Two Georgian Court Students’ Perspectives on Lakewood’s Global Diversity
Georgian Court University sits in the heart of a multilingual and multiethnic town that values global diversity and global perspectives. Lakewood is home to the third largest Mexican population in New Jersey and one of the largest Jewish colleges in the world; all within a few blocks of Georgian Court University. While the university’s Office of Global Education Programs provides global experiences and opportunities to students, another important role is to bring global awareness to the campus and recognize our local community’s global diversity. The Office of Global Education Programs invited a university student and recent alumnus to share through their eyes just how rich in culture and global diversity Lakewood is, and in this guest post, Yasmin Amaro-Garcia ’22 and Joshua Orgel ’21 explore the interconnection of Lakewood’s Orthodox Jewish and Mexican-American communities.
A Multilingual, Multiethnic Town
Orthodox Jewish Community
Joshua: I started off in Lakewood as a student 11 years ago in Beth Medrash Govoha, or BMG as it is also known. I studied Talmudic law at the yeshiva, or university, more than a year before getting engaged and married to a young woman from Lakewood and then renting a condo. I’ve watched a town rich with culture flourish and thrive. Coming from a much smaller town, I was blown away by the united traditions displayed. As each holiday would come along, a new tradition would be brought out into the streets. Around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, one can hear the adults and children blowing the shofar, a ritual musical instrument. At Succoth, a fall holiday, one sees the temporary huts built in each backyard and hears the singing of families coming from within. Before Passover, one sees the flurry of activity, each person vacuuming their car and scrubbing their houses. During Purim, my favorite holiday, one hears the music blasting in the streets with children dressed up in costumes and dancing in the houses. I would visit the local shops Thursday night, tasting each store’s cholent, a stew, and kugel, a noodle pudding—traditional Sabbath foods. Now my children are experiencing these same cultures and traditions. My daughters love shopping with me each Thursday, buying food and groceries for the Sabbath, and my son looks forward each week to his bowl of cholent and kugel. I watch as this little-known enclave of Jewish culture is passed on to the next generation.
Yasmin: Being a Mexican American born and raised in Lakewood, I am able to embrace my cultural background as an individual and within my community. Simply walking through downtown Lakewood, I would come in contact with vendors selling flowers, chicharrones (pork rinds), raspados (shaved ice), and elotes (street corn). I would also see men waiting on Second Street for employment, typically in construction; mothers pushing strollers as they hurry to run errands; but most importantly, a community of persons feeling comfortable in being themselves. As a child, whenever I was with my mother rushing to stop by the supermarket after a wellness check-up at the local clinic, we’d almost inevitably run into at least one person she knew from her hometown in Mexico. I did not understand why we had to stop our day for what seemed like forever to chat with a lady that I did not know, since I was really looking forward to a Gansito snack cake from the supermarket. But looking back now, I remember their faces lighting up to have found someone from home. As they spoke, stories flowed from their lips as trails of words told of persons who went missing trying to make it here, or of persons from home who got married and had kids here pursuing careers, and of updates of family members back in Mexico. And as they said their farewells, I would see their gazes reminiscing of a land far away and their expressions of relief to know that they found it here.
Lakewood’s Mexican Americans and Orthodox Jews have delicious foods that are often shared between both communities. Every Thursday night, many of the Jewish stores prepare cholent and kugel, traditional foods that can be traced back to the Jewish communities in Pre-World War Europe. However, it is not only the Jewish community that enjoys these and other dishes (matzah, Hanukkah donuts, Shavuot cheesecake, and Rosh Hashanah fruits), it is the Mexican-American community as well. The town’s unique mixture gives everyone a taste of everything. And this becomes especially evident when Mexican Americans bring their cooking styles into Orthodox Jewish-owned businesses and homes, while keeping the food kosher. Many of the cooks are Mexican American, and they introduce a variety of their traditional spices and seasonings to menu items. Oftentimes, Jewish customers find themselves enjoying these modifications to the foods that they already know, creating greater revenue for these businesses!
The Mexican-American and Orthodox Jewish communities not only coexist in the same town, but they depend on each other, making Lakewood a blended environment. Both communities migrate from their home countries in search of opportunities that can include employment, education, and freedom. These are things we both have in common: we are running in parallel to reach the same goals and often, our paths intertwine. The Orthodox Jewish community contributes a majority of the businesses in Lakewood, and likewise the Mexican-American community contributes a large portion of the employment in these establishments.
Language Learning and Coming Together
Lakewood houses a variety of cultures, predominantly the Mexican-American and Orthodox Jewish communities. Not only does the university of Beth Medrash Govoha attract students from across the country, but it also draws people from around the world, including Canada, South Africa, Israel, England, and Venezuela. There is an array of languages heard on the streets in Lakewood and oftentimes, paths cross with one another, creating a global atmosphere in the local community.
Both Orthodox Jews and Mexican-American communities, being migrating populations, have language learning in common. Mexican Americans learn their first few phrases in English from Orthodox Jews, predominantly in the work field. And in that same scenario, the Orthodox Jewish community learns Spanish to better communicate with their employees. There are even some Orthodox Jews who speak fluent Spanish! Likewise, many Mexican-American cleaning ladies learn Yiddish phrases to further understand the persons in the homes where they are providing services. Through these acts of language learning, both communities come together to better comprehend each other and themselves—we both have so much to learn from each other.
Global Diversity and Global Perspectives
While these perspectives demonstrate how the community values global diversity and global perspectives, it is our hope that those who don’t live, work, or study in Lakewood will also recognize the wealth of culture and global diversity within this town. The unique combination of communities and cultures allows for experiences one would not have elsewhere. The Mexican-American community heavily relies on the Orthodox Jewish community for employment, and through these opportunities of contact, we are able to become familiar with a culture we otherwise would have never known. It’s not just that we’re independent communities that coexist in the same town; both communities gain from one another and uniquely make up a blended interconnected whole community. So, even though Lakewood may not make it on the top 10 tourist attractions of New Jersey, to people like us, it is our home away from home.
Story contributed by Yasmin Amaro-Garcia ’22 and Joshua Orgel ’21.