Living in Highland Park, NJ as a BT

I remember like it was yesterday, four years ago, when we took our first look at Highland Park, NJ with a real estate agent. We had made the decision as a family to move to the area because we wanted to put our three then elementary-aged children into a yeshiva that separated the boys and girls, and offered the best frum and secular education we could find for them. The ideal school we could find is where they are now, “Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion” in Piscataway, NJ. The problem was, we would have to move. I drove the children from Pennsylvania to NJ for six months, three hours of driving a day, while we engaged in the house hunt.

Our lovely home in PA was worth about 250K in that local market. We had a huge plot of land in a beautiful neighborhood. That first day of house-hunting in Highland Park left me in tears. We looked at houses with a half a million dollar price tag that were substantially smaller than our PA home, on a postage stamp plot of land, and all of them needed some work. The real estate agent, a frum Jew from Highland Park, kept saying the same thing to me: “You aren’t just buying a house here, you are buying a community!” I couldn’t see it. I felt despondent.

We finally got what my husband calls “Highland Park-atized.” Meaning, we considered any house that had a place to sleep and a bathroom, and we started figuring out how to make just about any available structure on the market work for our family. We ended up in quite an adventure — living as a family in the finished attic of a 100-year-old two-family house for six months while we gutted the house below us and turned it into a one family house. The end result doesn’t look like like a half a million dollar house. It’s too small for our family. There’s no land to speak of. We are still in shock after all these years every time we have to pay the mortgage and property taxes. This is by no stretch of the imagination our “dream home.”

And yet, it is. It took a year or so to realize how ideal Highland Park is for us as a BT family. We are grateful every day that we had the courage and the determination to move here. We understand now that the real estate agent was right — what we bought was a community, and a place to live while we raise our children in Torah.

Highland Park is a very unique community. There are about 1000 shomer shabbos Jews living within 2 square miles, and six Orthodox synagogues from which to choose. The first thing that really stands out is that all of the Rabbis get along and are mutually respected. There are shiirum all over town, and none of the all-to-common- “I will go to this shul but not that shul” mentality. Residents here often daven at one place, but typically will go to lectures and social events in any shul. My husband is able to learn Daf every night, when his work schedule allows. I go to two shiirum during the week, and often take advantage of frequent illustrious speakers who come in to town.

We did not know when we arrived here which shul we would join, and who would become our Rav. We say now that we thought we were moving to Highland Park for the Yeshiva, but Hashem knew all along that it was also for our Rav, Rav Drucker, the Rav of the Agudath Israel in Highland Park. We established a relationship with him early on, and have grown in reverence and affection for him over the years. Dayeinu, if the schools had turned out to be excellent for our children — and they did — it would have been enough — but finding a Rav for our family whom we hope to be close to for years — that is an amazing, cherished blessing.

The other exceptional thing about Highland Park is the sheer number of BTs here who are all over town. You’d never know it. Lots of us look the part of FFB, and it’s only after some conversation that we are surprised to find out that this family, too, has been on a similar journey. Highland Park is full of BTs who are fully committed to the Torah path, and are working hard to raise their children frum from birth. The other nice benefit of living here is the lack of judgment for being a BT. If anything, BTs are often appreciated and admired.

It has taken me a good long while to stop mourning the big house and beautiful landscaped neighborhoods, as well as the much more affordable monthly expenses of our former community. But the rewards of our decision to move are evident every Shabbos when my three beautiful children come to the Shabbos table with their dvrei torahs and most of all, their love for Shabbos and Hashem. My children love being frum Jews. My husband is learning in the evening. I am growing in Torah every day. We have an amazing Rav who cares for our family. We are contributing to the community with friendship and chesed, and receiving it as well. You can’t put a price on that! Maybe we don’t really own our house, the bank does, and my husband has to give up gardening for now. We’ve got a different garden to tend, and the soil of Highland Park has turned out to be very fertile for our BT family.

12 comments on “Living in Highland Park, NJ as a BT

  1. I am also a proud resident of HP with my parents and siblings. Both of my parents are BTs (my mother grew up more traditional; my father much less so). We love living somewhere green but close to the city, and we have made amazing friends living here. The only criticism I would make of the town is that the “better than the Joneses” mentality has permeated the community – everyone’s house has to be bigger than their neighbors. The community is in a constant state of construction flux – somebody’s always renovating! It’s a beautiful community, but we have to remember that we are still in galut – don’t get too comfortable.

