvy Orthodox
Many Orthodox Jews say the divisions are overblown, a result of acrimonious
"Are there people in the Orthodox community who should exercise better
judgement in how they talk and act? Absolutely," said Rabbi Hershel Billet of
Young Israel of Woodmere, the largest Orthodox congregation.
"Are there people in the non-Orthodox community who are disdainful of the
Orthodox? Absolutely. But I don't think most people in either community are
No one, however, disputes the scope of change. Over the last 15 years, the
Five Towns have become one of the premier suburban centers of Orthodox Judaism
in America, bursting with synagogues, yeshivas and Kosher restaurants.
Community leaders estimate that Orthodox residents account for 60 to 70
percent of the village of Lawrence, with communities in neighboring Cedarhurst,
Woodmere and Hewlett.
"We're seeing exponential growth," said Steven Laufer, Long Island regional
vice president of the Orthodox Union and a Lawrence resident.
"Young families are moving in and having lots of children, which is fueling
growth in the schools. And as the schools improve and more open up, it
attracts new people."
Lawrence Mayor Jack Levenbrown recalled that it was "a big to-do" when he
became the first Orthodox Jew elected to the village board in 1988. Today, all
five board members are Orthodox, and "almost everyone moving into Lawrence is
somewhere in the Orthodox spectrum," he said.
As the majority became a minority, the landscape of this suburban community
has shifted. With an overwhelming number of residents now sending their
children to parochial schools, disagreements have revolved around the size of
the public school budget and how that money should be distributed.
Burgeoning Orthodox institutions - for instance, a Little League that
fields about 80 teams on Sunday - have eclipsed their secular counterparts.
"We're down from about 300 kids six years ago to the low 200s today," said
Joe Montilli of the Cedarhurst Little League. As a result, he said, Cedarhurst
plans to merge next year with Woodmere-Hewlett.
Some old-timers rue the transformation of Central Avenue in Cedarhurst,
once the South Shore's Rodeo Drive and a place to see and be seen on Saturdays.
The street is still tony, with chain stores like The Gap and Williams-Sonoma
alternating with glatt kosher restaurants and Judaica shops. Most are shuttered
on Saturdays out of respect for the Jewish day of prayer and rest.
On both sides, residents express bitterness about the way they believe they
Many Orthodox express heartbreak at the perception they are insular or
snobbish, when they say they are simply trying to follow religious dictates.
Adhering to Jewish law means they cannot eat at the homes of people who do
not keep kosher. They do not attend social events Friday night or during the
day Saturday because they are observing the Sabbath.
"I absolutely understand the suspicion that comes from our desire to send
our children to Jewish schools," said Mimi Fragin, 30, of Lawrence, an Orthodox
mother of four. "But that decision doesn't stem from bigotry. It stems from
our desire to impart to our children the Jewish education that our parents
provided to us, and that we feel is necessary to maintain our heritage."
And she noted that rudeness runs both ways.
"I was on Central Avenue last week and a woman was double-parked," Fragin
said. "Someone shouted out of their car window, 'Typical Orthodox woman! No
respect for anyone!' But on the next street, another car was double-parked and
the driver was not Orthodox. No one shouted at her."
Most disturbing for the non-Orthodox is their perception that the Orthodox
deem them - and their children - unwholesome influences.
Penny Schuster recounts how an ultra-Orthodox neighbor stopped her children
from playing with Schuster's daughter because she wore pants.
"The idea of Jews against Jews makes me want to cry," said Schuster, a
leader of Temple Israel of Lawrence, a Reform congregation.
"I grew up in the post-World War II period after Germany tried to
annihilate the Jews. And here, 50 years later, this is what we've learned?"
Surprising success story
In many ways, the Orthodox is one of Judaism's most surprising success
stories, said Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York.
Most had predicted the group would wither away after the passing of a
generation of Eastern European rabbis who had come to America as war refugees.
They occupied the lowest rung on the economic ladder and were often viewed with
contempt by more assimilated Jews, Heilman said.
But the group did not die out. In large part because of its high birth
rates and support of yeshivas as a way to pass on its traditions, the Orthodox
community is thriving, while more liberal Jewish denominations battle soaring
intermarriage and declining affiliation rates.
They are still a minority of American Jews, about 13 percent, but their
dense settlement patterns mean Orthodox Jews dominate communities such as
Borough Park, upstate Monsey and, to an increasing degree, the Five Towns.
When the growth began on the South Shore, it was hardly noticeable. A
handful of Orthodox families established their first synagogue in a Cedarhurst
storefront in 1928, said Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Beth Sholom Congregation, which
evolved from that storefront.
They struggled to live as observant Jews in the beginning.
"When I first came here in 1950, we didn't even have a supermarket that
sold kosher provisions," recalled Gilbert Klaperman, rabbi emeritus of Beth
Sholom, now 85.
Frustrated by the lack of amenities - Klaperman sent his daughter by bus to
a Flatbush yeshiva - the rabbi did two things that changed local history.
