OCEAN COUNTY, N.J. – Hindy Bertram was scrolling through Facebook when a video on the page Rise Up Ocean County began to play. Smiling boys in yarmulkes and a crowd of Orthodox Jewish men in black coats and black hats appeared on her cellphone screen.
An unidentified narrator declared the page’s concerns were civic issues, particularly how to respond to Lakewood’s rapid growth, which is driven by Orthodox Jewish residents who are also settling into neighboring towns.
But in the accompanying comments section Bertram saw vitriol and misinformation about her community. About her faith. About her family. About her.
“Let’s not forget they pay zero property taxes they are a cancer to this county with no cure in (sight) yet another reason to exit this state,” one read.
Bertram didn’t flee the site in fear or dismiss the page as anti-Semitic. The 32-year-old Orthodox Jew originally from Brooklyn – a wife, a mother of four and now a Jackson resident – stayed.
“There are so many problematic comments here and I can’t possibly address them all,” she typed. She began correcting misconceptions about her community in other comments, and days later she participated in a scheduled question-and-answer session on the Rise Up Ocean County page.
Bertram spent 3½ hours on a Sunday afternoon in November planted at the desk in the corner of her bedroom, typing out her answers to the questions that flowed in, trying to use her own experiences to tear down an intangible wall between “us” and “them.”
It’s a feat for anyone to take on keyboard warriors in today’s world of venomous and sometimes violence-tinged rhetoric. It’s a world that’s seen a surge in hate crimes, and where a man is accused of spewing hate on social media before slaying 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
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Bertram is just one person. But she saw herself and other Orthodox Jews being painted with a broad brush.
“I felt that, here are hundreds if not thousands of people walking around with an idea about me that has no basis in reality,” she said. “As an adult I need to take responsibility to represent myself in a way that I want to be accepted in the world.”
When she opens her laptop to answer the questions that keep flowing in, she also opens a window into her world, hoping to further education and understanding — for those who are willing to hear it.
From horrific comments, to trying to help
Rise Up Ocean County debuted in a social media landscape rich with “strong” and “watchdog” pages critical of the growing Orthodox Jewish community in Ocean County and elsewhere. The creators of the page would not identify themselves to the Asbury Park Press and declined to be interviewed for this story.
The page advocates for restrictions on development in the county and seeks to “preserve quality of life,” according to the page description. An early post – that 3 minute, 10 second video that has been viewed 165,000 times – declares the mission to be inclusive of all faiths.
“We are NOT anti-Semitic, in fact we welcome all faiths to our efforts and more specifically embrace our friends in the orthodox Jewish community,” the page reads. “This is NOT about a specific religion, this is about equal treatment under the law and mutual respect for others.”
Bertram, who doesn’t believe she’s ever been a victim of overt anti-Semitism, objected to what followed on the site that launched in October. Toxic comments like: “If any one of you come to my door in Jackson you will get mace in your face.”
The creators pledged to police the page going forward, which started a discussion, and then Bertram agreed to a scheduled 3½-hour question-and-answer session on Rise Up Ocean County’s page.
“Comments that call the Jewish population a cancer on Lakewood or that refer to us as leeches, or suggestions of putting birth control in our water, are really kind of horrific,” she said of things she’s seen online.
But there were other comments, Bertram said, that were based in misinformation she wanted to correct.
There’s a teaching in the Talmud, a guiding text of Judaism, that came to Bertram’s mind as she weighed whether to enter the fray.
“If I won’t be for myself, then who will,” she said.
‘I can only speak for myself’
The questions poured in – and they haven’t stopped.
Bertram’s answers range from brief to intimate.
Mindy wrote that she wanted to know why Orthodox Jews don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. For Bertram, it’s a practical issue, because families already prepare Thanksgiving-size meals for the sabbath on Friday night and Saturday. Growing up, she wrote, her family always had a turkey on the sabbath after the holiday.
Sue wanted to know why Jewish schools called yeshivas don’t teach more English, math, science and history. Bertram thinks secular education has fallen by the wayside as the Orthodox Jewish community prioritizes lifelong religious learning, and she’s demanded her son have more secular studies.
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Scott wanted to know if it was true adherents to the Orthodox Jewish faith believe the messiah is yet to be born.
“We do believe a Messiah is coming who will bring us back to Israel and that the Temple will be rebuilt and hope that this will happen in our lifetimes. But I don’t know ANYONE who is having babies with the goal that one of those babies will be the Messiah,” began Bertram’s reply.
It continued later: “Religious people tend to be very community and family (oriented), with a strong drive to pass one’s values on through the generations. And yes, I have been in the place where I cried and cried because I wanted more children, could not afford them and did not WANT to use benefits or services. Well — man plans and God laughs; I got pregnant on birth control.”
