Golden Years in Lakewood

December 28, 2023

How do Lakewood’s seniors—especially our newcomers—find meaning and belonging here?

Elisheva Braun

Rocking chairs in golden sunlight.

Grandchildren on the knee.

Coffee (tea?) and a crossword puzzle.

It’s the golden years.

What’s it really like living in Lakewood as a senior?

With seniors from all over the country descending on Lakewood by the thousands, how are we making room for them here in Lakewood?


Until last September, Elchanan’s days started early. At six o’clock in the morning, he walked to shul, a tefillin bag tucked under his elbow. At 7:15 he was hunched over his Gemara, a chavrusa swaying at his side. By 8:30, he was usually off to his first job. An independent electrician, he took every project that came his way.

Last year, Elchanan’s wife Sara finally swayed him; it was time to trade their stifling three-bedroom Kensington walkup for the wide, green pastures of the greater Lakewood area.

Their married children would be nearby—always available for a family barbecue or impromptu family powwow. A backyard! A private deck! Four entire parking spaces! Life would be wonderful.

It was and it wasn’t.

The house sold quickly and for a nice price, thankfully. House-hunting from afar was challenging, but they eventually settled on an affordable and spacious ranch in Jackson.

Sara’s job—which was always primarily remote—transported seamlessly to New Jersey. EC Electrical, on the other hand, wasn’t as easily transplanted. Its clientele was back in Brooklyn.

Without Yaakov Moshe and the early-morning song of learning on the pockmarked wooden bench they’d used for forty years without a break (save for covid), Elchanan felt rootless, misplaced.


When my husband shared his chavrusa’s father-in-law’s story, I started to wonder.

As age creeps up, life slows down. Outside, change whirls faster than ever. How does the older population find their place in a world that spins quicker and louder all the time? With wagonloads of wisdom and heaps of life experience, how do they navigate the world of today? And what happens when you throw an interstate move into the mix?

Home sweet home

As Lakewood swells and spreads, it rolls out the red carpet to an unprecedented number of seniors. Some older newcomers are choosing to buy or rent on their own. Others are opting into senior living communities.

The Voice’s Ratzy Szimanowitz moved from Boro Park to the Fairways seven years ago.

“My husband and I had never owned a house. When we married off our youngest, we decided it was time. We chose Lakewood because of the affordability,” Ratzy tells me.

The couple made the move in increments. Originally, they planned to use the Fairways property as a weekend house. They liked it so much that when a great job landed in Ratzy’s lap, they decided to stay.

“At the beginning, I felt like I was digging my grave by moving to a senior community. I quickly realized that although everyone here is in the second half of their lifespan, there’s plenty of age disparity. Many of my neighbors are very active. We get together on Shabbos for a shiur and Tehillim. I go when I feel like it; at my age, I don’t have to worry about impressing people anymore. I also go walking every day. I love taking in the view. I love being surrounded by lakes and trees and flowers.”
Far from the crowded buildings and scooter-filled sidewalks of Boro Park, life in Fairways is pleasantly serene.

But it isn’t always easy. “We were among the first five frum people to move into Fairways. The first time I sat down to daven in my new home, I thought, ‘I’m probably the first person ever to daven in this spot.’

“We got a lot of comments from non-Jewish residents like ‘You know this is a gated community, right?’ or a cynical, ‘Can I help you?’ They weren’t happy with the new frum presence. There’s a lot of difficulty in opening shuls here. The swimming is mixed. We frum Jews are in the minority here, and many of our needs are not being met.”

The Szimanowitzes were instrumental in getting more frum people to move to Fairways. Slowly, the landscape is changing. But the hostility is still there.

“When we wanted to fix our garage, our neighbors signed a petition against it. I felt so threatened, I had to install cameras outside my house.”

Still, there’s so much to savor in the greens-profuse neighborhood. “He’avar ayin v’ha’asid adayin,”Ratzy quotes. “All we can do is live in the moment and appreciate the here and now. All we have is the present. May Hashem give us the ability to enjoy each stage of life.”

Keeping company

We all crave connection. We need to bond, share, swap stories, and hear others’ experiences. What happens when we’re no longer bumping into each other at pickup time or sharing a bench at the park? Who fills that need when the precious built-in interactions fade?

Lakewood is one of the few cities that don’t feature a senior center. With its influx of seniors, it should. Very soon, it will.

