Monday, June 09, 2014

In Crown Heights, Once Torn by Race Riots, a Friendly Game of Soccer 

The World Cup may be days away, but in Brooklyn, the Crown Heights Cup game on Sunday may be almost as important. In some ways, it is more important.

Since 2011, teams of Hasidic Jews, give or take a ringer or two, have faced off at least once a year against teams made up largely of black immigrants from the Caribbean. They have jostled and elbowed one another while deftly kicking and passing the ball on an artificial grass field in a neighborhood playground, Hamilton Metz Field.

The Hasidim, despite stereotypes of their lackluster athleticism and obsessive absorption in Torah study, have won two of the games and lost one. They won again Sunday, 4-2, with a player named Mendy Vogel, a 20-year-old immigrant from London, scoring three goals.

“Our side is not playing defense,” said a frustrated Junior Lewis, a 45-year-old Trinidadian, as he waited to play the second half for the Caribbean team with his side down, 2-0. Yet, Mr. Lewis, who teaches soccer at a Brooklyn public school, was happy that the game was occurring at all, given the neighborhood’s history of racial tensions.

“This is nice,” he said. “It brings everyone together.”

Dovi Abraham, a 22-year-old immigrant from Johannesburg, who is an adherent of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, echoed his sentiments.

“We all play the same game so there’s no reason we can’t play together,” he said. Then recalling the conflicts of the early 1990s, he added: “I think it’s an improvement. I think it could not have happened 20 years ago.”

In August 1991, a car in a motorcade that carried the Lubavitch grand rabbi, Menachem M. Schneerson, accidentally struck a 7-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants, Gavin Cato. Angry residents rampaged through the streets, beating Hasidic Jews they encountered, stabbing and killing one, Yankel Rosenbaum. The three-day disturbances, known as the Crown Heights riots, were believed to have contributed to the defeat of David N. Dinkins for re-election as mayor.

The riot seemed to crystallize long-simmering tensions with many black residents who complained that Hasidim received preferential treatment from the police and other government services while they were mistreated by neighborhood shopkeepers and landlords. Hasidic Jews complained they were often the victims of muggings.

In the riots’ wake, black and Jewish leaders took steps to bring their communities together; indeed, Rabbi Schneerson insisted to Mr. Dinkins that the two ethnic groups were actually “one side, one people.”

On Sunday, an hour before the soccer game, people from both communities came out for an event sponsored by the local police precinct. Hasidic women with strollers watched a brass band, the Brooklyn Legion of Sound Marching Band, perform boisterous tunes while a few yards away Hasidic men grilled glatt kosher hot dogs and hamburgers for a line of black and Hasidic children.

The Crown Heights soccer game had its start in a program known as Seeds in the Middle that includes a farmers’ market and campaigns against obesity. Local organizers include Nancie Katz, a former New York Daily News reporter; Nati Abikasis, the owner of Mendy’s delicatessen on Eastern Parkway; and Frank Nicholas, who coaches the Caribbean team as part of the Central Brooklyn Soccer League.

Despite the stereotypes, Brooklyn old-timers would not have been stunned that the Jewish team has done so well. Just a few blocks from the soccer field, Sandy Koufax, in 1955, pitched his first season for the Dodgers in the dearly departed Ebbets Field. He went on to become one of baseball’s greatest pitchers.

The Hasidic team consists of Chabad men from all over the world — South Africa, Australia, Britain and Israel, places where soccer, not baseball or football, is the game children imbibe.

And despite its glamorous title, the Crown Heights Cup is quite informal. Not enough Hasidic players showed up so they borrowed an African-American player to field eight players who only used half of the turf, with orange traffic cones serving as goals.

Tony Wright, 48, a Jamaican player who during the week paints apartments for a Hasidic landlord, said the game shows “we try to get along.”

“Some of them are skeptical of us,” he said of the Hasidim. “But we cool eventually.”


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