The streets of North Miami Beach look different since the murder of Rabbi Joseph Raksin. At Northeast 175th Street and 8th Court, in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood where he was killed, a memorial of candles is arranged in a Star of David that the community keeps lit. Police officers have stepped up their patrols, filling the streets at all hours.
Raksin, a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect who was in town from Brooklyn, N.Y., to visit his grandchildren, was shot on the morning of Aug. 9 while walking to synagogue on the Sabbath. Though police say no evidence has emerged that anti-Semitism was a motive in the crime, or that the killing was linked to several other recent hate crimes, Raksin’s murder has raised unsettling questions about security in the Miami Jewish community.
It also has the community contemplating security measures already common at Jewish institutions throughout Europe and South America.
“We don’t know if Rabbi Raksin’s murder was a hate crime or not,” said Jacob Solomon, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “We do know that it followed local anti-Semitic incidents. We do know that it happened in a climate of a worldwide dramatic increase in anti-Semitic behavior. It happened in a climate of peak concern about anti-Semitism.”
About two weeks before Raksin was killed, a North Miami Beach synagogue was spray-painted with swastikas and the word “Hamas.” Cars in nearby Miami Beach were smeared with “Jew” and “Hamas” in cream cheese. The day after Raksin was killed, a vandal scratched a swastika and an iron cross on the door of a car parked for the rabbi’s memorial service.
The incidents raised the specter that anti-Semitism, which has been on the upswing worldwide since the start of hostilities in Israel and Gaza, is a growing risk on the sunny streets of southern Florida.
The Miami-Dade Police Department has said that all indications in its investigation point to the killing as being an armed robbery gone wrong, and Jewish communal officials have praised the police handling of the matter. Still, the murder has placed the Jewish community on edge.
“A lot of people are convinced that this is a hate crime,” said Mark Rosenberg, a local resident and a chaplain for the Florida Highway Patrol.
As a result, local Jewish organizations have intensified their focus on security. In a joint statement by the Anti-Defamation League, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the American Jewish Committee, the Greater Miami Rabbinical Association and Chabad, local leaders said they were refocusing on coordinating security with police, increasing security training and greater public awareness. A spokesman for the Chabad community of North Miami Beach also told JTA that local institutions were hiring additional armed security guards and planning to install more security cameras.
“For decades, institutions in South America and Europe have been hardened, meaning bollards in front of their doors or large cement planters or guards or volunteer groups that provide neighborhood watch services,” said the federation’s Solomon. “Climatically, we are definitely moving in that direction.”
Solomon also noted that while there were anti-Semitic overtones to some local protests of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, the protests generally were small, isolated events.
Crime is also nothing new to the residents of North Miami Beach.
“North Miami Beach in particular is open to neighborhoods that are not good neighborhoods,” said Rabbi Phineas Weberman, a chaplain with the Miami-Dade Police Department.
According to statistics compiled on City-Data.com, the rate of rapes, assaults and robberies in the city of North Miami Beach, which covers part of the area’s heavily Jewish neighborhood, have all been significantly higher than the national average for more than a decade. Alvaro Zabaleta, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Police, which protects the rest of the neighborhood, said the district had been “an active area” for shootings in 2014. For now, daily life has resumed, but with a fearful edge. CBS 4 Miami reported that on the most recent Sabbath, residents walked to synagogue in clusters for safety. The local community has offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Raksin’s two assailants, who remain at large.
“From a Jewish perspective, from a moral perspective, of course a hate crime makes a huge difference,” Rosenberg said. “But from a safety perspective, for a residential neighborhood, it doesn’t really matter. You don’t want to live in a neighborhood where people get shot.”