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Fear in Crown Heights

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Fear in Crown Heights

Decades of progress in intercommunal relations are threatened by an outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks. January 14, 2020
New York
Public safety
The Social Order

As in most of Crown Heights, strollers, tricycles, balls, and scooters fill the lobby of the apartment building where I live with my family. Children are constantly going in and out of one another’s apartments, little girls huddle together with snacks as they block staircases, and wild dodgeball games take place in the courtyard on a Shabbat afternoon.

Crown Heights—recently in the news because of violent anti-Semitic attacks—is home to followers of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, who have lived in the neighborhood since the early 1940s. Like most buildings here, ours is occupied by black and Jewish occupants. Families are, in general, neighborly and respectful to one another, and some have even become close. Last summer, tragedy struck a black family in our building when their son was murdered in an altercation at a bodega a few blocks away; Jewish families organized a meal train so that the grieving mother and children wouldn’t have to worry about dinner for a few weeks.

The media don’t cover black and Jewish coexistence much, but it’s a feature of life in Crown Heights for many residents. A friend who grew up a few blocks away from where I live enjoyed a warm relationship with her next-door neighbor, an older single black woman. She recalls her mother sending the kids over with fresh challah and chicken before Shabbat, her neighbor attending their childhood gymnastics performances and bat mitzvahs, and gift exchanges during the holidays.

That’s not to say that there isn’t fear and resentment, too. Acts of anti-Semitism have become part of everyday life for Jews in Brooklyn, with viral videos of each incident quickly becoming old news as fresh footage arrives to replace it. Crown Heights highlights from the last few months include a rock hurled at a bus carrying elementary school girls; the same elementary girls’ school window smashed with a gun on a Friday night; a homeless man from a Bronx shelter entering the central community synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway and yelling that he would “shoot up the place and kill everyone”; a 33-year-old woman slapping three Jewish women and yelled “F**k you Jews”; and a group of black teenagers attacking a Chabad man with a chair. While crime has always been a part of life here, these attacks aren’t typical muggings, but intentional anti-Semitic acts.

Earlier this month, documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz asked black Crown Heights residents why they thought the attacks were taking place. The responses often reflected classic anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as domineering exploiters. “It seems like Jewish people own all the buildings out here and they own everything and they’re not sharing nothing . . . it seems like they own all the property, and we don’t. They don’t even try to help us,” one resident said. Another echoed this theme, saying, “They own everything down here. They’re coming over here and taking over but they’re not bringing it back to us, see they’re kicking us out.”

At the same time, racist attitudes about African-Americans persist in the Jewish community. Many Jewish residents remember the mob murder of Yankel Rosenbaum during the 1991 Crown Heights riots, the incitement by black leaders like Al Sharpton, and the chanting of “death to the Jews” in the streets. Others defend their use of slurs or holding of racist viewpoints by citing violent crimes committed in the neighborhood by blacks.

In the last few years, three families in the neighborhood’s Chabad community have adopted nonwhite children and written publicly about it. I’m one of those adoptive mothers, and I’ve spoken to Jewish women about my experience, the foster-care crisis, and the need to rid ourselves of bias as we raise the next generation of Jewish children. The young women I speak to, mostly under 40, are responsive to this message.

These communal shifts in attitude have made the recent onslaught of attacks on Jews by blacks all the more traumatic. Chabad mothers’ social media groups are filled with recommendations on where to get pepper spray, how to find self-defense classes, and expressions of anxiety and sadness about feeling unsafe. The progress that I see around me will be threatened if anti-Semitic attacks continue in Crown Heights.     

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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