Leadership Helped Bring Crown Heights Back From Brink

Both Blacks and Jews Sought To Find Solutions, Rabbi Says

Living Together?: There’s always been some friction between Jews and blacks in Crown Heights. Leadership helped steer both sides away from confrontation.
Claudio Papapietro
Living Together?: There’s always been some friction between Jews and blacks in Crown Heights. Leadership helped steer both sides away from confrontation.

By Shea Hecht

Published August 17, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
20 Years After the Riots

August marks the 20th anniversary of the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history: a three-day nightmare that historians and journalists call the “Crown Heights riots” and that many members of the Jewish community have called a “pogrom.”

The truth is, we’ve learned a lot from bitter experience. The incident began with a tragic car accident. A young Guyanese child was struck and killed by a car driven by a Hasidic man.

The driver, whose car had been hit by another while crossing the intersection, tried to avoid another collision by steering the vehicle toward a wall. The car continued to skid along the wall and hit the two young cousins playing there. But the black residents gathered in the area didn’t believe that. They had begun to beat him when the police and ambulances arrived on the scene.

Within hours, the streets of Crown Heights became a hunting ground ignited by calls from outside agitators to “get the Jews.”

There have been many claims that the neighborhood, long an integrated mosaic of immigrants, both black and Jewish, was wracked by unrest prior to the violence. But that’s not really true.

Although the streets were never completely quiet, Jews and non-Jews generally got along pretty well together. We shopped in the same stores together — and still do — hunting for the same bargains.

This is not to say that racial issues don’t exist — but they do not exist any more in Crown Heights than they do anywhere else. Racial tensions were not unique to the neighborhood; they were seen, in fact, citywide. It was a problem that enabled David Dinkins to win the mayor’s office, with many believing that his election to the post would bring racial harmony to the city.

But tensions rose with the temperature, and even before the accident, some black youths were unfriendly, going so far as to spit at Jewish children and adults. Anti-Semitic attacks were becoming more common. Meanwhile, each group believed the other was receiving resources that it was not getting.

Outside, anarchists loudly urged blacks to take to the streets. And after sending others to do their dirty work, these professional agitators were never held accountable.

For three days following the accident, hundreds of thugs roamed the neighborhood. A gang of blacks stabbed to death Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Australian rabbinical student. A police car was torched. Apartment buildings were trashed. Jews were chased and beaten up by mobs yelling “Kill the Jews!” and “Hitler didn’t finish the job!”

Jewish leaders appealed to the mayor and to Police Commissioner Lee Brown to put a stop to the violence. The police officers on the streets told us that their “hands were tied.” In fact, though many officers had radios, their frequencies were not coordinated, so they could not call for backup.

The nightmare lasted three days before police were finally allowed to take control. Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden then summoned the leaders of each ethnic community in the neighborhood to create the historic Crown Heights Coalition, a way to calm the tension and to prevent such hatred from festering again.

For the next four years, I co-chaired the coalition along with Edison O. Jackson, then president of Medgar Evers College.

The coalition created bonds that rose above our differences and brought more police to the area. It blocked City Hall from playing one group against the other when the neighborhood needed funds for new projects.

Moreover, the bright light of reality was turned on. It was no longer possible to deny that anti-Semitism had reared its ugly head, or to disguise a hate crime as anything else.

Community leaders learned one another’s culture codes. This enabled us to avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings, which prevented outside agitators from taking advantage of our ignorance as they once had.

Are things perfect now, 20 years later? No. Not by a long shot. But when one walks down the street in Crown Heights today, one sees a vibrant, integrated community that is building toward a growing future. There are more youth programs, better schools, and more businesses and restaurants. One can see the improvements in apartment buildings, private homes and even the maintenance of the streets themselves.

Crown Heights is flourishing. When there is a problem, we call it what it is, and we don’t mince our words. And thanks to a tough borough president with a vision, today we also have the tools with which to solve it.

Rabbi Shea Hecht is the Chairman of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education and was co-chair of the Crown Heights Coalition.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.