By Jonathan Mark / The Jewish Week
The heart of Chabad-Lubavitch, 770 Eastern Parkway, has passed from address into legend.
Once home, office, yeshiva and shul to the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher rebbes, both of whom escaped Europe in the 1940s, the growing Chabad eventually purchased two adjacent buildings, breaking through the basements and backyards to create the vast shul and study hall (all generically known as 770).
The space is open around the clock, never without someone in the room, and like other endlessly open spaces like Jerusalem’s Wall or the Lincoln Memorial, it is often most beautiful in the wee small hours. It is from here that 5,000 emissaries were sent from the Arctic Circle to the Congo, and here chasidim recount dazzling spiritual encounters and revelations. It has been everything a building can be — but never a crime scene.
On Dec. 9, at 1:40 a.m., Israeli student Levi Rosenblatt, 22, was stabbed in the skull by a man wielding a five-inch blade; his assailant, Calvin Peters, 49, a native of Trinidad, reportedly screamed “I want to kill Jews” before being shot dead by police as he lunged with his knife.
For 25 years, Chabad felt danger closing in. Police were first stationed outside 770 in the 1970s, when Mayor Ed Koch ordered police protection after violent threats from Satmar, their chasidic rivals. In 1991, Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed to death during the Crown Heights riots. In 1994, a Lebanese immigrant, driving on the Brooklyn Bridge, shot into a van carrying Chabad students, hitting 14-year-old Ari Halberstam in the head, killing him, seriously wounding three others. In 2008, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, along with four others, were murdered in the Mumbai Chabad House. Earlier this summer, blacks and Jews held tense meetings over “knockout” incidents, in which several Jews were randomly sucker-punched, knocked unconscious as they walked in the street.
It wasn’t just a question of locking 770’s doors; Rosenbaum and Halberstam were killed on a sidewalk and a bridge. For all its emphasis on being welcoming, at what point, chasidim were asking, does security become the better part of Chabad’s valor? The Mumbai Mirror, an Indian paper, reported this month that the new Chabad emissary to Mumbai, Rabbi Israel Kozlovsky, said, “When you want to fight darkness, you cannot chase it away with a stick or an AK-47… [only] with light and peace.” Meanwhile, even as one might suppose from his words that nothing will change, the Mirror reports that the entire ground floor of the building, on narrow Hormusji Street, has been taken over by Israeli security agencies, with an outer ring handled by the Mumbai police, with visitors having to pass through two layers of security before getting to the Chabad restaurant where “everybody will be welcome.” Well, almost everybody.
The mood this week in Crown Heights was similar to Mumbai. First, nothing will change. Then, something must.
Devorah Halberstam, mother of the murdered Ari, first said, “The mood is we shall overcome, that’s Lubavitch.” She paused. “But it’s very troubling to me. As soon as I heard what happened, my heart started to pound. With my history, I’ll always have that.”
She said, for 20 years “I lived on the corner of 770. My kids would run in there, day and night. It was home. We think of it as the safest place. The fact that this guy [from Trinidad] was even in there, well, that’s what 770 is, everyone goes in there, with all kinds of faces,” Ethiopians, South Americans, Israelis, Chabad has become so international. “We don’t look at anyone and think twice. At 770 there’s an open-door policy. It will never change. However, now, when we see someone who looks out of place, we have to say something.”
During holiday seasons, Halberstam continued, “if I tell you, how many times people ring my bell for tzedakah … I can look at the [closed-circuit] cameras and see people who are dressed frum [Orthodox], they have a beard, but I never ever open my door anymore. Who says its real?” The kidnapped boys in Israel were taken and killed by terrorists dressed as religious Jews, “We don’t know who anybody is anymore. Once we did; those days are over. I’m sorry about it, but they just are. We’re living in a new world.”
