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Despite Lull In Attacks, Some In Crown Heights Worry About New Cycle Of Violence

On a recent Thursday afternoon in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, Orthodox Jewish men of all ages were rushing towards 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, for prayers.

On their way, a few paused to speak about their frustration over a spike in assaults on Orthodox Jews in the neighborhood — frustration that some fear could lead to more violence, and a reawakening of the ethnic conflict that scarred the neighborhood in the 1990s.

“People say, ‘Oh, I hope it happens to me so I can punch a guy in the face,’” said Moishe, 19, a student at a Crown Heights yeshiva, or religious school, who asked that only his first name be used. But, he added, it’s mostly talk.

Yosef, 25, recalled a recent argument among his friends, in which one side said that the police need to do more to stop the assaults, while others said that Jews could be doing more themselves.

“They think people act too weak, so it invites aggression,” he said.

It’s been nearly three weeks since the latest of the attacks, providing a reprieve for residents. There were 15 reported assaults on Jews in Crown Heights between October and January, according to an Israeli organization that has been tracking the incidents.

Some residents are concerned that if the attacks ramp up again, they could bring with them the sort of widespread violence that the neighborhood weathered in the 1990s.

“We have tough kids in the neighborhood that are proud, and if they hit the wrong kid at the wrong corner, we’re going to have a serious incident on our hands,” said Yaacov Behrman, a local Lubavitch activist who directs a community drug use prevention program.

The pause in incidents in Crown Heights belies an ongoing rise in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes in general across New York City. There were 55 reported hate crimes between January 1 and February 17, the New York Times reported, up 72% from the same period last year. Anti-Semitic crimes accounted for 36 of this year’s total.

Jewish Crown Heights residents are divided on the significance of the attacks. Some say they’re afraid to let their spouses or children walk the street after dark. Others suggest that the attacks are hyped up by local media, and that they are simply an unusual spike in the kinds of unprovoked attacks the community has endured for years. Many have suggested that some threatening incidents go unreported, making the incidents even more prevalent than they seem.

Crown Heights is the long-time home base of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism that promotes outreach to fellow Jews and acceptance of the modern world. The neighborhood welcomed a large Caribbean and African American population starting in the 1960s, as white populations left for the suburbs. Chabad’s rebbe, its spiritual leader, insisted that the group keep Crown Heights as its home. Interracial tension over the perception that Jews in the neighborhood received better services and police protection than black residents boiled over in 1991, when a car in the Chabad rebbe’s motorcade struck two black children, killing one. The incident sparked three days of riots, during which a Jewish man was stabbed to death.

The memory of the riots still lingers for community members old enough to remember the violence.

“We always have that fear,” said Detective Vincent Martinos, the head of community affairs in Brooklyn’s 71st Precinct, which covers the southern half of Crown Heights. “That’s what drives us to do our job, to make sure we don’t get to that point.”

Much has changed in the neighborhood since the riots. There are now cross-cultural events in the summer, and a few youth programs for black and Jewish residents. African American and Jewish leaders frequently hold joint press conferences to address anti-Semitic incidents.

But mistrust among residents persists on a personal level, according to Geoffrey Davis, a Brooklyn Democratic Committee member and a District Leader.

Davis, who is African American, has lived in Crown Heights nearly his entire life. Speaking on a bench on Eastern Parkway, half a block from his childhood home, he says he grew up not even realizing that some of his Orthodox friends were Jewish.

But, he said, he has African American friends who ask him if he trusts Jews now.

“How can I not trust? I’ve known them all my life,” he said.

Davis worries that the assaults on Jews in the neighborhood could lead to retaliatory attacks.

“You hurt my father, so I’m gonna hurt a father, and I’m gonna show you that you’re not gonna bully us,” Davis said, imagining how a retaliatory attack could begin. “So that could be the spark. And before you know it, we got a riot on our hands.”

But community leaders and law enforcement insist that the neighborhood is nowhere near that level of violence.

“There’s no talk in any circle that I’m involved in of people taking the law into their own hands that would push the needle in that direction,” said Eli Cohen, the executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, noting that concern over the attacks can be amplified by social media.

Martinos, of the 71st Precinct, said that despite the tension in the neighborhood, the likelihood of a riot is low because of how quickly the police can communicate with community leaders now. In the case of a retaliation, he said, the police would be able to quickly tell the black community that an investigation was underway, and work with the Shomrim to find any Jewish assailants.

A representative for the Crown Heights Shomrim, a Jewish neighborhood patrol group that some Orthodox Jews treat as first responders, did not respond to a request for comment. But a dispatcher for the group, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he had not heard people openly speaking about retaliation, though the group does try to keep frustration from running too high.

“We definitely don’t want this to turn into the Wild West, where everybody can just do whatever they want,” he said.

Residents also acknowledged that the police have succeeded in recent efforts to catch the assailants. Three men who attacked a 51-year-old and a 22-year-old back-to-back in late January were all arrested and charged with hate crimes. Martinos said that one man arrested for punching a Jewish man has been suspected of taking part in two other punching incidents.

“I wouldn’t think it’s part of the culture of this community, to retaliate. That’s not how we were raised,” said Dovid, 28, an ER nurse who also grew up in Crown Heights. “We’re not such a vengeful community.”

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman


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