TEANECK – Over five decades ago, Teaneck was a drowsy suburb in northern New Jersey; a small town with a population of barely 30,000 whose main attraction was its proximity – less than 10 kilometers away – to New York City. It was during that period, in the early 1950s, that Teaneck, like hundreds of other American towns, experienced a dramatic population surge. Across the United States, people flocked from big, overcrowded cities to spacious, quiet suburbs. Millions of Americans were captivated by the idea of a private home, their own backyard and a garage. It was the American dream come true.
The transformation was as problem-ridden as it was rapid. The suburban, middle-class, white Christian majority, which saw their communities morphing into something new, different and unwanted, tried to curb the phenomenon, sometimes using methods infected by overt racism and covert anti-Semitism. Entire locales found themselves divided into racially and religiously homogeneous neighborhoods. White Christians on one – almost always the nicer – side of town; blacks and other minorities on the other. Jews too, in most cases, were shunted to the margins, often becoming neighbors of the African-American minority. “The most characteristic feature of the postwar northern housing market,” wrote historian Thomas J. Sugrue in his 2008 book “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North,” “was its nearly complete segregation by race.”
Teaneck was an extreme case. If in 1940 Jews constituted 1 percent of its population, by 1960 they accounted for 20 percent of the town’s residents, and a few years later constituted no less than one-third of them. Just as dramatic as this growth was the hysterical reaction of the other inhabitants, which was unusually fierce compared to the situation in neighboring suburbs.
In a history thesis written at Columbia University in 2011, Rachel Mark notes how, “Both Jews and African Americans who moved to Teaneck in the 1950s experienced discrimination as the model town struggled to adapt to the transition.” She adds that the social segregation there, manifested most blatantly in the form of separate residential areas, stemmed not only from the racism of the residents themselves but was also rooted in the local authorities, as manifested by “restrictive covenants, federal housing policies, and real estate agents.”
Mark quotes sociologist Albert Gordon, who, in 1959, observed that “anti-Jewish discrimination is still a source of grave concern.” Gordon, in his book “Jews in Suburbia,” found that “there is sufficient evidence to indicate that restrictive covenants and other devices used to prevent Jewish settlement in suburban communities are part of a discriminatory pattern.”
Eleanor Kieliszek, who served as Teaneck’s first female mayor (1974-1978), recalled, as quoted in Mark’s thesis, that when she first moved to the town, “there were people who, when they became conscious of the growth of the Jewish community, felt that it wasn’t the community for them any longer.” As a result, many of them simply moved away. Almost overnight, streets that had been synonymous with quality of life became ghost areas with rows of “for sale” signs in front of the homes.
But just then, as is often the case in cities that undergo rapid demographic change, the expressions of prejudice generated a counter-reaction of social solidarity. In protest against the mass flight, some residents began to put up “not for sale” signs in their front yards. The leaders of Teaneck’s Jewish and black communities, aided by local civil rights activists, forged a united front in the struggle against racism and sought to improve the town’s image.
A watershed event was the sudden death, in 1959, of the town’s mayor, August Hanniball, Jr., and his replacement by his Jewish deputy, Matthew Feldman. Feldman adopted a militant stance against the rampant bigotry he saw, even telling The New York Times that there was no Great Wall of China around the town preventing anyone who wasn’t satisfied with Teaneck’s urban fabric from leaving.
Within a few years, not only had the mass departures stopped, but, by 1964, Teaneck had become a symbol of tolerance nationally. It was the first white-majority city in the United States to voluntarily adopt a policy of school integration. This went far beyond acceptance of a token number of black students by white-majority schools: There was organized busing of black children to schools in the white sections. The leaders of the Jewish community, who for years had found themselves on the side of the discriminated, were in the forefront of the fight for school desegregation.
Today, it would probably be hard to find a more established and thriving Jewish community than that of Teaneck anywhere in the United States. Its Jewish population of about 15,000 (most of them Modern Orthodox), out of a total population of 36,000-37,000, maintains a vibrant way of life that even neighboring New York can only envy. There are no fewer than 17 Modern Orthodox synagogues and four private Jewish schools (high-school yeshivas), three kosher supermarkets, five Jewish delis where people wait in line to buy gefilte fish and kugel for Shabbat, a host of glatt-kosher restaurants and cafes grouped together in a few adjacent streets.
Then as now, even after full school integration was achieved and discrimination faded away, there appears to be something in the character of Teaneck that causes it to go on making history time and again, even in the face of all local political-social logic. Otherwise, how to explain the fact that for most of this decade the most “Jewish” city in New Jersey has had a mayor named Mohammed Hameeduddin – the first Muslim mayor in the history of the state, and only the third in the United States?
