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.
Community leaders feel the neighborhood is not on the verge of a return to 1991, principally because black, Jewish and police officials are in regular contact with one another. But there are parallels between 1991 and today.
“A community feeling that another community has more — has more services, you get more police protection, you get better sanitation protection — that’s starting to rise again,” Davis said.
Stories abound of Jews evicting black tenants and strong-arming black owners to sell. That fits with historical anti-Semitic tropes that Jews control monetary affairs, and reflects a rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout the country.
But the housing crisis and gentrification affects Orthodox Jews, too, according to Behrman, the Chabad activist.
“You have tremendous poverty and gentrification, and there is a false story being peddled that somehow the Jews are treated differently from the broader community, that the Jews are not suffering from gentrification,” Behrman said. “And that’s a lie.”
Hundreds of Jewish families have moved out of Crown Heights in recent years because they couldn’t afford housing, according to Behrman. “I think people want to blame somebody, and the fact is some of the landlords are Jewish — some aren’t, but some are,” he said.
Behrman and others worry about the anti-Semitism resurgent in national politics and culture. He points to Congress, where Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was recently accused of invoking anti-Semitic tropes on Twitter. Others interviewed in Crown Heights said President Trump has condoned the anti-Semitism of his supporters.
In 1991, Behrman’s father had rocks thrown at his car. His sister, who had recently learned about the story of Anne Frank, hid in a closet, fearing people were coming to kill her. Behrman also wrote his master’s thesis about what happened. He said today’s violence is reminiscent of that time.
But, he also said: “I’ll tell you what’s different. On a local level we have great relationships with our African American leaders in Crown Heights. There’s no one in this community I don’t feel comfortable calling.”
According to Richard Green, a longtime black leader and founder of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, some anti-Semitism plays out in the street — but often it’s simple economics. Unemployment among teens and young people is phenomenally high, he said. “They maybe woke up this morning broke, didn’t have a job, walking down the street, and [said], ‘OK, here’s someone I can kind of vent on,” he said.
Enjoying an early spring dusk at Brower Park, Ronald Taylor, a black man from Barbados, said that Jews are unfairly blamed for “driving the prices up on everything.”
“Yeah, that’s why they’re taking it out on the Jews,” he said. But “the whites and the blacks — everybody’s getting pushed out.”
There are other grievances, too, related to simple disrespect. Black residents in Crown Heights complain about Jews who don’t say hi, make eye contact or hold doors open at stores. They also question why the Jewish community has its own ambulance service and auxiliary police force. One student at P.S. 289 asked why Jews set up a massive white tent blocking off public passageways on Eastern Parkway during holidays.
And there have been brief bursts of violence in the recent past. A so-called knock-out game in 2013, in which Jews were punched on the street, ended with four arrests. In 2016, a Yeshiva’s school bus was set on fire.
So across Crown Heights, leaders of both the black and Jewish communities are reengaging with one another, hoping to avoid escalation. Monrose, the pastor, wants all neighborhood children to visit both the Jewish Museum and the Weeksville Heritage Center, which tells the story of freed slaves in the Crown Heights area. The ADL’s Bernstein plans to build on his visit to Poland with Monrose by organizing a trip there next year for several of the neighborhood’s Caribbean pastors. He’s also planning a drive to Washington, DC, so Brooklyn’s Jewish leaders can visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The goal, Bernstein said, is to “allow for the beginning of the conversations that the stereotypes are not real, are not true.”
Here’s a sampling of recent attacks reported by local and Jewish news outlets:
- April 14, 2018: A Jewish man was punched in the face and had his nose broken outside the headquarters for the Chabad movement.
- April 22, 2018: A Jewish 52-year-old man was beaten and choked by an assailant who alleged that Jews stole his home.
- May 1, 2018: Two men, allegedly annoyed that a Jewish 22-year-old leaving the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters, was speaking Hebrew on the phone, punched and threw the man into a car. A charity box containing $200 was not stolen. The two men, ages 19 and 20, were charged with hate crimes.
- October 15, 2018: A teenager was arrested after chasing then beating a Jewish man with a large stick.
- November 19, 2018: A group of Yeshiva students were attacked by three teenagers.
- January 30, 2019: Two men were arrested for two separate attacks against two Jewish men.
- March 11, 2019: A man kicked a stroller carrying two children after the woman pushing it briefly stopped on the sidewalk.