Thursday, December 12, 2019

Violent Attack Upends Years Of Quiet, Happy Growth In Jersey City’s Hasidic Haven 

Wednesday morning, as he would on any other morning, Chaim got his tefillin and tallis and went to synagogue for morning prayers.

But that morning, the synagogue was next to a crime scene — a kosher grocery store at the center of the small Hasidic community in Jersey City, N.J. The neighborhood is a work in progress, recently created by families emigrating from the packed New York City enclaves of Boro Park and Williamsburg.

So Chaim, a member of the community who declined to give his name due to privacy concerns, ducked under two lines of "caution" tape and stepped over the small pile of glass shards from the grocery store's window, which was obliterated in an hours-long firefight the day before. Inside, men would soon gather for morning prayers despite the carnage next door.

There, about 20 men from Misaskim, the volunteer service that collects Jewish bodies from emergency and crime scenes for burial, were examining the scene. They are required to extract every bit of human remains possible for burial, down to pieces of skin, flecks of blood and strands of hair. Watching Chaim step inside, they asked one another if they had gotten to pray yet that morning; by 9 a.m., many had already been there for several hours.

"Who has the time?" one of the men joked darkly.

On Tuesday, the outpost of about 100 families was attacked by two gunmen who seem to have targeted The JC Kosher Market at 223 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, killing two beloved community members in addition to an employee and a police officer. Officials say they don't know yet what motivated the shooters, but the local NBC affiliate reported that one of them was a former member of the Hebrew Israelites (often referred to as "Black Hebrews"), a religious group that has some anti-Semitic, fringe elements. Also, a law enforcement official told the New York Times that the suspect had written anti-Semitic social media posts. Now the shootout, which left the assailants dead as well, has brought international attention to a new Hasidic community — one that was happily growing even as it navigated the challenges and tensions newcomers always face.

Jersey City's Jewish community is only about five years old. It is something of an anomaly: most Hasidic Jews who leave Brooklyn head for suburban areas like Rockland County, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey.

Although Jersey City apartments are not as spacious as suburban houses, they tend to be larger and more affordable than their Brooklyn counterparts, so parents could finally become homeowners instead of lifelong renters, and children could have their own bedrooms instead of bunking with their siblings.

In the past several years, Jewish investors have purchased homes and renovated them with Jewish-owned construction companies. Community members work in nearby factories in Bayonne, such as the Kedem kosher foods factory. Others can take a private shuttle that runs to and from Williamsburg for work. Children below the age of studying for their bar mitzvah can attend a local cheder, or elementary school, while older children join the shuttle to Brooklyn.

The grocery store itself was a successor to a more makeshift store, according to Yitzchak Leifer, a local rabbi: A man was selling kosher yogurt, milk, bread and other staples out of a large refrigerator in his basement. When Moshe Ferencz, a father of three whose wife Mindy was murdered in the shooting, decided to establish the grocery store, he made sure to ask the refrigerator operator if he wouldn't be stepping on his toes.

"Go ahead, open your grocery," the man said, according to Leifer. "I'm just doing this to help the community.

Now, three years after the grocery store opened, the Jersey City community has what it needs to begin growing in earnest. Five synagogues operate in the neighborhood, residents say. There is a kollel for men who study full- or part-time, and a ritual bath that is open every night, just around the corner from the grocery store.

Joseph Mandel, an accountant who commutes from the suburbs to Jersey City for work, used to stop at one of those synagogues, on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to help make a minyan, the quorum of ten people necessary to say the full liturgy. But for a year and a half, he said, they haven't needed him.

Rabbi Yitzchak and Bracha Leifer were the eighteenth family to move here, and they came for the same reason everyone else did: rent. When a new landlord bought their building in Brooklyn, they couldn't afford the higher rent he decided to charge.

"There's a prayer in Judaism: that there should be no kings between me and God," Yitzchak said. "So why should there be a landlord? I don't need another king."


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