He opened the Hillel School, one of the first local yeshivas. And in the
early 1960s, he and another local rabbi sought to create an eruv, a boundary
around a Jewish neighborhood inside which activities can take place that would
normally be banned on the Sabbath. An eruv makes a community more attractive to
"An eruv is an essential part of a Jewish community," Klaperman said. "It
gives us the opportunity to do something on the Sabbath which normally we
couldn't do. You couldn't push your baby carriage, for example [Jewish law
forbids 'carrying' outside the home on the Sabbath] ... And with the growing
community, baby carriages became a big issue."
Just as advocates had hoped and opponents had feared, the eruv acted like a
magnet and drew waves of new residents.
"Once a community takes off, others begin to gravitate towards it," Heilman
said. "The nature of Orthodox life is that people have to walk to synagogue,
and so they need to cluster."
And as the community grew, it began to diversify.
The first arrivals had been Modern Orthodox, whose adherents believe they
can fully participate in the world while they uphold Jewish law. Well-known
members include Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and recent "Apprentice" finalist
Lee Bienstock of Lawrence. Many send their children not just to their own
institutions, such as Yeshiva University, but to secular colleges and
universities. The ultra-Orthodox tend to patronize secular schools only for
Over time, more and more ultra-Orthodox settlers began to migrate,
especially to Lawrence.
"Why did the ultra-Orthodox come out? Two words: Far Rockaway," said
William Helmreich, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College.
"They spilled over the border from a contiguous right-wing neighborhood."
After the school elections, Orthodox leaders acknowledge their growing
power and do not apologize for it. But they say they are determined to respect
all points of view.
"Change is always uncomfortable," acknowledged Hain of Beth Sholom. "You
can fold your arms in a certain way and when you try to refold them
differently, it feels awful."
But he is optimistic about the prospects for compromise.
"The rabbinic leaders have worked very hard to impress on people -
particularly now that we have more power - that we need to exercise it
responsibly and fairly and justly."
The region's noted and notable
It's been named in the movies - Henry Hill married a girl from the Five Towns
area in "GoodFellas," and "Amongst Friends" portrays life in the cluster of
mostly affluent communities not far from Kennedy Airport.
Most Long Islanders associate the real-life Five Towns with the upscale
shopping of Cedarhurst and Hewlett, and the mansions of Hewlett Harbor and
parts of Lawrence.
Among the notables who've grown up there are actor and producer Ed Burns;
legendary Knicks head coach Red Holzman; fashion designer Donna Karan;
sportswriter Tony Kornheiser; actress Peggy Lipton; and shoe designer Steve
Lawrence became the Five Towns' first incorporated village in 1897, at the
height of its heyday as an opulent resort. The snooty Osborne House opened in
1884 in the Isle of Wight section of south Lawrence.
The South Side Rail Road from Valley Stream to the Rockaway peninsula,
completed in 1869, spurred creation of the Five Towns of Hewlett, Woodmere,
Cedarhurst, Inwood and Lawrence, though the appellation covers three hamlets
and six incorporated villages.
The landscape of the tony Five Towns community of Lawrence has changed with
private-school enrollment soaring, particularly in Orthodox Jewish yeshivas.
VILLAGE OF LAWRENCE
Minorities/mixed race 6.4% 4.8%
Median family income, 1999 dollars $124,502 $129,779
High school diploma NA 95.4%
College degree NA
PUBLIC SCHOOL PRIVATE SCHOOL
NOTE: Public school enrollment figures are for Lawrence school district, which
includes parts of neighboring communities.
3,775 Private school students in Lawrence school district attending yeshivas,
3,521 Public school students in Lawrence school district, 2006
NOTE: Excludes kindergarten: 2005-06 student populations are as of May 20.
The Lawrence Far Rockaway eruv
The Lawrence Far Rockaway eruv is one of six in the Five Towns and one of about
two dozen in Queens and on Long Island: it was established in the early 1960s
and has expanded several times. Within the Lawrence Far Rockaway borders are
more than a dozen Orthodox institutions, including several yeshivas.
1. Congregation Beth Sholom
2. Congregation Shaaray Tefila
3. Congregation Ohel Moshe
4. Agudath Israel of Long Island
5. Congregation Kneseth Israel
6. Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv
7. Mikvah Hebrew community Service
8. Bais Medrash Ateres Yisroel
9. Young Israel of Far Rockaway
10. Yeshiva B'nei Torah
11. Congregation Kehilos Jakob
12. Congregation Shomrai Shabbos
13. Yeshiva of Far Rockaway
14. Torah Academy for Girls
15. Gustave Hartman YMHA
16. Yeshiva Darchei Torah
What is an eruv? An eruv is a boundary, usually delineated by telephone or
utility wires, that surrounds a Jewish neighborhood, permitting activities that
would otherwise be forbidden on the Sabbath.
Within its boundaries, an observant Jew�
� May push a baby stroller.
� Carry a prayer book or shawl.
He or she may not....
Participate in activities otherwise prohibited, including ball playing or
SOURCES: LAWRENCE PUBLIC SCHOOL; U.S. Census