Orthodox Jews Raise $1.5 Million For Family That Owned Jersey City Grocery Store
In just over a week, a crowdfunding campaign for the family of Mindel Ferencz, who was shot and killed in the Jersey City kosher grocery shooting, raised over $1.5 million, primarily from Orthodox and Hasidic donors.
The show of support has been remarkable even for the Hasidic world, in which the importance of charitable giving — especially to those who are in immediate need — is deeply ingrained. It is summed up in a Talmudic phrase quoted many times over the past week on the streets of Jersey City, and in phone calls to potential donors: “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bah-zeh,” which means “all of Israel is responsible for one another.” Now the complicated task of sharing the funds efficiently and fairly begins.
“Jews who are evidently Jewish are being attacked, and then this hit home in a more gruesome way,” said Moshe Schapiro, a Chabad rabbi in nearby Hoboken, alluding to an increase in beatings and assaults of visibly Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn over the past two years. “People are feeling the need to step up to the plate.”
The shooting last Tuesday devastated this growing Hasidic community of about 100 families. Two gunmen, a man and a women, fueled by anti-Semitic beliefs, charged into the JC Kosher Supermarket on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in Jersey City. Though a quick police response may have saved the lives of the dozens of children in the Jewish school next door, it took hours — and hundreds of bullets — before the assailants were killed and the stand-off ended. Five people, including the assailants, lost their lives. A police officer also died in an earlier confrontation with the shooters.
That evening, Chesky Deutsch, a local Hasidic resident, (no relation to Moshe Deutsch, who was killed in the shooting) opened the campaign for the Ferencz family on the crowdfunding site Charidy.com, which is popular with Orthodox groups.
Schapiro helped spread initial word of the fund through the Chabad network, which has chapters around the world and is a subset of Hasidic Judaism.
The Jersey City community is made up primarily of families who count themselves members of another Hasidic subgroup — the Satmar order of Hasidic Judaism, which is the Hasidic rabbinic dynasty with the most followers worldwide.
The campaign was boosted the use of call centers, 3 total in Brooklyn and Monsey, which were set up by Yoel Fried, a Hasidic media consultant. It’s an unusual approach, Schapiro said, one that he’s heard of being used only in rare occasions involving tragedy.
But it helped to reach as many Hasidic Jews as possible, especially those who may not be active on social media. Fried estimated that the volunteer callers made over 10,000 calls total. The phone donations run from $2 to hundreds of dollars, and were solicited primarily through the use of family directories for yeshivas.
Other donations listed on Charidy — which is not taking its usual fee, a small percentage of the money raised — run as high as $18,000.
The success of the campaign reflects how connected Hasidic communities are by both blood and WhatsApp, the social platform they favor despite a wariness of the internet. Many Hasidic Jews who spoke to the Forward said they had a relative or a friend who was in Jersey City at the time of the shooting. Schapiro noted that Mindel Ferencz has 10 siblings in various Hasidic communities in the U.S., making the shootings a local tragedy in several places.
“There are many structures in place, and the social networks are activated easily and frequently,” said Ayala Fader, a professor of anthropology at Fordham University, who has researched Hasidic communities.
The urgency of the fundraising is also thanks to a particularly strong connection that many Hasidic Jews feel to one another, even more so than to or among Jews in general.
“It’s not so much that this could be you, but that this is you,” Fader said.
By comparison, the main GoFundMe campaign for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year — where 11 people lost their lives in the deadliest act of violence against Jews in American history — has raised a little over $1.26 million. Funding campaigns led by the Jewish Federation system raised millions more for Pittsburgh.
The Jersey City fund will help Moshe Ferencz, Mindel’s husband, wipe out what friends and neighbors say is a steep debt from operating a kosher grocery in a largely non-Jewish area.
It is being handled by a small board, including Schapiro; a financial advisor; Rabbi Moshe Yitzchok Eidlis, the rabbi of the synagogue located next to the kosher grocery; and the brother of Moshe Ferencz. The hope, Schapiro said, is that Ferencz will join the board as soon as he feels up for it; in the meantime, his brother is serving as his proxy for how to use the money. Some of the money, such as that which will be used to pay off Ferencz’s debt will be distributed immediately after shiva, the week-long mourning period, Schapiro added, while the majority of it will be reserved for tuition bills for Ferencz’s three children, as well as rent and the costs of therapy for the family.
