A Walk Through Town with Moish Lankry

December 9, 2021

Malya Simon

There’s nothing like a Lakewood icon. It’s familiar. It’s well-run. It’s been around for years.

Be it a popular store, school, or library that has been running since Lakewood’s early days, these icons serve as silent witnesses to the enormous population growth in our town and the challenges and triumphs that come along with it.

Fourth and Clifton. The blue-and-brown-striped overhang. A mouthwatering aroma. Every Lakewood resident is familiar with Lakewood’s first, iconic, and still-going-strong pizza shop, Pizza Plus.

Enter the buzzing eatery and you will likely be greeted by the veteran owner, Mr. Moish Lankry. He has served this town the universal wheat-and-cheese delicacy for three decades while remaining active in the Township and community and all the while, watching our town of Lakewood evolve into what it is today.

A nuclear spot

Twenty-five years ago, after a gratifying few years learning in Bais Medrash Govoha, Mr. Lankry hung out his shingle and opened Pizza Plus.

“My clientele is largely the bnei Torah crowd, and I’m honored to serve them,” Mr. Lankry says. He considers his store location, only a few short blocks from BMG, as coming along with the responsibility of maintaining his store’s kashrus and general atmosphere at standards that are in-line with the way bnei Torah want it to be. He is careful to not let his store become a hang-out location. When Mr. Lankry notices a party that seems finished with their meal, he will go over to them and in his friendly, warm way help them move along and out of the store.

Pizza Plus and its patrons have seen much action over the years. Whether it was a group of old friends meeting for the first time in a long while, business deals being finalized, rebbe’im with their talmidim who needed a boost, or a friendly police officer coming in for an easy lunch (more on that later), the store has been a nuclear spot of active Jewish life in the neighborhood.

Many years ago, Pizza Plus went through a large expansion project which added a new sitting room with capacity for 30 people. There were large windows throughout the room, making for a very open feel. Mr. Lankry recalls when Rebbetzin Rischel Kotler a”h, who would often enter his store when shopping on the streets nearby, was found hesitating near the entrance. He ran over to her and asked why she was not coming in like she usually did. Was something wrong?

The Rebbetzin responded that ever since the new sitting room was added, she felt that the windows were too open, and it did not feel fully tznius for her to be there. Always looking to up his game, Mr. Lankry ran out to Lowes get some kraft paper to hang up on the windows.

The next time Rebbetzin Kotler came by, she noticed the kraft paper and gave Mr. Lankry “a look.” She explained that the coverings did the job well, but “it should be nice, too.” With this, the Rebbetzin taught him that maintaining privacy and tznius is important, and it must be done in a beautiful and dignified manner.

Without further ado, Mr. Lankry saw to it that proper window treatments were ordered and installed.

Chessed roots

Reading between the lines during our interview, I get the feel that there is a lot of chessed happening in Mr. Lankry’s store, which he modestly confirms. Being in the food industry for so many years and owning a lively storefront in the hub of town provides Mr. Lankry with unique opportunities to encourage the different individuals that come his way.

But Mr. Lankry humbly insists that it’s not about him. “The real write-up should be about my father, Rabbi Shlomo Lankry a”h, from Brooklyn. He was a chessed machine.”

The senior Rabbi Lankry was involved in kiruv, distributed tzedakah in hidden ways, and single-handedly ran a Sephardi chevrah kaddisha for 50 years. The latter responsibility included completing the taharah of each niftar, arranging the levayah and kevurah, setting up the shivah house, and ensuring that there were minyanim for the family—all for no salary. In addition, he founded Chessed L’Avraham in Flatbush, a shul that allows for every Yid to have a place to daven where they feel content in all aspects.

Rabbi Lankry ran a small sefarim shop in Flatbush, and whenever the opportunity to serve as chevrah kaddisha arose, he hung a sign on his door which said, “Be back in five minutes” and rushed off in search of the mitzvah. A local rav who was aware of the extent of Rabbi Lankry’s chessed activities once quipped that the sign should have said, “Be back for five minutes,” as Rabbi Lankry’s days were spent helping others.

The Zoning Board

Mention of Lakewood’s zoning board may strike a raw nerve in many homeowners and aspiring homeowners in the community. The zoning board is the go-to location to discuss any and every question that comes up regarding land, building, new developments, ordinances, and all things construction related.

As a longtime active member, Mr. Lankry reflects on the position. “Back in the day, zoning issues were simpler. We would see non-Jewish owners fighting for land to remain in its natural state, vehemently opposing new construction. They didn’t want Yidden to move in but blamed it on their concern about preserving nature; they were worried that the red-spotted owl would have no place to land. Today, it’s two frum Yidden in the debate, each vying for an opportunity to build or keep land.”

Mr. Lankry acts as a source of information for homeowners and developers when such questions arise. He is well versed in the Township’s zoning rules and graciously shares his knowledge with those in need. Often, his unofficial help-desk service can demystify the unknowns involved, allowing for the two parties to resolve the question on their own. This mitigates the need to bring it before the board, which can complicate matters.