  2. We moved into Highland Park many years ago and have 5 grown children. Last year we were scheduled to sign papers to buy a house in an “active retirement community” in Monroe. I could not go through with it. My good husband agreed that since we both love our town,and all it offers we will stay put. We will probably continue enjoying Highland Park for the rest of our lives. p.s. The blogs sent in about the community reinforced the pride we feel. Thanks to all of you.

  3. East Brunswick is also a bit closer to the NJ Turnpike exit, which can matter to a commuter on a tight schedule.

  4. I hope no one minds a plug for another Raritan Valley community… East Brunswick also has a friendly but diverse Orthodox population (though smaller ~200 families) with many Ba’alei Tshuva, an extremely warm rabbi, and lots of house for your money. Especially good for those looking for a one-shul out-of-town community with big community conviniences (there are buses to the Highland Park schools which are 15 minutes away, a mikva, lots of kosher foods in the markets…).

  5. Azriela, when you called Rabbi Drucker amazing you were speaking absolutely the truth. Like Bob said he is the one we turn to so many times when we have questions or need advice. He is truly wonderful.
    HP is a wonderful place. It has grown in many ways since we lived there. Prices may be hihg but like the real estate agent said you’re also buying a comminity. The things you’ve gained in HP are priceless.

  6. My wife and I also chose HP after a long search, and also have no regrets. One of the things that clinched it for us was an incident when we were sitting in the realtor’s office. A teenage boy came in to the office and came straight to us. He had seen me davening in his shul at mincha. Since we were here now, we must be interested in moving. Would we like him to show us around town? Do we need a place for Shabbat, or a meal for tonight? We were stunned a total stranger, and a teenage boy at that, not a class noted for extreme chesed, would make themselves available like that.

  7. When we lived there, some of the garden apartment complexes in the area were kept in good condition and would suffice for young families. If home prices are likely to continue falling, those who can’t buy now might want to rent until homes are more affordable.

  8. In response to the question about buying a house here in HP, I wish we could buy one now instead of what we paid four years ago! The market here is down 30 percent, so if you don’t have a house to sell in a market that is also down 30 percent, and you ever thought of buying in HP, now’s a great time to do it – a buyer’s market. I don’t know yeshiva tuition in NYC. Here you are looking at anywhere from 7-12 grand/kid, elementary through high school, depending on all kinds of factors including how many kids you are schooling, whether you are paying for a bus for highschool and so forth. It’s all relative. If you move here from brooklyn, you think we have it cheap. If you move here from anywhere outside of the NY area, you have to swallow hard and daven a lot! Maybe that’s a good thing. . . .the davening part I mean.

  9. Hi Azriela,

    My wife grew up in HP and has always thought about going back some day, especially now that we are BT’s (we had Shabbos lunch with you a couple of years ago, and thought the house was great by the way) What are the houses up to these days? Are the schools priced about the same as NYC? It is fairly cheap to live up here and that gives us a chance to have my wife stay home with the kids. But the community is very small and as you say, you are buying a community.

  10. Azriella,

    May Hashem bless you!

    It’s funny..I used to think the same thing of other Frum Jews, that they were always that way, but I guess not! In a way, it feels good that I am not on the journey alone!


  11. Rabbi Drucker really is one of the best! We first met him in 1988 when we moved to Oak Park, Michigan, and we have maintained contact on and off since he (and later we) left there. He’s often our “go-to” person for advice we need before making important life decisions.

    We lived in HP years ago (and got married there in 1976) when it was already heavily Jewish, but the area has attracted many more Orthodox Jews of all types since then.

    Access to other Jewish communities in NJ and NY from there is pretty good, and the place still has a sort of small town feel.

  12. You just made me so homesick! We lived in HP/Edison for 20 years before making Aliyah 2 1/2 years ago. The community is everything you said and more. Fortunately we never owned a house anywhere else so living in our small 3 BR ranch with a mini backyard never really bothered us.

    In so many ways that community is a model of what Yiddishkeit should look like. Tolerance, chessed, caring, learing, growing. We were fortunate to have been members of 3 of the shuls; OE, OT, and AI (Something not uncommon there.) and had great relationships with the Rabbis. We had kids who went through both RPRY and YST. My wife and I experienced real growth there. For us this was largely because there was little external pressure and just many wonderful people to seek out and have as mentors and role models.

    You are very fortunate to have found Highland Park. If you ever decide to make Aliyah you’ll have tremendous support on that side and a nice chevra of ex-HP’ers on this side to welcome you. Much Hatzlacha and regards to everyone.

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