The board model is usual for Hasidic crowdfunding, according to Yosef Rapaport, a media consultant and a prominent Hasidic figure on social media, since the use of a va’ad, or a panel of experts, is frequently used in Judaism to do things like decide matters of Jewish law and grant conversions. But Schapiro said that Ferencz, when he is able, will have full control of the fund.
Ken Feinberg, a lawyer who has helped distribute government and crowd-funded money to victims of the September 11th attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Pulse Nightclub shooting and many other mass casualty events, has developed some ground rules for these kinds of situations, he told the Forward in a phone interview.
The money should be directed to a single fund, he said, and only one person — someone not directly affected by the tragedy, who has the trust of the community — should have ultimate authority over it. The families of the victims should each be given the same amount of money, and people injured in the shooting should be compensated based on the length of their hospital stay. The whole distribution process should take fewer than 60 days, he said.
Feinberg said that it’s acceptable for the Hasidic community to create a distinct fund for the Ferencz family, or for the Jersey City community — as long as they coordinate with other funds to ensure that the families of each victim, including the non-Jewish ones, receive an equal payout.
A fund set up by the local Jewish Federation chapter that includes Jersey City has raised about $18,000 so far, according to its CEO, Jason Shames. A GoFundMe for Douglas Rodriguez, a beloved employee at the kosher grocery who was killed, has raised a little over $160,000 so far, while a campaign for Detective Joseph Seals, who was killed after approaching the grocery store assailants in a nearby cemetery before the shooting, has raised about $600,000. There does not appear to be a crowdfunding campaign specifically for Moshe Deutsch on either Charidy.com or GoFundMe.
“When we do this after tragedy with private donations, all deaths are equal, doesn’t matter if a five-year-old died, or a 20-year-old, or a banker,” Feinberg said.
Yet the community does not appear to be on the same page as Feinberg, or each other, about how the money in the fund will be apportioned. Chesky Deutsch, the Jersey City resident who says he launched the fund, told the Forward that it is meant to go to the families of each of the three victims. Yet the fund is titled “Help the Ferencz Family,” and the language describing the campaign, which Deutsch says has been edited since its launch, focuses almost entirely on the plight of the Ferencz’s.
“It’s directed 100% toward” Moshe Ferencz and his children, Schapiro, the Chabad rabbi on the fund’s board, said.
Responding to Feinberg’s best practices, Schapiro contested the idea that each victim should get an equal amount, given that Douglas Rodriguez only had one child.
“Everyone agrees that someone with one dependent is different than somebody with three dependents,” he said.
He noted that the community helped connect the Rodriguez family with Michael Wildes, a prominent immigration attorney best known for representing the parents of First Lady Melania Trump, who announced on Instagram Tuesday that he will be representing the Rodriguez family pro bono.
The community has other needs, local Hasidic Jews say, such as extra funding for a new community center and school, currently under construction a few blocks south of the grocery store, and for increased security at local synagogues, which are mostly run out of houses. But that can come later, after the Ferencz family is taken care of, a few residents said.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that would tell you, ‘Let’s take this money and spend it on something other than the family,’” said Ben Gottlieb, who has lived in Jersey City for three years. Gottlieb added that he doesn’t “care to know” where the fund’s money is going, “because I know it’s gonna go to the right places.”
The fund’s online success has also been replicated offline, with Jewish-owned businesses from around the New York area donating thousands of pounds of kosher food and paper goods to this small Hasidic community. A group of major kosher grocery owners has even launched an ambitious plan to create a new kosher market for the Ferencz family, in a larger space a few blocks away, and have it up and running early in the new year — with all services and restocking provided free of charge.
Glass companies, construction companies and shelving companies had reached out unsolicited to extend their services and materials for free, Chesky Deutsch, the Jersey City resident said. Local community members have opened a WhatsApp group to keep track of the offers. On Tuesday evening air conditioning units were being installed in the space, which is about 70% larger than the original grocery store, according to a person involved in the effort.
The group had originally hoped to have the new store opened by the end of the shiva period. While that goal has been moved back, they are receiving help from the office of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who promised in a meeting with them and others this week to expedite the permit approval process for a new store.
“It might seem like an overreaction, but this is the Jewish community,” said Rapaport, the media consultant. “It’s not a business decision, it’s in your blood.”