“Every time I went to the grocery store,” Mrs. Miriam Tress remembers, “I met more and more older women who had moved to Lakewood. I would ask what they do, and many of them told me that they were looking for things to do. Being bored is not a very good thing—especially when you’re a senior citizen.”

Built on the dream of providing older women with productive, enjoyable outlets, Connections opened its doors to a couple hundred women. In the two years since its inception, that number jumped to nearly a thousand members.

Every month, the women gather for lunch and an uplifting shiur.

When the program is scheduled for noon, the room is packed by 11:30. These get-togethers are the highlight of so many women’s months.

Chani Stefansky, its founder, flies speakers in from places as far as Chicago and Florida. Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro, and other popular speakers have addressed the Connections crowd.

Old Lakewood, new Lakewood, litvish, chassidish, or American; everyone feels connected.

Her favorite is watching the reunions. “People meet each other for the first time in decades here. There’s nothing more fun than watching two old high school friends embrace,” she says.

With Connections so successful, the founders didn’t stop dreaming. They will soon be rolling out The Square, a full-time center with programs for seniors.

“We’re working on organizing a bus that will pick seniors up. We’re planning to arrange food, book clubs, and classes on dancing, crafting, jewelry making, art, and more. To accommodate every schedule, The Square will be open all day and into the evening.

The Square’s motto is, “As Yidden, we look to our parents and grandparents for everything: our identities, our lifestyles, our choices. How can we not take care of our seniors?”

A steady presence

Driving past the tranquil, tree-lined roads of Pine River Village, my husband and I (both apprehensively awaiting our 30th birthdays), count down the years until we can move into one of its attractive colonials. The seniors’ neighborhood stands in staid contrast to our own tricycle-strewn complex.

Its rav, Rabbi Daniel Neustadt, who also advises younger demographics in his other rabbinic capacities, compares rabbanus for the older versus younger crowd to the difference between a typical doctor and one who specializes in geriatrics.

Rabbanus for the older crowd is very different and special. The day-to-day she’eilos and concerns are fewer as well,” Rabbi Neustadt notes.

“I give a halachah shiur every night, sometimes two—one before and one after Ma’ariv. When the war in Eretz Yisrael broke out, we started a women’s hilchos Shabbos shiur as a zechus. It’s very interactive. The women all ask questions; it’s a back-and-forth.

“These are people who have seen so much; they have so much wisdom. They’re very rooted in mesorah. Many of them have prewar upbringings,” the rav adds. “There’s less exposure to technology and to the standard occupational hazards of living in today’s world.”

For many seniors new to Lakewood, Torah is more than a holy pursuit, it’s their grounding force.

As seniors relocate to Lakewood from the Tri-State area, the move can be challenging and stressful. Many must cope with retirement together with changes in health and family. But down the interstate highway and across municipal lines, one thing is constant. Among their valises and moving boxes, they take their Torah learning along. Among their aspirations for their golden years, many hope to increase their Torah learning, both in quantity and quality.

Rabbi Mark* shares, “Just days before my retirement began, I didn’t know where to go for learning. I didn’t feel that I had the stamina and concentration to productively immerse myself in an active beis midrash for an entire seder. Hashgachah had it that a friend recommended Kollel Iyun Halacha to me. I was thankful to find the perfect place to spend my mornings.”

Seeing how impactful a simple referral could be, he began to compile information from shul posters and advertisements and compiled a list of resources of structured learning for other seniors who were new to Lakewood.

“Keeping active is so important,” Mr. Stern*, another senior citizen, remarks. “If you don’t keep busy trying to grow and accomplish something meaningful, you end up focusing on your aches and pains. If you don’t use your mind, you can be at risk of losing it.”

These aren’t just words.

In his older years, Mr. Stern delved into the Third Beis Hamikdash and made it a focal point for his learning. He went on to use architectural software to model it, gaining insight and discovering some amazing facts and insights. Perhaps most importantly, it enabled him to daven more intensely for its restoration.

“When you get older, you look back on your struggles and realize that they were the best things to happen to you,” another senior reflected. “You begin to see that Hashem was with you the whole time. On a macro scale, if you want proof that Hashem is with us as a people, just look in the mirror and realize that if you use the laws of probability, you shouldn’t be there with a yarmulke on your head. Despite the fact that B’chol dor v’dor omdim aleinu, we’re still around and connected to Torah. Hashem carries us through as individuals and as a people.

“Aging can give you more time to introspect. It can make you weaker on the outside but stronger on the inside. It’s another great time that Hashem gives us, and it’s important to take advantage of it.”

