May 27, 2004
Neighbors, Fences, and Religion in America
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
"There is a kind of social contract, an unwritten law, to be a good neighbor," Nadler said. "Here's the problem: That social contract is not binding for them. They have another contract. They have a contract with the Torah. They have a contract with God. That will always get priority." ("Cultural Clash Evident throughout Lakewood," Asbury Park Press, May 23, 2004.)
''I used to say I wasn't prejudiced against anyone, but then I realized I had a problem with them putting Allah above everyone else.'' ("Tension in a Michigan City Over Muslims' Call to Prayer," New York Times, May 5, 2004.)
The "them" in the first quote refers to Orthodox Jews in Lakewood, New Jersey. The "them" in the second quote refers to Muslims in Hamtramck, Michigan. The common thread weaves around immigration, religion, ethnicity, and the spillover in the public square.
Sightings caught sight of these events, the Michigan story through a customary audit of the New York Times, and the Lakewood story through local word of mouth ("did you hear about the trouble in Lakewood?"). We were struck by the similarities, the resonance with our past, and the ever renewing vitality of religion in America.
Here's a play-by-play, Lakewood first: The population in a small town of mostly retirees, Orthodox Jews, and non-Jewish white, African-American, and Latino middle- and working-class families explodes in the space of a decade from 45,000 residents in 1990 to an estimated 75,000 residents in 2004. The township is groaning under the burden of increased traffic congestion, housing shortages, and a strained schools budget. The other-than-Orthodox citizens of the town are groaning because they feel that they are being "overrun" and forced out of the town by a now Orthodox majority (half the population) whose main interest is not Lakewood per se, but building and fortifying a kosher society of tight-knit families. The low cost of housing and the presence of the country's largest rabbinical college, Beth Medrash Govoha, is driving the population boom as young Orthodox men and their families escape from the New York metro area's high-cost of living to carve out a better life among the trees.
Tensions heat up. Charges of monopolizing the housing market and selling only to Jews comes from one faction, charges of anti-Semitism comes from the other, swastikas begin popping up on synagogues, angry marches are made down main streets, and the local paper quotes both sides with Allan Nadler, director of Jewish Studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey providing this piece's opener.
Now Hamtramck: The population in a small town outside of Detroit doesn't necessarily explode, but the ethnic mix of the town's residents is transformed over the space of a decade from mostly Polish to Polish, Bangladeshi, Yemen, Pakistani, Bosnian and "other foreign." A recent census estimates that over 40 percent of the town's population was born outside of the US. The majority of new immigrants are Islamic, and like the Orthodox in Lakewood, they appreciate and foster the religious character of the town. Many feel "drawn to the Muslim community here not for its engagement with the rest of America, but for its distance." One resident explains, "What attracted me was seeing school girls with veils and burkhas ... It's more authentic here than in New York, more roots. There's village life.'' Despite the changes, the Muslim and non-Muslim populations lived together peaceably. But then came the spillover into the public square.
Recently, the main mosque in the town began broadcasting over loudspeakers the call to prayer, which in Islam occurs five times a day, 365 days a year. The invocation in Arabic lasts up to two minutes and can be heard, as designed, throughout most of the town.
Suddenly, tension heats up. They've crossed the line, says one faction. It's no different than the toning of church bells says the other faction. A resolution to allow the call to prayer is passed in the City Council, and the residents of Hamtramck are now grappling with feelings of resentment, suspicion, and elation over religious freedom and expression.
A long-time Hamtramck resident and self-described born-again Christian provides the irony: ''My main objection is simple,'' she said. ''I don't want to be told that Allah is the true and only God ... It's against my constitutional rights to have to listen to another religion evangelize in my ear.''
And thus the rich American drama (and history) of peoples, places, piety, and the public square continues.