A devout Muslim whose parents were immigrants from India, Hameeduddin is now in his second term as mayor; he served in the post from 2010 to 2014, and was reelected after running again in April 2016 by the town council, following the death of the incumbent mayor, Lizette Parker.
“The Jewish community sells me the hametz [leavened food] every year before Passover for a nominal amount. I have the contract,” Hameeduddin tells me when I meet him in his office, which is situated on a street packed with kosher restaurants. His Jewish deputy, Elie Katz, adds that the community feels comfortable selling its hametz to Hameeduddin for the week, since, “the most expensive thing is the alcohol, and we know that he won’t drink it.”
For the religiously observant Katz, Teaneck-born and the graduate of a local yeshiva, Hameeduddin is far more than Shabbes goy – an emissary through whom a religious commandment is fulfilled. When Katz ran for deputy mayor, “Mohammed ran my campaign,” he notes, adding that in the last election, “the only kick-off party I had was hosted by the Muslim community and the only victory party I had was hosted by the Muslim community.”
The mayor says he is often a Sabbath-meal guest in the home of the deputy mayor. “There are so many like-minded things between Judaism and Islam. We both live our lives around prayers, the food; we both have dietary restrictions, we can’t eat pork, the family is very important,” explains Hameeduddin, adding that there are only a few hundred Muslim residents in town.
The mayor mentions that he lives near both Katz and his synagogue, and that when the deputy “drops by with his kids on his way home on Shabbat, my kids will turn off the TV because they know it’s Shabbat.”
You don’t have to be a political analyst or an expert in interpersonal dynamics to understand, within minutes of the start of the meeting, on which side the bread is buttered and which of the two has substantially more political and public backing. Which naturally raises the question of why Katz opted to make do with being the deputy (both serve in a part-time capacity).
Katz: “[Hameeduddin] not only offered to support me for mayor two years ago but also four years ago, six years ago and eight years ago, but I have no interest in it. I like to represent the people of Teaneck, and as mayor I feel like you have to do a balancing act to try to manage colleagues, and what I really want is to bring the voice of the people and not have to worry about other things.”
Members of the Jewish community have their own explanation. “However you look at it, we are still in the Diaspora and not in the Land of Israel,” says a leading Teaneck rabbi who asked not to speak for attribution. “It’s true, thank God, that there is no anti-Semitism in Teaneck and that we enjoy full equal rights. But even today, despite all that, when I leave the yeshiva, I tuck my prayer fringes into my trousers. I have no desire to draw attention to my Jewishness, and the last thing people in the community want is a mayor who wears a kippa and who will draw fire. It’s not a healthy situation for people to occupy themselves with the mayor’s religious identity and with his being Jewish.
“In addition,” the rabbi continues, “there is a real danger here of blasphemy. We don’t want a religious mayor who will have to intervene and decide about issues relating to Shabbat violation or in matters relating to Christians or Muslims. That’s a situation that can lead to many halakhic [Jewish law-related] problems that it’s best to avoid.”
Another local rabbi, representing the predominantly Modern Orthodox population of Teaneck – which has virtually no ultra-Orthodox Jews, and only a very modest Conservative and Reform presence – provides an additional perspective: “From our point of view, it makes no difference who the mayor is. We have our own system which is hardly connected to the municipal public system. We send our children to private schools, our synagogues are funded by donations, we have kosher restaurants. Thank God, we are well off, and if there is something we need from City Hall, such as police protection outside the synagogues on Shabbat, or public transportation to yeshivas, we have taken care of that, too. As far as we are concerned, the less we are involved in municipal politics, the better.”
Hameeduddin will not be drawn into questions of identity politics. “It is meaningless whether I am Muslim, Christian or Jewish,” he declares. “I represent all the people of Teaneck and I aspire to act out of a consensus.” But like most Muslim public figures in the United States, he too has learned that in the local political reality there are some things you can’t escape. For example, asked why he entered politics, he relates, “After the 9/11 attack, we submitted a request to enlarge one of our two mosques in Teaneck and didn’t get approval.” That refusal, he adds, went on for about six years, until 2007.
“At one stage,” says Hameeduddin, “a close friend who was elected to the city council asked me to try to help out. Even though I had no political ambitions, I agreed to sit on the city’s planning board and help with the matter of expanding the mosque. As a result, I became more involved in local politics. Two years later I ran for councilman and four years later for mayor.”