Empowered through education

Moving to Lakewood as a senior is not all Bingo and flowerbeds. While in many ways it’s a utopia, unsuspecting senior Lakewooders who are new to town are hit with harsh truths.

Mrs. Hadassah Waldman, director of Zahav, a project of Agudath Israel, has witnessed the implications of lack of information a hundred times over.

Using many means of education and direction, including a comprehensive book, resource and referral support, an event, and more in the planning stages, Zahav—which opened a year ago to accommodate Lakewood’s growing senior population—made it its mission to preempt any unpleasant surprises. Its stats indicate that Zahav was badly needed. In its first six months of operation, Zahav helped resolve over 1,200 concerns and distributed over 1,500 hard copies of Hadassah’s book. For the next edition of her book, Mrs. Waldman is working on adding a section on the New York rules and regulations as well as a chapter about moving from New York to New Jersey.

“Moving as a senior requires more than the typical driver’s license and address changes,” Hadassah says.

At the 65-age mark, health insurance becomes a complex matter.

“People move to Lakewood from New York, or anywhere in the country, without making sure they have doctors and specialists who take their insurance,” she says. “They also don’t realize how different New Jersey laws are from New York ones.”

In many cases, it’s the difference between being financially okay and being broke.

“Most seniors are on fixed incomes, and they’re getting insurance through Medicare,” she explains.

There are crucial differences between New York and New Jersey Medicare eligibility guidelines.

New York doesn’t factor age and health for Medicare supplement plans. The Garden State does. There’s also a seven-month period in which 65-year-olds have to apply for Medicare or pay penalties for the rest of their lives. The gap is massive; people don’t realize the magnitude.

For example, in New York, a single person can have about $28,000 in their account each month and be eligible for Medicaid. In New Jersey, the limit is $2,000 a month and, unlike in New York, this includes IRAs, pension plans, life insurance, etc. Even if you gift your assets, you’re not safe. New Jersey Medicaid demands a five-year lookback.

In addition, transportation isn’t as readily accessible in New Jersey as it is in more metropolitan areas. There also aren’t enough geriatric doctors in Lakewood, a real problem for seniors. There are fewer social centers here, although we have Connections and Nshei, and we’re eagerly awaiting The Square’s grand opening.

“A lot of things need to be put into place before you pack the first moving box. Do your research—and feel free to reach out to us!We must balance the quality-of-life aspect with the practicalities. When the move is not done with foresight, there’s a lot of stress on the seniors’ families.

“Lakewood is an amazing place for seniors,” Hadassah clarifies. “I’m actually transitioning from New York to Lakewood myself.

“The opportunity to be close to young people while enjoying the laid-back living of 55+ communities, the tremendous chessed, the chavrusas and shuls, the trees! You won’t find a more wonderful place. At the same time, it’s important to be prepared and know what you’re coming into so you don’t get stuck.”

So much to give, but where to give it?

In the stainless-steel commercial kitchen, tens of older women bustle around. The room is filled with laughter, the buzz of conversation, and the click-stick-stack as food gets double-wrapped, labeled, and divided by destination.

Mrs. Hindy Cooper is one of many seniors who volunteer for Bikur Cholim of Lakewood. The organization’s kitchens are open each week Monday through Thursday with no breaks or vacation days.

“We volunteers have developed very close friendships,” Mrs. Cooper adds. “We’re very busy here; it’s a lot of work. Ultimately, we’re helping people who need food. Unfortunately, the need is very big, and it’s growing.”

Hundreds of frum patients are relying on the food distributions, and the women take their responsibilities very seriously.

“Once, while schmoozing in the kitchen, a volunteer told me that she had a headache that day,” Esti, a Bikur Cholim supervisor recalls. “I asked her why she’d come. ‘I already took off two days. I couldn’t miss again!’ she told me. These women are doing a beautiful chessed. It’s a form of giving in which they don’t get anything in return.”

With so many devoted volunteers, all positions at Bikur Cholim are filled.

Are there other opportunities for seniors to give of their storehouses of wisdom and experience?

Positions are hard to come by.

“I’ve heard that Serendipity has volunteer positions open. Other than that, most seniors spend their days involved with their children or going to shiurim. We’re very excited about The Square. People are lonesome and need companionship. To have a place to gather would be wonderful.”

Turns out, there’s a lot of support available for this golden era, more than I originally imagined.

At the same time, there’s more to be done so that Elchanan, and every senior who chooses to make Lakewood their home, feels totally embraced.