More Than a Place to Call Home

November 23, 2023

Elisheva Braun

To step into a yeshivah apartment building is to be transported to another world. On the stairwells, you feel the treads of second-seder rush. In the lobbies, you hear the squeals of kids in their Cozy Coupes. From doorsteps and porch doors waft the scents of supper. It’s a place thousands feel lucky to call home.

Nearly half a century has passed since the first BMG apartment building opened to yungerleit. Today, the yeshivah area—the blocks spanning much of central Lakewood—is heavily populated by yeshivah families in yeshivah buildings.

How did this phenomenon come to be? How do the buildings operate? And what is the future for kollel housing?

The Voice sat down with BMG administrator, Rabbi Moshe Gleiberman, and Mr. Mishael Luwish, the apartments’ property manager, to hear the inside story.

Discount dwellings

“We purchased the first building, located on Forest Avenue between Ninth and 10th streets, in the early 1970s,” Rabbi Gleiberman says. “Rabbi Yisroel Shenkelevsky, a senior askan in Lakewood, spearheaded that project with the goal to provide yungerleit with affordable housing.That first building is still functional—and filled. In fact, BMG rosh yeshivah Rav Yeruchem Olshin still lives there.”

In the late ’80s, BMG purchased another six buildings, totaling 140 apartments, including the Willows and Private Way buildings. As the yeshivah expanded, additional structures were built.

Although it opened in 2010—and the latest BMG units were added in 2018—the Princeton Avenue building is colloquially known as the “new yeshivah apartments.”

These units offer a new experience to residents. “With 102 beautiful two-, three-, and four-bedroom units, families can really feel comfortable. There are many tenants who have lived in Princeton since its inception, and they seem to be doing well there.”

A simchah hall is available for residents to use for their family events. The management office does the coordination.

There’s an ageless quality to the yeshivah apartments. Still, the particulars change with the times. “What was needed in 1977 isn’t the same as what’s needed in 2023. Size-wise, style-wise, and amenity-wise, there are a lot of updates and upgrades. At the same time, we’re very conscious of the need to keep things as cheap as possible for the tenants.”

Today, the yeshivah owns just under 400 units. The objective, to provide kollel families with affordable accommodations, continues to be the common denominator for all projects.

“Back in the day, the rent was very, very cheap. We still charge in line with, though well below, the current market price,” says Mr. Mishael Luwish, president of NP Management and longtime property manager of BMG-owned apartment buildings. “There are periodic rent increases, but they’re kept to a minimum to accommodate kollel budgets.”

Life in yeshivah apartments

Baruch Hashem, yeshivah apartment vacancies are very low. A lot of people want to live near yeshivah,” Mr. Luwish says. Its close vicinity to BMG is not the only hot selling point. Yeshivah apartments have a singular insularity; only those living the kollel life occupy the apartments. All neighbors share a common lifestyle and set of priorities.

For the Strausses, a kollel family of five, yeshivah apartments are the best arrangement they could hope for. “From the price to the management and of course, the location, this is the best place for my family,” says Esther Strauss. “In our building, each apartment has its own parking space and separate entrance, which lends a sense of privacy.”

At the same time, it’s nice to have neighbors so close by. “There’s always someone available for a playdate or to lend a cup of sugar when I’m in the middle of a recipe.”

Nosson, her husband, walks to yeshivah every day. “He saves so much time and stress by avoiding Lakewood traffic.” For years, the Strausses have saved by owning only one car.

“We would love a larger space. But once you’ve lived above ground, moving to a basement feels impossible. Looking into other, larger apartments that aren’t under NP Management, we realize that we’ve gotten kind of spoiled. If I see bugs in the apartment, pest control is there the next day; when I have trouble with an appliance, a repairman quickly comes to look at it. Other buildings aren’t like that.”

Living in a small residence with lots of little ones underfoot, Esther’s best advice is to keep decluttering. “When you have a small place, you can’t keep everything. The paper plate pocketbooks and Bingo marker creations unfortunately don’t get to stick around. Also, I don’t buy lots of stuff in the first place.” Esther is holding out on purchasing a kitchen set and other space-costly toys for when she has a place that can hold them.

