timberland size chart A rare glimpse into the elite college that changed Lakewood forever
Editor’s note, Part 6: In a nine day series of stories, NJ Advance Media is taking a closer look at Lakewood, one of New Jersey’s fastest growing and most complex towns. Lakewood is home to a huge Orthodox Jewish community and the rapid growth has engulfed the town, igniting tensions between the religious and secular societies on many levels. Each day, we will explore some of the major issues in the community, including the welfare fraud investigation, housing problems and the strains on the education system.
LAKEWOOD It’s the institution that now defines Lakewood.
In 1943, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, a famed Jewish scholar, established Beth Medrash Govoha, propelling the transformation of a once posh lakeside resort town into a bustling metropolis for segments of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Today, Beth Medrash Govoha, more commonly called BMG, is America’s largest yeshiva, or Jewish college. A world wide attraction, it’s described by its students in the way other teens might describe Princeton or Yale. Prestigious. Elite. Their definitive No. 1 choice.
“It is the centerpiece and crowning glory of Jewish life in Lakewood,” said Ali Botein Furrevig, an Ocean County College professor who wrote a book about the township’s Jewish community.
Yet to many outsiders, BMG remains an enigma as misunderstood as Lakewood’s Jewish community itself.
It has no website. It enrolls men only. And, because BMG has no traditional freshman students, it reports no graduation rate or job placement data to the federal government, though it receives millions in government grants for low income students.
The campus, a series of buildings nestled throughout a residential area, is crawling with men in dark suits and wide brimmed hats, their mission often misunderstood. Are they there to become rabbis? To read the Torah? What do they do after graduation?
“We all see misconceptions,” said Naftali Kunstlinger, a 2003 BMG graduate who lives in Lakewood and has a law firm downtown. “But some of them are too silly to be addressed, to be quite frank.”
To truly understand Lakewood, you must first understand BMG. And to understand BMG, you have to go inside.
A student walks past one one Beth Medrash Govoha’s academic buildings in Lakewood. That’s the first thing visitors hear when a pair of first floor classroom doors swing open at BMG.
The gymnasium sized study hall is packed with more than 500 students, young men each dressed in white button down shirts, black pants, black belts and black shoes. They sit in rows of black banquet hall style chairs and lean over the brown wooden podiums holding their thick books.
In a scene unlike any traditional college class, the ornate podium at the front of the room is vacant, with no professor in sight. Some students rock back and forth and back and forth and back and forth in their chairs. Others stand, their heads sticking out among the sea of white shirts.
Animated facial expressions and hand gestures are exchanged between students, deep in discussion with one another. And the singing. It cuts through the continuous hum of deliberation and debate.
The song emanates from a single student sitting near the doorway, his words and language unrecognizable to visitors. It’s all part of the process of studying the Talmud, a school official said.
A classroom inside Beth Medrash Govoha. Students spend much of the day in large study sessions.
Studying the Talmud, a collection of writings on Jewish laws and traditions, is a key to preserving the Jewish customs so revered in the Orthodox community. At BMG, where undergraduate tuition is just under $20,000 a year, there are no other majors or classes except Talmudic study, which is offered six day a week. and goes, as one student put it, “until you drop.”
“There are no weekends here. There are no Sundays off,” said Haim Toledano, 22, a baby faced Parisian who enrolled at BMG last fall. “You are studying the Talmud from morning to basically the nights.”
Originally written in ancient Aramaic, the Talmud has sections written throughout history, 2,000 years ago, 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago.
“It’s not easy reading. It doesn’t just flow like there’s a story and storyline that goes natural to the other,” said Yaakov Friedman, a part time professor at BMG. “You’ve gotta mesh it all together. It’s work.”
Hats and cell phones line the hallway outside of a classroom at Beth Medrash Govoha. Many students carry flip phones without internet access and leave them outside the classroom to avoid distractions.
About 70 percent of BMG’s undergraduate students receive federal Pell grants for low income students, netting more than $8 million a year for the yeshiva, according to federal data.
Some students at BMG, where men start classes around age 21, plan to complete a degree at a secular college in the future. But the time spent studying the Talmud, a process that sharpens analytical and debate skills, is invaluable, former students said.
“It’s not just about the study that you did,” said Moshe Bender, who lives in Lakewood and earned a bachelor’s degree in Talmudic studies from BMG in 2013 followed by a master’s degree in 2015. “It’s about the being of the person, what it does to you, how you are kind of made up. It just makes us into a better person, that our whole being is on a higher level.”
Such devotion is what Rabbi Kotler imagined when he brought BMG to Lakewood at the request of a local hotel owner, according to his family.