Violent Attack Upends Years Of Quiet, Happy Growth In Jersey City’s Hasidic Haven
Wednesday morning, as he would on any other morning, Chaim got his tefillin and tallis and went to synagogue for morning prayers.
But that morning, the synagogue was next to a crime scene — a kosher grocery store at the center of the small Hasidic community in Jersey City, N.J. The neighborhood is a work in progress, recently created by families emigrating from the packed New York City enclaves of Boro Park and Williamsburg.
So Chaim, a member of the community who spoke on the condition that has last name not be published, ducked under two lines of “caution” tape and stepped over the small pile of glass shards from the grocery store’s window, which was obliterated the day before. Inside, men would soon gather for morning prayers despite the carnage next door.
There, about 20 men from Misaskim, the volunteer service that collects Jewish bodies from emergency and crime scenes for burial, were examining the scene. They are required to extract every bit of human remains possible for burial, down to pieces of skin, flecks of blood and strands of hair. Watching Chaim step inside, they asked one another if they had gotten to pray yet that morning; by 9 a.m., many had already been there for several hours.
“Who has the time?” one of the men joked darkly.
On Tuesday, the outpost of about 100 families was attacked by two gunmen who seem to have targeted The JC Kosher Market at 223 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, killing two beloved community members in addition to an employee and a police officer. Officials say they don’t know yet what motivated the shooters, but the local NBC affiliate reported that one of them was a former member of the Hebrew Israelites (often referred to as “Black Hebrews”), a religious group that has some anti-Semitic, fringe elements. Also, a law enforcement official told the New York Times that the suspect had written anti-Semitic social media posts. Now the shootout, which left the assailants dead as well, has brought international attention to a new Hasidic community — one that was happily growing even as it navigated the challenges and tensions newcomers always face.
Jersey City’s Jewish community is only about five years old. It is something of an anomaly: most Hasidic Jews who leave Brooklyn head for suburban areas like Rockland County, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey.
Although Jersey City apartments are not as spacious as suburban houses, they tend to be larger and more affordable than their Brooklyn counterparts, so parents could finally become homeowners instead of lifelong renters, and children could have their own bedrooms instead of bunking with their siblings.
In the past several years, Jewish investors have purchased homes and renovated them with Jewish-owned construction companies. Community members work in nearby factories in Bayonne, such as the Kedem kosher foods factory. Others can take a private shuttle that runs to and from Williamsburg for work. Children below the age of studying for their bar mitzvah can attend a local cheder, or elementary school, while older children join the shuttle to Brooklyn.
The grocery store itself was a successor to a more makeshift store, according to Yitzchak Leifer, a local rabbi: A man was selling kosher yogurt, milk, bread and other staples out of a large refrigerator in his basement. When Moshe Ferencz, a father of three whose wife Mindy was murdered in the shooting, decided to establish the grocery store, he made sure to ask the refrigerator operator if he wouldn’t be stepping on his toes.
“Go ahead, open your grocery,” the man said, according to Yitzchak. “I’m just doing this to help the community.
Now, three years after the grocery store opened, the Jersey City community has what it needs to begin growing in earnest. Five synagogues operate in the neighborhood, residents say. There is a kollel for men who study full- or part-time, and a ritual bath that is open every night, just around the corner from the grocery store.
Joseph Mandel, an accountant who commutes from the suburbs to Jersey City for work, used to stop at one of those synagogues, on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to help make a minyan, the quorum of ten people necessary to say the full liturgy. But for a year and a half, he said, they haven’t needed him.
Rabbi Yitzchak and Bracha Leifer were the eighteenth family to move here, and they came for the same reason everyone else did: rent. When a new landlord bought their building in Brooklyn, they couldn’t afford the higher rent he decided to charge.
“There’s a prayer in Judaism: that there should be no kings between me and God,” Yitzchak said. “So why should there be a landlord? I don’t need another king.”
Now they own a two-story home about a block from the grocery store. The bottom floor, where they live, has an eat-in kitchen with a refrigerator completely covered with pictures of their children and grandchildren. The dining room table runs alongside a dark wood bookcase overflowing with leather-bound books of prayer and study. Artificial bouquets of flowers and orchids run along the top of the bookcase and kitchen cabinets.
Upstairs is a small synagogue and prayer space. The Leifers count themselves as members of the Satmar community, but they are also part of the Berditchever sub-movement. Their synagogue is called Kedushas Levi, named for the seminal work by Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, a significant figure in early Hasidic Judaism and, Yitzchak says, his direct ancestor.
