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.