Thursday, April 11, 2019
Two Crown Heights old-timers gathered elementary school students in the auditorium of P.S. 289. They walked to the stage, allowing a moment for the student body to absorb the evident differences.
"My name's Eli Cohen. I'm a rabbi, I live here in Crown Heights. And this is?"
"Geoffrey Davis. Hello everyone."
Cohen is white and wiry, with a black hat and beard befitting his Hasidic Judaism. Davis is black and stocky, an anti-violence activist committed to living out the legacy of his brother, Councilman James Davis, who was shot and killed in City Hall in 2003. Cohen and Davis have come to the school for a stop on what they call a listening tour. They're visiting public schools like this one, which has a mostly black student body, and also nearby Yeshivas, where the community's Orthodox Jews are educated, to ask a question: What's going on with the recent spike in violence against Jews on the streets of Crown Heights?
"Geoffrey's my buddy," Cohen told the students. "We do this together."
NYPD data show Jewish victims of assaults and robberies in the 71st and 77th precincts in Brooklyn that cover Crown Heights jumped from two in 2017 to 10 in 2018. Through March 27 of this year, two incidents have already been reported, with four arrests. Some victims claim anti-Semitic slurs were hurled. (For a list of incidents, scroll to the bottom of this article.)
The police did not break down the alleged perpetrators by race. But several incidents, according to victim accounts and surveillance video, involved black boys and young men. Widely circulated surveillance videos of scenes like men getting jumped on the street and a stroller carrying two Jewish children getting kicked are stirring worries that Crown Heights is experiencing a taste of what appears to be a rising plague of anti-Semitism nationwide.
But in Crown Heights, with its unique diversity and history of violence, answers aren't simple or singular. And that's what brings a black man and a rabbi, Crown Heights residents since 1971 and 1973, to the stage.
"How many of you have a Hasidic family on your block where the man dresses like me, with the black hat, the jacket, or coat?" Cohen asked. Most of the students raised their hands. But far fewer hands went up when Cohen asked if they "sometimes talk to people from that family, say hello or play with the kids."
The same dynamic takes hold when the kids are asked if they ever visited the Jewish Children's Museum, which is down the block from the school. Almost none said they had been there. A picture emerged of two communities, black and Jewish, divided.
The men asked why people in Crown Heights have been attacked seemingly because of how they look. One student attributed it to racism. Another, Miguel George, 10, whose family is black and from the Caribbean, had a more nuanced thought. "People don't understand the culture of the other person, so they misjudge the person, and then they do what they do, like write anti-Semitic symbols on walls," he said.
Davis and Cohen enthusiastically agreed. They believe that cultural understanding can ease tensions. And that begins simply by seeing two men of different backgrounds standing together on a school stage. "Laughing, smiling, having conversations together — they gotta see it," Davis said. "It's gotta be visually seen. So there's a game plan here. We're showing them — look."
Not everyone is sold on this approach. "Yes, it's a good thing to have cultural competence and to understand each other's cultures," said Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, a Chabad activist who has friendships and working relationships with black leaders. "But the idea and the notion that somehow the fact that an 18-year-old African American [man] doesn't understand the Jewish culture and that's why he's kicking a 60-year-old Jewish man in the head is ludicrous. We have to respect each other's cultures regardless of what we understand."
While Davis wants joint after-school activities, like chess, for Jewish and black kids, Behrman envisions something larger — millions spent on developing and testing school curricula to bridge divides.
Underpinning all of this, leaders believe, is affordability — a housing crisis that makes raising families in New York City unattainable for people of all backgrounds. Crown Heights is seeing traditional anti-Semitism mixed with the pressures of gentrification, particularly as younger professionals — who are neither Orthodox Jews nor black and Caribbean — move in from pricier sections of Brooklyn. That has stoked the popular but false belief that all predatory landlords are Orthodox Jews.
"The average person is going to say, 'Yeah, those Jews — you know they come in and take up all the land,' and, 'Another Jewman bought the building,'" said Pastor Gil Monrose, director of faith-based and clergy initiatives for the Brooklyn borough president. "That's just the kind of talk that you're hearing."
Monrose believes the density of Brooklyn — people living on top of one another — exacerbates a problem that is fundamentally about economics, and black people feeling victimized by gentrification. "If people feel that their livelihood is being threatened, if people believe that they are being forced out or kicked out — whether it's true or not — sometimes they're going to respond in a way that's violent," Monrose said.
Monrose recently returned from Poland, where he visited Nazi concentration camps with his friend Evan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League's regional director for New York and New Jersey. They're driven by the same concerns that led Davis and Cohen to visit the schools.
"When there's a breakdown of communication it can allow for anti-Semitism to metastasize, it can allow for stereotypes to metastasize," Bernstein said. "I've heard stories of people who almost have to run from synagogue to home on Shabbat because they're so fearful of what could happen to them."
The situation in Crown Heights is an "anomaly" compared to the anti-Semitic activity elsewhere in the country because "it doesn't fit the normal script of anti-Semitism" tied to white supremacy, Bernstein said. "Look around other cities, you don't see this. And it's not happening in Manhattan. And it's not happening in the Bronx," he said. "So I think it's a very, very unique situation."
What's most unique in Crown Heights is the history. Blacks, often from the Caribbean, and Jewish families, usually from the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement, have lived in Crown Heights for more than a half-century. They congregated in different parts of the neighborhood, but they crossed paths daily: on the sidewalks, in stores and as next-door neighbors. Long-time residents remember black and Jewish kids playing sports with one another.
"I have a Jew on one side and an African American on another side and we're friends for the last 40 years," said Aaron Bless, 67, an Orthodox Jew smoking a cigarette outside a store on Eastern Avenue.
But a long-simmering sense of disparate treatment favoring Jews over black people was the backdrop to the tragic events of August 1991, after a black child was killed by a car in the motorcade carrying the rebbe, Chabad's spiritual leader. The boy's cousin was injured. And when word circulated that a Jewish-run ambulance corps transported the driver but not the children, violence and fires ensued for three days. A Jewish man was stabbed to death. Colloquially known as the Crown Heights Riots, some black residents call it the "uprising," or "rebellion," while Jews often refer to it with an old Russian word, pogrom, which means ethnic massacre.
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