As for 770, said Halberstam, “we won’t even have metal detectors. It ain’t happening. It’s up to the people who daven and learn in 770; they know who the regulars are, they have to be vigilant. The minute this guy [with the knife] walked in, someone should have walked out and called for the police,” who have a Brooklyn South command van on the corner, and at least a half-dozen policemen on the sidewalk. The fact is, police responded so quickly to the stabbing because they were stationed outside 770 all along.
Levi Rosenblatt is still in the hospital, his condition improved from critical to stable.
Two fellow students from the yeshiva of more than 500 students, all in their early 20s, Yosef Schtroks, 23, from Vancouver, and Levi Dubov, 22, from Princeton, N.J., shared his dorm and daily schedule.
They said their days begin, even before morning prayer, with a trip to the mikveh, then at least an hour of studying chassidus [chasidic teachings and culture] in 770’s study hall, in preparation for prayer. Sitting under scattered chandeliers and ceiling fans, beside one of the many tan-painted wooden tables, often chipped at the ends, Dubov pointed out the rebbe’s old chair, on a carpet beside the ark. There’s a second ark in an alcove for smaller minyans that spontaneously form during the day. “That’s why our studying is in the rear,” said Dubov. “It’s a little quieter.”
Dubov compared it to “an old shtetl shul; books all over the tables; bochurim (students) sitting and learning; a minyan over there; and all the way over there, people saying hello.” In fact, Dubov jumps up to greet an old friend, Rabbi Mendel Shemtov, the shliach to Montevideo, Uruguay, and Dubov’s old counselor in Camp Gan Israel in the Catskills.
Duubov pointed out the tables where Rosenblatt used to study. “It breaks your heart that something like that should happen to a fellow student, in such a horrible way, in such a holy place.” But Dubov and Schtroks still intended to come there after midnight. “One of the amazing things about the life of bochur [a yeshiva student],” said Schtroks, “is the day is not over when seder is over [when yeshiva is done for the day]. I know Levi [Rosenblatt] — I don’t know if he would say this about himself — spent a lot of his own time learning the rebbe’s reshimos [private notes]. I know that Levi [Rosenblatt] was part of a chevra [fellowship] that was very involved in learning, and using as much of his time, while he was in the United States, to be in the rebbe’s shul.”
Dubov added that, aside from basic Jewish law, “we’re told a person should always learn what your heart is drawn to, and late at night is the perfect time for that. It’s less formal. It’s a very beautiful time, before you go to sleep, to learn something that draws your heart.”
This week, he was in 770, bloodstained a few days ago. “It’s very disturbing on so many levels,” said Dubov, “such a horrifying act. … And that [the assailant] came all the way to here …”
Exactly, said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz. “I don’t believe he acted alone. I recognize that he’s bipolar, but he didn’t go to his neighborhood church or the synagogue nearest his home. He drove all the way to 770 from Valley Stream.”
Rabbi Berkowitz, 38, is one of the most intriguing young leaders in Chabad. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he was sent to direct Chabad operations in Russia, helping to establish Chabad shuls and schools from Siberia to the Chinese border to the Black Sea. When the Mumbai Chabad was pocked by bullet holes, with the Chabad emissaries murdered and the community demoralized, Rabbi Berkowitz was sent to Mumbai to guide the transition and rebuilding until new shluchim could arrive.
Now, essentially a minister without portfolio based in 770, he pointed out that the stabber “had to know exactly where he was going.” After all, the shul and study hall are a flight of stairs down from the street, and there is not even a single sign to indicate what this building is.
“Yes,” said Rabbi Berkowitz, the assailant “had mental issues, but there are dangerous people who hate Israel and the Jewish people, and they influence some of these [sick] people, whether on websites or directly, to kill Jews. [Peters] wasn’t some sick person roaming the neighborhood with a knife. He parked his car, a very nice silver Honda Accord, right in front of the [unmarked] steps. He had a GPS. He knew where he was going. I would like to know why. What websites was he reading? That’s the connection, for me, to our other enemies who want to wipe us out or wear us down until we say there’s no place for us, in Israel or anywhere.”
Darkness came to 770, and with it, the evening prayers: “Blessed is the God who brings on the night.”