Amid hate spike, a Crown Heights leader pleads: ‘We have to do better’
On Christmas Day, Richard Green, head of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, walked toward his rundown white van with a group of cops after giving out toys to kids at Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital.
The Dodge Ram is the last of a fleet that once numbered 21 street outreach vans, roaming the neighborhood to counsel teens and prevent violent outbursts — including those targeting Lubavitch Jews who live, work and pray in Crown Heights in large numbers.
“The officers were teasing me, saying, ‘Why don’t you get a new van?’” Green recalled. “It’s a 2001 and when it goes out of service, it’s going straight to the junkyard.”
He began the program nearly three decades ago as a key peacekeeping effort following three days of riots.
But government funding to keep the program alive no longer exists, Green said. Similar initiatives, like public school gyms staying open at night, have diminished or disappeared, he noted.
“Folks sort of don’t realize the importance of peacekeeping,” Green said. “Now we are seeing the toothpaste coming out of the tube and we are trying to get it back in.”
The city saw a 26% jump in anti-Semitic hate crimes last year compared to 2018, according to NYPD data. The NYPD has refused to hand over various records concerning the incidents.
But several cases, according to video surveillance footage and witnesses, have involved black youths attacking Jews in Crown Heights.
That includes three teens who allegedly tossed rocks at Bais Rivkah Girls elementary school buses on Dec. 5. In November, police said, five teens smacked a 14-year-old Jewish boy in the head, knocking his yarmulke off, and grabbed a black fedora off his 15-year-old friend.
That’s distressing to Green, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran who has spent nearly 40 years trying to teach black youths about their Jewish neighbors.
“I talk to them about the rich friendship between blacks and Jews historically,” he said. “It’s just not publicized or put out there.”
A Tragic Past
The infamous 1991 Crown Heights riots erupted after an assistant to Menachem Schneerson, then the grand rebbe of the Lubavitcher sect, drove past a red light while following the religious leader’s motorcade. He accidentally struck and killed Gavin Cato, a 7-year-old black child.
Hours later, a mob of black youths yelling “Get the Jew!” chased and fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old rabbinical scholar visiting from Australia.
In the aftermath of the violence, residents and community leaders created groups to forge goodwill among African Americans, Caribbean Americans and Jews. They vowed to bridge the divide and avoid more bloodshed.
But some of those alliances, like Mothers to Mothers, a black-Jewish moms support group, no longer exist.
“Street outreach is pretty much gone,” Green said. “There was a program where they’d open up some of the schools and their gyms at night.”
Gyms are available from schools on a case-by-case basis, said Isabelle Boundy, a Department of Education spokesperson.
“Principals make the decision to approve or deny permit applications,” she said, noting that most programs end at 6 p.m.
Green’s organization, meanwhile, has struggled to stay afloat in the neighborhood, which is gentrifying but still has significant black and Jewish populations.
Government funding, aside from some limited allocations by local lawmakers, has gradually decreased, Green said. So he’s turned to private corporate sponsors.
The van program ran full force during the end of then-Mayor David Dinkins’ administration and throughout Rudy Giuliani’s time in office from 1994 to 2001, Green said. Drivers focused on areas where the most 911 calls were being made.
“We know it worked,” Green said.
‘A Global Village’
De Blasio administration officials say they have made major investments in Crown Heights after-school programs.
In 2014, the city expanded summer hours at 107 community centers in public housing developments citywide, including Department of Youth and Community Development-funded Cornerstone Community Centers that serve Crown Heights.
That has allowed the recreation spaces to remain open until 10 p.m. on school nights.
Over the past six years, DYCD-funded COMPASS after-school programming in Crown Heights has grown by 170%, with the number of slots for elementary, middle school and high school nearly doubling, officials said.
The number of programs has increased from 14 prior to 2014 to 25 currently, “to help ensure that young people are safe, engaged and learning,” said Mark Zustovich, a DYCD spokesperson.
But more after-school programs are needed, said Karim Camara, a former state lawmaker who lives in Crown Heights.
“That’s what people don’t see,” he said. “We have a lack of recreation opportunities. Schools are underfunded. Studies show those things contribute to deviant behavior. The street becomes a playground.”
Camara, the founding pastor of Abundant Life Church, said he constantly speaks to his congregants about the importance of peace within the community.
“We are part of a global village,” said Camara, who also serves as the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based Community Development Services.
Gil Monrose, director of faith-based and clergy initiatives for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, said there’s a need to get to the root of what causes some teens to lash out.
“We have to talk to the individuals and kind of hear from them and hear why they did what they did and get a sense of where their minds are,” he said.
‘A Chance for Redemption’
With probation and counseling, city officials hope some teen offenders can eventually educate their peers.
The de Blasio administration is considering recruiting people who committed hate crimes to help educate youths, THE CITY previously reported.
“This could be a chance for redemption,” Camara said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also has ordered additional cops to areas with large numbers of Jews in Brooklyn. In addition, anti-hate lessons will be added into middle and high school curriculums.
For some longtime Jewish residents, those steps and after-school programs like basketball games run by Green’s organization are part of the solution, but not a panacea.
“We have to address why people are hating and where it is coming from and how do we better educate people,” said Yaacov Behrman, a Lubavitch activist.
The recent spate of violence against Jews is not just confined to Crown Heights — or the city.
An apparently mentally ill man who grew up in Crown Heights stormed a rabbi’s home in Monsey, N.Y., and stabbed five people with a machete on Dec. 28.
The attack came less than three weeks after a man who identified with the Black Hebrew Israelites and his girlfriend killed a cop before fatally shooting three people in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City.
“When I saw Jersey City, that hurt me so much,” Green said. “It was just unbearable. It took the whole holiday out of me.
“We have to do better. We have to.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.