LAKEWOOD, N.J. – James Jackson wasn't interested in selling his home but thanked the black-suited man for his interest anyway.
That's when the man put his hand on Jackson's shoulder and told him he might want to reconsider. Many of his neighbors in the New Jersey shore town of Toms River, the man said, already planned to sell to Jewish buyers like those he represented.
"He asked me why I would want to live in a Hasidic neighborhood if I wasn't Hasidic," Jackson recalled. "He asked if I would really be happy, if it would be in my family's best interests."
A housing crunch in Lakewood, home to one of the nation's largest populations of Hasidic Jews, has triggered what residents of neighboring communities say are overly aggressive, all-hours solicitations from agents looking to find homes for the rapidly growing Jewish community.
The complaints have prompted towns, including Toms River, to update their "no-knock" rules and related laws, adding real estate inquiries to measures that already limit when soliciting can occur and allow residents to bar solicitations.
But Jewish leaders and others say the no-knock laws unfairly target Orthodox Jews and those seeking to help them find houses. Many current residents came to the community to study at one of the largest yeshivas in the world and eventually settled down.
The 2010 census found the town had nearly 93,000 residents, about 32,000 more than a decade earlier. And town officials believe there are closer to 120,000 residents now.
"The growth in Lakewood is a sign of the great quality of life which is attracting all these people," said Avi Schnall, the state director of Agudath Israel, a national grassroots advocacy and social service organization representing Orthodox Jews.
"However, the challenge is being able to keep up with the influx," Schnall added. "This has driven people to take residents in nearby towns, where houses are more available and affordable."
Schnall calls the recent no-knock changes "troubling." He also believes there is a campaign to prevent members of the Orthodox community from moving in. And he thinks the real estate agents are being used as the scapegoats, claims that leaders in neighboring towns say are unfounded.
Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York City and a leading authority on Orthodox Judaism, says he doubts that such laws are anti-Semitic in their origins. But he notes that the measures may now be invoked more aggressively by people trying to keep Orthodox Jews out of their neighborhoods, for fear the area will become a Hasidic community.
"The problem is structural: Hasidim live in Hasidic communities predominantly. They can only move as groups," said Heilman. "That leads to counter-moves by other groups who do not want their community to be inundated by them."
Municipal leaders stress that their laws are not aimed at keeping out any groups, but rather to protect residents.
"Our 'no knock' law goes back many years. It's not just in response to what has been happening now," Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher said. "We are trying to protect those people from conduct that's outrageous, harassing, intimidating or unwelcome."
Jackson said he was working outside his home last fall when he was unexpectedly approached by the man in the black suit. The encounter was initially cordial but turned darker, he said.
"He was trying to intimidate me, but not in a physical way," Jackson said. "He was playing mind games, and he was really good at it."
Toms River is also in the process of creating "cease and desist" zones, where door-to-door real estate soliciting would be banned in designated areas that have been inordinately and repeatedly solicited. The ordinance is modeled on one in New York state that held up in court despite objections from realty groups. The New York rule allows residents to petition for their neighborhood to be included on the list of areas where solicitation is not allowed.
Realty groups say they their main concern is to find common ground.
"Our local communities are incredibly important to both our members and our association," said Mary Ann Wissel, chief executive officer of the Ocean County Board of Realtors. She said the group was working with real estate agents and local officials to ensure that any no-knock registry laws are both "respectful to homeowners as well as fair to the lawful business practices of our members."
David Eckman, a Hasidic real estate investor, acknowledged that most of his visits to gauge people's interest in selling their homes are unsolicited, but he said he has never tried to intimidate or mislead anyone.
"People need homes, and I'm trying to help them find those homes," Eckman said. "They just want a nice place in a nice community, like everyone else."
Eckman said anyone using fear tactics, be it directly or implied, should be barred.
"If they do that, they make us all look bad," Eckman said. "There are enough negative stereotypes out there about Jewish people, and doing things like that just makes people think they are true."