TOMS RIVER, N.J. — The Tri-State has long been known for its ethnic diversity, but as that diversity continues to increase, it can bring with it new opportunities and new concerns, depending on how they're viewed, and who is affected.
This Jersey Shore town is now at the center of that tension, and an ordinance that goes into effect here at the end of the week is raising concerns about anti-Semitism, overly aggressive sales practices and the politics of changing demographics, that are all tied up in the overarching issue of diversity.
A look around streets in the north end of Toms River, near the township line with Lakewood, its municipal next door neighbor, speaks volumes. There's a house-for-sale sign right across the street from a sign that says "Toms River Strong." The latter is the emblem of a movement to help stop some not-good practices that have been occurring more and more often on these Central Jersey streets.
"I don't understand why they should be allowed to come in and badger us," said Michael Dedominicis, a lifelong Toms River resident. He's one of the organizers of the Toms River Strong group, which seeks to ensure that residents can resist pressure to sell when they don't want to.
He is among some 9,000 Toms River residents whose requests of the township to stop unsolicited visits from realtors has led to an ordinance going into effect this week to shield them.
On Friday, a cease and desist order goes into effect, essentially expanding a no-knock ordinance already in effect to include realtors, most of whom are Hasidic Jews from Lakewood, which is itself majority Hasidic.
Lakewood's population is also expanding by leaps and bounds. According to records from Lakewood released to the Associated Press, its population has gone from 93,000 in the 2010 census to 120,000 now. That's a 25 percent increase in just over half a decade.
It's got Toms River's mayor explaining the need to ensure that demographic change happen organically. It also had him saying on Wednesday that, even though the ordinance is targeted at realtors who are mostly Hasidic Jews, that it's not a discriminatory rule.
"It galls me to hear that some people think we're anti-Semitic," Mayor Thomas Kelaher told PIX-11 News.
"The only thing this is designed to do is stop the type of conduct that was driving people crazy," he said.
Among the reported actions were countless instances of realtors knocking on houses displaying no-knock decals. Unsolicited calls occurred frequently on Thanksgiving or Christmas, when it was virtually guaranteed that residents would be home.
Recently, neighbors have complained of letters being placed by hand in their mailboxes, asking them to consider selling. The letters are stamped, with the stamps crossed out by hand to invalidate them, rather than by having them processed through the U.S. Post Office.
"That's mail fraud," said Dedominicis.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for a Hasidic advocacy group told PIX11 News that the new ordinance is not necessarily anti-Semitic. Rabbi Avi Shafran referred to an op-Ed article he'd written for the Orthodox Jewish publication Hamodia .
It said, in part, "The law of supply and demand won’t be violated... that’s fine and good... What isn’t fine and good, though, is pressuring residents by visiting them, unbidden, to make that case. And what’s even less fine and good is doing so on non-Jewish holidays, when residents are more likely to be home, but are undoubtedly more likely to resent uninvited guests."
However, not everybody is agreeing with Rabbi Shafran. Late Wednesday afternoon, the mayor of Lakewood, Menashe Miller, called on Toms River's Mayor Kelaher to apologize for calling the real estate situation an "invasion."