“The hardest part of Lakewood zoning is the Route 9 traffic issue,” Mr. Lankry shares. Going back 30 years, driving to Lakewood via Route 9 was a totally different experience than it is today. Route 9 was a two-laner with no lights. There were old-style roundabouts for intersections, with chicken farms and mom-and-pop-style car dealerships and stores along the way. By now, all those lanes up until Lakewood have been developed into five-laners, allowing for valuable commercial space including many strip malls on either side. It’s baffling, Mr. Lankry emphasizes, that this development of roads has stopped in Lakewood proper, only to continue once you head into Toms River. The traffic it causes is intolerable, as all Lakewood residents can attest to.

The one effective way to ameliorate this issue is by holding our politicians accountable for the absurdity of the situation. Ideally, the residents of this town should conduct a heavy protest by blocking off Route 9 and sending all our school buses to encircle Trenton, insisting that this issue be corrected. It’s a strong plan, but not in Lakewood, Mr. Lankry warns. We live in a town run by bnei Torah, and taking this course would cause a colossal chillul Hashem. And so, the option is off the table.

“We are Yidden and should remain low-key, refraining from taking such a step that can cause widespread negative media attention to our town,” Mr. Lankry explains.

While he understands this and other heavy-duty issues from up close, he is submissive to the call of the rabbanim of the town and makes it his priority to constantly create a kiddush Hashem.

He takes this attitude a step further with his involvement in addressing the negative media attention toward Lakewood. About a decade ago, he hosted a meeting with the staff of the Asbury Park Press in his home—with pizza, of course. Rabbi Aaron Kotler ran the meeting, in which he attempted to get the APP to see the positive aspects of the community. Based on the APP’s subsequent coverage of Lakewood, this was successful for a while, until the staff experienced a turnover and new voices were added to the mix.

Commercial Lakewood

Back in the day, there was one office building available in all of Lakewood. It was located on Second Street on top of the old Center of Town. This arrangement suited the community just fine, providing a perfect and adequate option for those who needed it.

Fast-forward 30 years. Lakewood now boasts dozens of multiple-story, class-A office buildings filled to capacity with every type of business. Health care, real estate, insurance, retail, and other industries have made their prime location in Lakewood, employing thousands of local men and women. Hundreds of businesses from out of state are relocating, eager to make use of the single- and married-women workforce here in Lakewood. Though the women may need to leave relatively early in the day to tend to their families, their work is skilled, and they put in a solid five or six hours to get it done.

At the same time, shopping malls go up in a flash, and retail business in Lakewood is remarkably busy.

Mr. Lankry reminisces that in his yeshivah days, money was scarce, and people didn’t drive fancy cars; the yungeleit had old cars that simply got them from place to place. The men in the yeshivah parking lot would kibitz with each other over whose car was the “better” one—i.e., the one with more scratches. If someone had a new car, they would park it three blocks away from the yeshivah, embarrassed to be so luxurious. Today, with the explosion of local business growth comes a rise in acquisition of high-end items, and sadly, the people with the old, beat-up cars can sometimes find themselves embarrassed and feel compelled to park three blocks away. While of course growth is a positive thing, we must be careful to refrain from becoming overly busy with gashmiyus, Mr. Lankry cautions.

The police department

Mr. Lankry shares a longtime congenial relationship with the police department, his neighbors. The police parking lot is located just around the bend from Pizza Plus, and police officers know that they are always welcome in Pizza Plus for a friendly chat and lunch. His relationship with the police has allowed Mr. Lankry to hear firsthand what it takes to monitor this town, and he gives an impassioned shout-out to Lakewood’s police force for their tenacious dedication in running this town in the awesome way they do.

“Going back some decades, Lakewood was riddled with crime. The areas past Fourth Street and Monmouth were a war zone, and the police would not go in there without armored personal carriers. There was heavy crime up and down Route 9, and the police would never venture out too far unaccompanied.”

What was considered “too far”? Mr. Lankry laughs as he recalls the time a family member bought a house on Central Avenue and Sunset Road. Mr. Lankry had pestered him, “Where are you buying? Who will live near you?”

Over the years, development of housing for frum residents has made Lakewood safer and more comfortable, ridding the town of a lot of the crime and drug elements.

On a different note, police officers have shared with Mr. Lankry that theoretically, they can give hundreds of tickets daily to the drivers on Lakewood streets. To their credit, they prefer to focus on moving traffic along, turning a blind eye to the many illegal moves that go on.

“I’m not a trained professional. From my basic viewpoint, I see all the moves that our frum brothers and sisters do on Lakewood streets, and it’s an embarrassment,” Mr. Lankry notes. He begs every Lakewood driver to think about the kiddush or chillul Hashem they can make while driving.

Friends in higher places

In general, Mr. Lankry says, Lakewood’s police force, township boards, building and inspection departments, and committeemen have been a vigorous power behind the growth of Lakewood. Their ideology is pro-construction, allowing the township departments to pop out substantial projects in mere days. These are projects that are so multifaceted that they could have easily taken other towns years to complete.

The Mayor and committeemen have our back, and are involved in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day aspects of our lives. A text from a local resident to one of the board or committee members will likely result in a quick response and an attempt to resolve the issue to the public’s satisfaction.

So catch Mr. Lankry flipping a pie of pizza, chatting with the police chief, or deciphering the latest new development plans as he shares his passionate positivity about our town. You’ll be glad you did.