October 5, 2022 •
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‘Hands up! Don’t shoot! We want summer camp!’ | Opinion, Star Ledger
by Clifford M. Kulwin, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple B’nai Abraham

For several hours this week, a large, loud, frenzied protest blocked streets and tied up traffic in one New Jersey town. These days, of course, one assumes it had to do with systemic racism and police brutality and Black Lives Matter.

But Tuesday in Lakewood there was no mention of race at all because this demonstration was about…summer camp.

Hundreds of Jewish youngsters on bikes and scooters clogged the street in Lakewood Tuesday night, all demanding that sleepaway summer camps in New York open this year, according to the Asbury Park Press.

The Haredi, ultraorthodox Jews who make up the majority of Lakewood’s residents march to their own drummer. But even for them, the beat was unusual.

And I’m not talking about “why” the demonstration. They’re kids and I get that. Summer camp is integral to the life of Haredi children. Yes, their summer camps are as segregated and regimented as the private religious schools they attend; boys and girls don’t mix, food is strictly kosher, lots of prayer and study of sacred texts. But these youngsters love the baseball and the swimming and even the color war that makes summer camp special for all kids.

On his Twitter feed, Gustavo Martinez, the Asbury Park Press reporter who wrote the story, posted a fascinating 20-minute video of his stroll through the demonstration and his interaction with many young marchers. On its own, the spectacle of hundreds of Haredi children in their traditional garb demonstrating was astounding and kind of scary. No masks. No social distancing. But what made it positively mind blowing was the form their demonstration took.

Haredi families may not have television sets, or even radios, but someone’s been paying attention to what’s going on in the world. The children shouted “No camp, no peace!” As the Lakewood police accompanied the protest, there were cries of “Hands up! Don’t shoot.”

 Signs at Brooklyn demonstrations said “Our Education Matters,” “Kid Lives Matter,” and “No Camps, No Justice.”

Somehow, these orthodox youngsters, whose parents strive mightily to shield from the impure and immoral influence of the larger world, who never go to the movies…somehow, in Lakewood on Tuesday, these kids were taking a page from the Black Lives Matter playbook.

“Unwitting assimilation,” UCLA history professor David Myers, a scholar of the Haredi community, calls it. “While there was likely no conscious effort to model the protest after those supporting Black Lives Matter, there was obviously communal awareness of what was going on, and that it was proving effective.”

But BLM was not the only factor having an impact that day. Nor was it the most significant one.

USC law professor Nomi Stolzenberg co-wrote with Myers a book about Kiryas Joel, the Catskill village made up entirely of Satmar Hasidim. She believes that recent decades have seen an expansion of the concept of religious liberty. “More than simply practicing your religion,” she says, it now extends “to anything you believe your religion wants you to do, even if it poses a risk to public health.”

Which is, of course, precisely what the unmasked and nondistanced youngsters on Lakewood’s streets were doing… abetted, I should add, by the parents and teachers who accompanied them, rather creepily sanguine about the whole thing.

In an April Bloomberg Law article, Stolzenberg noted a recent lawsuit by three Southern California churches that “alleges that religion is being unfairly ‘singled out’ and ‘relegated to second-class status’ because religious services are not on the list of essential services exempted from the orders.”

I am a rabbi. Religion is not unimportant to me but… an “essential service?” One that trumps the physical welfare of not only the faithful but all with whom they come in contact, some of whom will doubtless be elderly or infirm?

The young demonstrators’ appropriation of Black Lives Matter rhetoric is an attention grabber. Clearly, the Haredi community is not as insular as one might think.

Their use of that rhetoric draws us to what was truly noteworthy that day. The real route of the protest march was not along the streets of Lakewood, but upon the trail the Christian right has been blazing toward making ever-expanding religious liberty – its version of religious liberty – the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Clifford Kulwin is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.

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