Keeping house

Visitors to the buildings are often surprised by how well-maintained they are.

“We’re constantly getting compliments on our top-notch maintenance and customer service. Everyone is treated well, and requests are quickly taken care of. Our buildings are always clean, and we’re very on top of any work that needs to be done. With so many families living close together, it’s important that we run a tight ship,” notes Mr. Luwish.

In a way, managing yeshivah apartments presents more challenges than the typical owner-tenant relationship.

“People have bigger families ka”h. There’s more going on. The cleaning and maintenance work is a lot more intense. On the other hand, the work brings a lot more satisfaction. It’s beautiful to watch the children climb onto the bus or the men walk to yeshivah. It’s an amazing sight to see. Living with likeminded yeshivahleit in a uniquely Torahdige atmosphere is an incredible experience; one that many thousands of people want.”

Where do I sign up?

When a BMG student gets engaged, he can call our office to register on a yeshivah apartments waiting list.

There are three lists: the old yeshivah apartments, Princeton Avenue apartments, and a general list that covers all the other buildings. We only allow families with children into the old yeshivah apartments and the Princeton buildings because they have more bedrooms that the others. For the last couple of years, the wait on the general list has been about a year long. Princeton typically takes two years or more. There’s less movement there because families tend to live in the larger apartments for longer. There are about 130 people on the general list, and over 250 families are waiting for a Princeton apartment.

Though in past there may have been isolated instances of people jumping the list—times when we felt, on an individual basis, that we had to allow it—that hasn’t happened in the past year and a half. We have instituted an absolute, zero-exceptions no-jump policy, and we can say with a clear conscience that no one has jumped the list since.”

What triggered the change?

“As the apartment shortage gets more and more severe, people are more desperate than ever to get into BMG apartments. Since Covid, the waiting lists are longer than they’ve ever been, and the practice of using pull had to stop,” Rabbi Gleiberman explains. “Although list jumping was infrequent, people would be very upset when it happened.”

So far, people have been understanding of the hard stop.

“Some have approached us with extreme requests, and we’ve had to nicely say no to all of them. We explained our reasoning, and the response was usually respectful and understanding.”

With a baby on the way, the Strauss family is definitely feeling the pinch. Six people in a two-bedroom apartment is quite the squeeze.

The Princeton apartments are their only feasible alternative right now. But it’s not easy being waitlisted.

“We’ve been on the Princeton waiting list for over two years now,” Esther sighs. “And we’re told that we still have a while left to wait. It’s not like I’m a newlywed asking for luxuries. We’re literally bursting out of our space.”

Neither pull nor pleading can get the Strausses into Princeton. They just have to wait their turn along with hundreds of others.

The future

To accommodate some of the overflow, BMG plans to build another 600 units to house yungeleit.

“We hope to break ground within the next six to nine months. At that point, the Georgian Court apartments waiting list will open. Built in three phases with 200 units per phase, the buildings will feature two-, three-, and four-bedroom apartments. Each five-story building will have four elevators. With playgrounds, individual storage spaces, sukkah porches for almost all units, and plans of an on-site daycare building, the complex was designed with the yeshivah family’s needs in mind. The campus’s proximity to BMG is another boon. We are very much looking forward to opening the waiting lists,” says Rabbi Gleiberman.

The pricing is to be determined. Though the reality of today’s economy means that it will cost more than existing BMG apartments, the goal to keep the rent as low as possible remains.

With buyers asphyxiating under 2023 market pressures, housing options are slim. Kollel families are a population hit hard by current trends. After Georgian Court fills up—as we’re sure it quickly will—what other solutions are in store?

When asked whether the yeshivah is working on housing projects outside of Lakewood proper, Rabbi Gleiberman replies, “We’re always looking for new ideas to consider.”

“In today’s market,” Esther observes, “it’s so difficult to buy a house. People are really stuck. My neighbor has six kids, and she has to somehow make it work in her two-bedroom apartment. We feel lucky to have a place where we can live fairly comfortably for now.”

With new construction on the horizon, there may yet be hope for the Strausses. For the hundreds of families of the future, a broader solution will have to be formed.