In the summer, there is a regular morning minyan at the synagogue, since the early rising sun requires observant Jews to say the morning prayers earlier. During the day, school teachers preparing their lessons use the space for study, since it has the best religious library in the neighborhood. The numeric code to the house’s front door is posted in Yiddish next to the handle, for whoever wants to enter. Once a month, there is an evening women’s group that gathers for study and discussion. On holidays, when the synagogue is more full, they divide the space with a makeshift mechitza,” made of folding tables and chairs.
The Leifers said that increasingly, Satmar Jews still living in Williamsburg and Boro Park are realizing that Jersey City offers a higher standard of living, even if it is farther from the nerve center of their community.
“In Brooklyn, there’s constant pressure to make rent every month,” Yitzchak said. “You can see it on people’s faces. Here, people are relaxed, they’re happy. And you can see that on their faces.”
That translates to a calmer and more cooperative Jewish community, Bracha said.
“There are no fights in the community,” she said. “We have achdus” — unity.
Yet the community has faced pushback from the city. Despite the fact that it is frequently used for prayer, the building next to the grocery store — the one where Chaim prays — has been labeled a community center by Hasidic Jews here — a controversial claim, since zoning laws in the area do not allow for places of worship along Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Local residents have also complained of being asked to sell their houses for cash by Haredi real estate agents looking to buy and redevelop homes for Hasidic families coming to the neighborhood.
“They literally go door to door and can be very pushy trying to purchase someone’s house,” Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, who is Jewish, told the New York Times in 2017. “It’s not the best way to endear yourself to the community, and there’s been a lot of pushback.”
The tension between the Latino and African American communities and Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, due to ongoing physical attacks on Jews in the borough, seem far away here. Four and a half years ago, when they first came, the Leifers were unsure about the new neighborhood. Six months after they came, Bracha said, there was a shooting nearby. But they have embraced the neighborhood, and the neighborhood has embraced them back.
“They wouldn’t harm a fly,” she said of her neighbors. She said she doesn’t fear for the kind of random anti-Semitic assaults that Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn fear. “They help push our carriages.”
There are a few signs of animus towards Jews in the community. On Tuesday afternoon, one man asked a Hasidic Jew if Jews were the ones who had started the assault.
But other residents who spoke to the Forward spoke highly of their neighbors.
“They don’t bother anybody,” said Tina, an African-American resident of the neighborhood in her late 50s. “I have no problems with them, and they have no problems with me.”
Tina said that for three years, her husband Rashawn has helped their Jewish neighbors across the street with a particular ritual: Ahead of Passover, the Hasidic father “sells” his hametz, or leavened bread, to Rashawn for a traditionally unpayable amount, allowing the Hasidic family to technically own no leavened bread during the holiday.
“This is a horror,” said Tina. “How dare anybody do anything to them.”
The community is now turning to address the tragedy and begin the mourning process. By Wednesday afternoon, the main gathering point for people in the community, as well as emergency responders and others providing support and services, had shifted to a building a few blocks south from the grocery store recently purchased to be the new community center for the growing community. Kosher supermarkets from around the New York area had dropped off food in bulk: challah rolls, bags of carrots, boxes of potatoes and apples, pastries and juice, hot deli meats and packaged salads.
As two construction workers put up drywall behind them, men prayed the afternoon service and spoke to one another about how to counsel their wives and children.
“If not for the tragic thing yesterday, we wouldn’t have been davening [praying] here,” said Ben, 33, who declined to give his last name.
Tonight, parents will be gathering with members of the Hasidic crisis response service Chai Lifeline to learn how to counsel the children who had to cower in their school for hours, listening to gunshots, said a community member who wants to remain anonymous but said he works for the Orthodox emergency response service Hatzolah.
On Wednesday afternoon, Haredi Jews in the area were conferring with one another about what they have heard about when and where the funerals will be, whether in Jersey City or in Brooklyn. While the rest of the Jewish world considers the apparent anti-Semitic motives of the shooters, Yitzchak said that the Jews of Jersey City have different concerns.
For the moment, he said, people are “just checking on each other, seeing how people are doing.”
“It’s too early to talk about why,” he said.
Irene Katz Connelly and Jordan Kutzik, deputy Yiddish editor, contributed reporting.