Things are happening in West Orange. The community is growing, and so is excitement about the township. New families are moving in, in much larger numbers than in past years, and they are telling their friends to follow. For those outside the area who have heard the buzz and had their interest piqued, there will be a Discover West Orange shabbaton the Shabbat of March 16-17, Parshat Vayikra, Shabbat HaChodesh, and all are welcome.
Rabbi Marc Spivak, spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr Torah, said, “Our shul has welcomed over a dozen new families this year. West Orange is really growing. What’s special is that we are close-knit as a community; we do a lot of programs that include all the community shuls.”
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, spiritual leader of Congregation AABJ&D, added, “We have had an influx of young families who have moved to town. They found our real estate prices attractive and saw West Orange as a place you’d want to raise a family.”
After 15 years in the community, Rabbi Zwickler has seen many kids grow up there, and firmly believes that “there is just something special about a West Orange kid.” He says that children who grow up in West Orange are just “different than other kids. They are conscious of their responsibility to the Jewish community and to mankind. There is a commitment to Torah and mitzvot and just a good overall feeling.”
Rabbi Yosef Sharbat, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic minyan at AABJ&D, noted, “There’s a lot of interest from people looking for a Sephardic minyan outside of the New York area. A lot of people are looking to New Jersey now, they are leaving Great Neck and Brooklyn.” He continued, “A lot of the young people have quickly gotten involved in shul leadership. They want to help out as much as they can.”
“We have a number of families where one spouse is Ashkenazic and one is Sephardic, and they want to hold on to both traditions. We offer that inclusiveness,” he added.
“West Orange is hot; it’s growing, and people want to be part of it,” said Andrew Yolin, one of the shabbaton co-chairs. “We have had over 25 new families in the last couple of years and that growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”
Yolin agreed with Rabbi Zwickler that the community is great for families, emphasizing the Lauren Elise Bier Nursery School at AABJ&D and the nearby yeshivot, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, located in the adjacent town of Livingston, and The Jewish Educational Center, located in nearby Elizabeth. He discussed not just the accessibility of these yeshivot, but also the financial incentives that they, the shuls, and the local JCC offer newcomers to the community. The New Family Incentive program offers families who move to West Orange, join one of its shuls and send their children to one of these yeshivot financial incentives amounting to over $50,000.
Chavi and Chesky Trenk and their three children moved to West Orange at the end of the summer from Staten Island. “We were looking for a new school; I looked at Kushner and just fell in love. I asked at the school where most of the kids lived. We already had friends who lived in West Orange and they invited us for a Shabbos,” Chavi said. “I didn’t even know a community like this existed; you can just be yourself, it’s down to earth, nobody judges you,” she continued. “There are plenty of kids for my kids to play with. It all just came together.”
Sorahleah and Joey Mandelbaum and their daughter moved to town from Brooklyn in December of 2016 (a son has since joined the family). “We were looking for a community where people knew each other and you could get involved,” Sorahleah said. “We wanted a Modern Orthodox community that was affordable. That and the incentive programs were big selling points.”
“The beauty of West Orange is there is no one specific factor that stands out above the others. It is a combination of factors; it checks all the right boxes. Whether it be the affordability, the high achieving schools or the warmth of the community, all of these together make West Orange a fantastic place to raise a family,” said Ilana Turk, who moved to town with her husband, Adam, and two children in August.
A random Shabbat with friends this past summer brought Esti and Jason Buskin and their two sons to town. After a Shabbat where “person after person came up to introduce themselves and to welcome us,” the couple met with Rabbi Zwickler, who “made himself available and spent a significant amount of time with us.” The very next day, they “went to see Kushner. Without sitting through any other school open houses, we immediately knew that it was a very special place…a place that would uniquely help to establish both the religious and secular foundations we wanted for our children.” The Buskins immediately put a bid on the one house they had looked at, and moved in a few months later. “We may have landed here almost by accident, but it may well be the best decision of our lives,” they concluded.
Yolin agreed with Rabbi Sharbat that what these new families have in common is a desire to participate and help out. “People understand that they are helping build the community, not just in terms of expansion, but in terms of the future,” he said.
Like Rabbi Zwickler, Yolin believes that one thing attracting families is the real estate. “The housing costs are affordable at different price points.” He said people like the fact that “you get more for your money here than in some other communities,” and he is excited at the fact that “Jewish families are moving into areas of the town that weren’t previously Jewish,” in essence, widening the Jewish presence within the town.
Deena Rubin, a real estate consultant at Keller Williams Suburban Realty, commented, “I have seen the community grow into a vibrant Modern Orthodox community that offers something for everyone, including affordable, spacious housing that is within walking distance to a shul.”
The township is located within 15 miles of New York City, giving commuters easy access via bus, train and PATH. For families needing access to Manhattan or elsewhere, the township provides jitney service to and from NJ Transit stations in nearby towns.
Beyond the shuls, schools, housing and accessibility to NYC, the community has a recently expanded eruv that is checked weekly, and a mikvah that is maintained at the highest halachic standards. In addition, kosher food and shopping is easily accessible in and around the township’s borders, with more than a dozen kosher eateries and shopping establishments available.
And, noted Rabbi Zwickler, the best is yet to come. With a goal of opening its doors this Memorial Day weekend, Aron’s West Orange is coming to town. This full-service kosher supermarket will be a “game changer,” Rabbi Zwickler said. “The upcoming opening of Aaron’s West Orange is a game-changer for our community that will take us to the next level as an attractive potential home for families seeking a full-service Orthodox community.”
Shabbaton co-chair Michael Diamond said, “What we love about West Orange is that, while there are multiple Modern Orthodox shuls [in town], people identify themselves more as West Orangers than by their shul affiliation.”
By Jill Kirsch