Teaneck Leads the News in Gay Rights and Diversity

Teaneck Jews... sure is news today.

First the NY Times reviews the diversity struggle in our proud little township with special notice of the role of the Orthodox.
Proudly Diverse Teaneck Is Forced to Re-examine Its Assumptions

TWO moments are seared into Teaneck’s memory.

The first came in 1965, when Teaneck adopted a student assignment plan to voluntarily integrate its schools, becoming the first township in the United States to do voluntarily what others did only when courts forced them to. The second came in 1990, when the fatal shooting of a black teenager, Phillip Pannell, by a white policeman sparked protests, violence and anguished soul-searching about the town’s commitment to diversity and racial progress.

Out of those moments came a civic identity that’s still cherished by many, the sense of Teaneck as a place that is proudly and self-consciously diverse — multicultural before multicultural was cool.

There’s nothing nearly as dramatic now, with battles over a new master plan and other development issues, and disquiet over local politics. But given its history, two questions have arisen that have echoes elsewhere.

The first is whether religion can now be as likely as race to be a divisive, if often unmentioned, thread in suburban life. Second is whether Teaneck has become the sort of place that’s now quite comfortable with a different view of diversity: one with groups in their own ethnic or religious silos, the new suburban version of separate but equal.

Those questions have been percolating for the past decade as Orthodox Jews — overwhelmingly modern Orthodox, not Hasidic — have increasingly become the most conspicuous and fastest-growing group in town, though nowhere near the majority of residents. There are at least 18 Orthodox synagogues in a town of 39,000. The downtown shopping district on Cedar Lane is dominated by glatt kosher meat markets and delis and Judaica shops.

In some areas, particularly the heavily Orthodox northwest side, other residents are put off by Orthodox Jews’ habit of walking to shul on the Sabbath in the middle of the street, as if to say: “Don’t drive here. This is where we make the rules.”

Schools no longer play a unifying role because the Orthodox tend to send their children to religious schools.

Even among many other Jews, there’s often a sense of unease, as if one group has put its stamp on the town.

“People worry that there’s a group that wants this to become an Orthodox community like some of the ones in Rockland County,” said Barbara Ley Toffler, who is on the planning board now and whose father was the first Jewish school board member and was on the board during the integration in 1965. “This has always been an incredibly diverse community, and from my perspective, I don’t want it to become any one thing.”

Issues of religion are seldom spoken of publicly, but several events have brought some of the community divisions to the surface.

In May, four young men, including Elie Y. Katz, the new mayor, were elected with overwhelming support from Orthodox neighborhoods. They become what some see as the dominant voting bloc on the seven-member township council. The election left some bad feelings.

A complaint was filed with the Bergen County prosecutor about campaign mailings that attacked others in the race, hinting at their anti-Semitism without identifying who paid for the mailings, as the law requires. Some non-Orthodox residents were shocked to get automated telephone calls urging a vote for candidates who were “frum,” a Yiddish word meaning observant of Jewish commandments.

Since then there have been disputes over development, a master plan some see as too favorable to growth, and appointments that critics say promote allies of the council majority and punish critics.

To many in town, both the style and content of the majority’s actions felt like one part of the community imposing itself on the rest.

“One thing that’s so sad in this particular blowup is that it’s been brewing for a long time in the way a lot of Christian people and non-Orthodox Jews have felt slighted, marginalized, disrespected, not treated in a neighborly fashion,” said Sue Grand, a longtime resident who is Jewish but not Orthodox.

Mr. Katz, 32, a Teaneck native, said that any differences were over policy, not religion, and that Teaneck needed development to mitigate high taxes. He said that is particularly important now, because a new, state-mandated re-evaluation will increase taxes the most in the more modest parts of town, which are not predominantly Orthodox.

“It’s not a question of religion,” he said. “It’s a question of the need for change so people can afford to live here.”

Others see the normal push and pull of politics more than a religious divide or some kind of tipping point. Henry Pruitt, a school board member and a longtime Teaneck resident, said there was nothing new either in communities mobilizing to vote in their own people or the makeup of a town changing.

“Demographics change, things metamorphose,” he said. “Used to be you could work for I.B.M. and never get fired. I know a lot of the Orthodox, and in the main I don’t have any problem with them.”

State Senator Loretta Weinberg said she thinks the current problems have to do with the style and manner of council members more than any underlying community differences and that there’s no monolithic Orthodox line on development.

Still, she cited one lesson from the past. From 1965 to 1990 Teaneck changed, not always for the better, and people did not quite realize it until the Pannell shooting shocked the town into facing its own divisions, she said.

“After the shooting, it became apparent we were integrated, but we hadn’t really nurtured it. We were still living on what had been done in the 1960s, and it became apparent we needed a lot more in terms of community relations than we were doing. That’s probably true today. You can’t live in a community like this and let it go unnurtured.”
2. Then the Bergen Record notes that the first gay union in NJ will take place in Teaneck and a yarmulka wearing gay activist, Steven Goldstein, features in the picture along with Loretta Weinberg, local politician.
N.J. civil-union era starts today
Sunday, February 18, 2007

New Jersey will become the fifth state in the nation Monday to extend all the legal rights of marriage to same-sex couples, although the Legislature stopped short of offering 'marriage' itself.

Q: So can gay couples begin having civil-union ceremonies that day?

Under the new law, gay couples can apply for civil-union licenses beginning Monday, and can be legally joined 72 hours later, the same as with heterosexual marriage.

Q: Are there exceptions to that waiting period?

Couples who had a civil union in Vermont or Connecticut will automatically be considered in a civil union in New Jersey. Couples who want to "reaffirm" their civil union in New Jersey can waive the 72-hour wait. Such is the case with Steven Goldstein, head of the state's gay-rights movement, who had a civil union with his partner in Vermont. They plan to have what will likely be the state's first civil-union ceremony at the stroke of midnight tonight, in Teaneck. It will occur in the office of state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, co-author of the civil-union law.
3. Then yours truly gets mentioned in the Bergen Record Road Warrior column for an appropriate inquiry about a GWB traffic issue and a substantive response from all parties.
You'll find latest news on GWB right here
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Manhattan-bound Route 4 commuters are dying to hear some honest, clear answers about why they can't zip across the upper level of the George Washington Bridge anymore.

For more than a month, barricades have blocked the entrance to the upper level, forcing commuters to use the crowded lower level, adding 20 to 30 minutes to their trips especially if they travel after 8 a.m. Bus commuters, with their noses flattened against windows, have strained to see the work being done to the roadway.

So far, they've been disappointed.

Bridge riders see nobody in a hard hat, no heavy equipment, no jackhammers. Commuters aren't even sure if anything is being done.

"There's no evidence of construction," complained Teaneck's Tzvee Zahavy....


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I guess i'm not the only one, then :-) What the heck is up with that downramp to the Upper Level?!

Tzvee Zahavy said...

The Warrior says it's open now. We'll see Tuesday!