A day after Gov. Phil Murphy called out certain people in Lakewood for holding two large gatherings that had to be broken up by police, the governor called out hateful comments directed at the township's Orthodox Jewish residents.

Murphy on Thursday said that the "overwhelming percentage of folks are doing the right thing, including among its leaders."

"But folks are using a couple of examples like that to extrapolate and start blaming, vilifying communities. In this case, our Jewish brothers and sisters," he said.

"Regardless of how you worship. Regardless of your ethnicity, race, who you love, your gender, we are one family. We rise and fall as one family," Murphy said.

"There is a special place in hell for the very small minority of individuals" who scapegoat, bully or vilify another community, the governor said.

Lakewood has the most cases of COVID-19 in Ocean County with 198 of the county's 468 cases, as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Ocean County Health Department.

Billboard encouraging social distancing in Lakewood
Billboard encouraging social distancing in Lakewood (Scoop Outdoor)

Lakewood police spokesman Greg Staffordsmith told New Jersey 101.5 that officers responded to a gathering of 25 teenagers at a building on Main Street around 8 a.m. Tuesday and a wedding at a home on Newport Drive about 2:30 p.m. In both cases, a criminal complaint was issued to the owner and homeowner.

Lakewood police chief Greg Meyer told The Lakewood Scoop his township is "100% in compliance" with Gov. Phil Murphy's stay-at-home order.

"Our officers have visited local stores, banquet halls, parks and other spaces and what we've seen so far from our residents is nearly 100% compliance. We are grateful that the community as a whole is working together to ensure social distancing and following the governor's orders," Meyer told The Scoop.

Rabbi Abe Friedman, a chaplain for the State Police and a member of the governor's interfaith advisory council, told New Jersey 101.5 he is in agreement with Meyer that most Lakewood residents are following Murphy's order but it is difficult for some Jewish residents who are used to gathering together for prayers three times a day.

"This is a community, I believe, gathers and lives tight knit. The average family with five to eight children. Then when they grow older, marry off and then they have children, so the average household has about 20, including their own children, grandchildren and a son- or daughter-in-law," Friedman said.

The routine of daily prayer is something that has been with a practicing Jew since they were children.

"It's very difficult to pull the plug on that and say 'you've done this for the past 10, 20, 30, 50 years. Now just go home pray at home with no other people with you,'" Friedman said.

Lakewood is also home to one of the world's largest yeshivas, where students spend 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. studying and teaching the Talmud, according to Friedman.

Friedman said when Murphy issued his order to shut all schools in the state, the yeshivas also closed and strict orders were given by the rabbis to discontinue prayers and close the synagogues.

"This shutting of synagogues and schools did not happen in the history of the United States. This is something that had not happened since the Holocaust," Friedman said. "I spoke to a few Holocaust survivors and they, with tears in their eyes, said to me it reminds them of Nazi Germany when they took over Poland and other states and countries and sent all the Jews home."

The social distancing rules, however, are being observed by all religious groups. Catholic Churches in New Jersey, for example, have moved Mass online and are making plans to do the same for services on Easter Sunday.

Friedman said it took a day or two for many in the community to come to grips with the fact that the order was issued only for public safety, in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Lakewood includes some insular communities whose members do not watch television, have access to the internet or read newspapers and get most of their news from a rabbi or the Jewish media and may not have been entirely aware of New Jersey's reaction to the outbreak.

Lakewood police mounted a public safety campaign that includes billboards, letters and social media to get the message out about social distancing.

"There's always a few bad apples," the rabbi said of the gatherings that police busted.

Friedman said he has spoken to clergy from other religions and their faithful are not happy with the closure of churches and cancelation of services

"Prayers, especially if you do them on a daily basis, gives you some sense of relief. It's where you go speak to God. You express your concerns and all of a sudden you can't do it in the same fashion you've done it for so many years," Friedman said.

Friedman said he was grateful for Murphy's support during Thursday's briefing against comments directed at the Jewish population in Lakewood and has witnessed hate in his position as chaplain toward many groups.

"I always say haters will hate. Someone who has hate in them will take every opportunity to come out and criticize, hate and point fingers at a certain culture, a certain community or a certain faith without checking the facts.  Right away they jump out of their little holes and use the opportunity to say 'you know what, these are the people they are different, they're spreading the viruses.'"

Friedman also had personal praise for Murphy's handling of the situation three weeks after having a tumor removed from his lung.

"He took the forefront of jumping right into this chaotic situation to try and people's lives. He's a person with integrity and if he feels Lakewood is not cooperative he would call me and say: 'Rabbi, I need you to address the situation.'"

David Matthau contributed to this report.

Billboard encouraging social distancing in Lakewood
Billboard encouraging social distancing in Lakewood (ScoopOutdoor)


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