Three years ago, Hameeduddin was part of a delegation of Muslim public figures and academics from the United States who came to Israel as part of their participation in a two-year program about Judaism, sponsored by the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Hameeduddin got into a vociferous argument – which, according to reports on pro-Arab websites, deteriorated into physical violence – with several local Arabs who didn’t like the idea of Muslims taking part in a “Zionist” program.
Hameeduddin describes the program, which is only for Muslims, as “a rare opportunity to learn about religious issues from a modern perspective. About how we can examine the traditional scriptures and project from them about our way of life today, about how traditional Judaism needs to be a large tent for different communities – as does Islam. About how we can and need to learn to respect other religions.”
The 10-day visit to Israel was the culmination of two years of lectures via internet and four weekend sessions. “I had general knowledge about the Jewish religion, but I’d never had the chance to learn about it from an academic point of view,” Hameeduddin notes. “About the Six-Day War, about the challenges that Judaism is confronting today, such as intermarriage and the Jews’ affinity for the land.” Speakers included the institute’s president, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi.
The trip to Israel was an “extraordinary experience,” the mayor says, emphasizing that as far as he is concerned, the apparently violent incident – which occurred during prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque – was merely an attempt by Muslim activists to generate headlines. “There were two men who harassed the women of the delegation while they were praying in the mosque,” he recalls. “They walked around with a camera and documented the attempt to embarrass them, asked all kinds of questions and deliberately bothered them. At one point I went over and told them to leave the women in peace. Between one thing and another, they claimed I broke their camera and hit them.”
Despite the singularity of Teaneck – a mixed bag of a city with 30 percent Jews, a similar proportion of blacks and a Muslim mayor, all of whom live together harmoniously – there is nevertheless one common denominator with Israel, with its recent furor over the opening of supermarkets on Shabbat.
Teaneck has no restrictions about businesses opening on Shabbat, but anyone who wants to, say, buy a washing machine or a pair of shoes on the Christian Sabbath, Sunday, will have to travel far beyond the boundaries of Bergen County, New Jersey. The reason: a blue law that prohibits all commerce on Sunday, other than the sale of food. Blue laws – which date from the colonial period in America – now exist in only two counties in the entire United States, one of them being Bergen. This is particularly onerous for the city’s religiously observant Jews, as it denies them the opportunity to shop locally on the weekend. Nevertheless, and despite the law’s archaic character, the last attempt to annul it in a referendum, in the 1980s, was rejected by a majority of some 35,000 residents.
Hameeduddin tries to avoid taking a stand on the issue, but his deputy, Katz, takes a decidedly contrary view. “I think stores should be given the option to open on Sunday,” he says. “After all, Amazon will deliver to me whatever I want on Sunday. I think a lot of the business community is suffering; they can’t compete. But there are a few reasons why people don’t want it, some because of religious reasons, some because their towns are overwhelmed with cars and malls, and some don’t want it because they represent malls from other counties that now get the benefit of having my wife going to their malls on Sunday.”
Just before our conversation ends, as Shabbat will soon begin, I ask Hameeduddin to enumerate the greatest difficulties faced by the small local Muslim community of a few hundred. “The challenge for the Muslim community is the same as for every other community in Teaneck: Everybody is talking about affordability and services,” he says, noting the high annual property taxes, among the highest in New Jersey, of about $10,000 per family.
And what are the challenges for the Jews? “The biggest challenge is the snow,” Katz says, laughing, but immediately turns serious and also cites economics, but of a very different sort: “It’s very expensive to live a Jewish life [here]. Jewish private schools, we are talking about between $16,000 to $18,000 per year for elementary school and $24,000 to $30,000 for high school per year. And on top of that you have Jewish camps and kosher food.”
Multiply those figures by 12 years of schooling times three-four children on average per family and you have the price of a new apartment in Manhattan. But despite this, as the local press has reported lately, and as Katz also points out, the demand to live in town keeps growing, attesting to the economic resilience of the local Jewish community.
I ask Hameeduddin whether he would like to see more Jews in the public school system. “My kids are going to public schools,” he replies. “Everybody has the choice to make about what education they want for their children. I don’t have private schools like the Jewish schools, and I couldn’t afford to spend $50,000 to $60,000 for a private school. But what I have here is a good public school. So for us, religious education comes after school.”
All in all, then, not only is the transformation complete, but it possibly succeeded beyond expectations. Seventy years after the first Jews started to move to Teaneck, and almost 60 years after segregation in local schools was eliminated, there are once again two separate education systems in the city – even if this time around it’s not a matter of discrimination but the free choice of the people.