That was punctuated with an animated GIF of a shrugging Elmo, of Sesame Street fame.
WANT MORE? Dig into the Q&A on Facebook by clicking here.
Michelle Jackson asked how a Lakewood school board member could be trusted, making reference to an Asbury Park Press investigation that revealed Moshe S. Newhouse was granted amnesty from prosecution for Medicaid fraud as part of a countywide program last year, about the same time he agreed to build a new house.
Jackson has lived in Lakewood for 17 years. Her two children went through the public school system there. She typed out her questions for Bertram on her Android from home.
“I have a feeling that you’d like a neat answer, but you have to know that I don’t have one,” Bertram wrote. “I don’t think this scenario makes sense and I think any individual who has such a disregard for the law of the land has no place on a Board that helps to determine public policy. It is shameful behavior on their part.”
The exchange exemplifies a frustrating imbalance: Expecting Bertram to answer for another person because they share a heritage.
“I’m one person with my individual life experiences that have led me to have the belief and value system that I do,” Bertram told the Press. “I can only speak for myself.”
Jackson told the Press her perception of the Orthodox Jewish residents of Lakewood is largely shaped by the situation of the township’s public schools.
The schools are perennially underfunded, in part because of a state funding structure that doesn’t count the huge number — about 32,000 — of private school children who attend Jewish schools.
The public school board members are mostly Orthodox Jewish, even though Orthodox Jewish children don’t attend public schools. A handful of lawsuits allege discrimination in district practices, including claims of favoring the religious community over public school children.
Jackson said she sees Lakewood as divided into “us versus them.” She said she felt Bertram couldn’t provide answers.
“I appreciate that she gave her time, don’t get me wrong,” Jackson said. “I just wish we had someone in a position of authority who can answer the questions we have for them.”
There’s only so much Bertram can do.
“There’s people who don’t seem interested in changing their beliefs,” she later said, speaking generally. “And that’s very sad to me.”
‘Common ground found’
Some commenters see adherents of Orthodox Judaism as insular — a community apart, unwilling to assimilate with modern society. But within this community of about 70,000 residents of Lakewood there are divisions. Some residents don’t use the internet. Others have smartphones. While many don’t proselytize, others, such as followers of the Chabad denomination, prioritize teaching about their faith.
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In 2007, New York City resident Allison Josephs launched Jew in the City, a webpage dedicated to informing others about Orthodox Jewish principles and dispelling myths about the community. The most popular post on the site answered: Why don’t Orthodox Jewish women wear pants?
In a way it is a model for Bertram’s local effort. Josephs remains motivated by her belief that all human beings have a lot in common.
“I want to believe that people can sit down and talk things through and there can be understanding and common ground found, and that’s what I really love about what I do at Jew in the City,” Josephs said. “You see so many people from different walks of life sharing common ideas.”
Refocusing on what matters
Bertram and Rise Up Ocean County are of similar mind when it comes to municipal growth.
Bertram lived in Lakewood for more than nine years before she moved to a forested street in Jackson, where the homes don’t look like they were made with a cookie cutter. There she found “menuchas HaNefesh,” a Hebrew term that encompasses a person’s sense of peace and tranquility.
“I think the attention belongs on infrastructure,” she said, lamenting development that has clogged the thoroughfares. “Driving through Lakewood is somewhat of a nightmare.”
But some attention, Bertram said, is misdirected into blaming the Orthodox Jewish community for the township’s troubles. Some predict Lakewood, which has become one of the largest hubs of Orthodox Jewish life in the U.S., could top 200,000 residents in a dozen years.
She disputed a common belief of outsiders, that Jewish couples don’t get marriage licenses so they can take advantage of government assistance programs by appearing as if they are single parents.
“People are walking around with a certain amount of anger over what they perceive to be an abuse of the system when that’s not the case,” Bertram said. “The reality is there is no rabbi or yeshiva head who will officiate a wedding without a marriage license. Doesn’t happen.”
Nor is there some agency or person or council urging residents to dupe the system, she said.
“I think if people would accept that as true we can refocus attention on where it really belongs,” she said.
‘Drops in the bucket add up’
The thread of questions and answers Bertram pioneered late last month has spawned a separate Lakewood Q&A page that keeps her busy at 9:05 p.m. and 1:24 a.m.
She’s seen a tone shift recently. She’s had to defend against generalizations from people who seem unwilling to listen. Defend against still-prevalent sentiments of “they all this” and “they all that” and “you people.”
It’s disheartening, Bertram said, but she will continue.
“If I portrayed myself and my community more accurately, it’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “But drops in the bucket add up.”
Follow Stacey Barchenger on Twitter: @sbarchenger