An attack on Jersey City Jews exposed a neighborhood’s deep rifts. One year later, a memorial shows how citizens are mending them
The 2019 shooting that claimed four lives at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey rocked several different communities.
The city’s Satmar Hasidic Jews had been directly attacked. The non-Orthodox Jews who worshipped nearby were shaken and distraught. Residents of the largely Black and Hispanic neighborhood saw national media attention descend on their streets.
But for the most part, everyone mourned separately after the Dec. 10 attack.
“We weren’t really coming together,” said Rabbi Bronwen Mullin of Congregation B’nai Jacob, an independent synagogue located near the targeted supermarket in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood.
Exactly one year later, that will change. At a virtual memorial hosted by B’nai Jacob, representatives from the four victims’ communities will eulogize them. Local politicians and activists will speak about how relationships between Greenville’s different groups have gotten stronger in the past year.
For Mullin and her congregation, the memorial is the culmination of a year-long effort to become more involved in the broader Greenville ecosystem. It’s an agenda that has deepened B’nai Jacob’s ties to its non-Jewish neighbors, improved its previously non-existent relationships with the city’s Satmar community and given a once-ailing synagogue a new feeling of purpose and vitality.
“The terrible-ness of this incident, it gave us a renewed sense of mission,” Mullin said. “What does it mean to be a Jewish community? What does ‘community’ even really mean?”
Just a year ago, such an event would have seemed impossible.
On the morning of Dec. 10, 2019, two shooters killed a Jersey City police officer, Detective Joseph Seals, in the city’s Bayview Cemetery. They then drove to the JC Kosher Supermarket, a hub of the city’s nascent Hasidic community, known as Satmar after the name of their ancestral village in Hungary. There, the shooters killed two Hasidic Jews, Mindy Ferencz and Moshe Deutsch, and Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, an Ecuadorian immigrant who worked at the supermarket.
The shooters were affiliated with an antisemitic offshoot of the Hebrew Israelites, a diffuse and largely peaceful movement which asserts that Black people are descended from the Biblical Israelites.
The aftermath of the tragedy showed Mullin two things. She learned that reaching out to the Satmars, the community that had been attacked, wouldn’t necessarily be easy just because she is also Jewish.
She also saw that the violence had exposed longstanding rifts between longtime Greenville residents and the Hasidic Jewish families who had moved there over the past several years.
“We just existed”
Many of the Satmar newcomers had been driven out of Brooklyn by soaring housing costs. But they arrived in Jersey City as the city was gentrifying, with developers snapping up properties and long-time residents fearing displacement.
Many in Greenville saw their new neighbors as participants in the neighborhood’s gentrification.
In particular, long-standing residents objected to what they saw as aggressive efforts to buy their houses, said Dwayne Baskerville, a pastor and founder of the youth mentorship program GoGetMyKids, in an interview. In 2017, the city passed a no-knock ordinance to prevent such solicitations.
Those tensions made it difficult for the neighborhood to connect after the shooting. Rebecca Shapiro, a Jersey City resident and B’nai Jacob congregant, observed a flood of antisemitic vitriol on NextDoor and Facebook. Posts complained about Jews “stealing property” or arriving in a neighborhood where they were not wanted. Most notably, Joan Terrell Paige, a member of the city’s Board of Education, faced pressure to resign after a Dec. 15 Facebook post that described Jewish homebuyers as “brutes.”
What’s more, Black activists felt the city’s forceful response to the shooting was evidence that officials cared more about white and Jewish residents than communities of color.
Baskerville said that in the past, residents have asked for help from law enforcement, often to deal with violent crimes like shootings, without success. That changed after the Satmar influx, he said: “Now that we have new neighbors, there is a [police] presence.”
The shooters came from outside the neighborhood, so the tragedy was in no way caused by these tensions. Still, they made the healing process a difficult one.
Appalled by the antisemitic language, B’nai Jacob congregants also felt the pain of their distance from any of the other communities in the neighborhood — Satmar, Hispanic or Black.
“There was no active involvement with other groups in the Greenville section,” said Michael Zwain, the synaogue’s president, whose parents were one of the eight couples who founded it some 60 years ago. “We just existed.”
Synagogue lore has it that B’nai Jacob, founded in 1959, was born from a conversation between three women chatting outside their Jersey City apartment complex.
All young mothers, they wanted to raise their children in a neighborhood synagogue. But they didn’t feel that the existing Orthodox or Reform options suited their needs. Roping in their husbands and a few other families, they formed a Conservative congregation. B’nai Jacob hosted its first Friday night service at a local Lutheran church.
For years, they prayed in rented spaces with borrowed books. When they bought a piece of land in Greenville and began building a synagogue, some members of the largely working-class congregation mortgaged their homes to finance it, Mullin said. One congregant, an art teacher, created a set of stained glass windows in its sanctuary that depict the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
In its heyday, B’nai Jacob had about 400 member families. But over the decades, as the congregation aged and many Jews moved to the suburbs, that number dwindled to 50. To save money, the synagogue cut programs once seen as essential, like Hebrew school classes. When the roof leaked, there was no money to fix it.
By the time the congregation hired Mullin, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in the spring of 2019, it could only afford to pay a rabbi for classes every other week and one Shabbat service per month. Multiple developers had offered to buy the building, and Mullin started her job with the grim knowledge that she might be presiding over the synagogue’s decline.
As a new rabbi, Mullin was touched by her congregants’ pride in the synagogue’s history, and she admired their resistance to leaving the area.
But as she learned the ropes of her new job, it became clear that part of the problem lay in the synagogue’s disconnect from the broader community. She wanted to change that. “If we want to stay in the neighborhood we have to be involved with what’s happening in the neighborhood,” she recalled thinking. “And that’s not just explicitly Jewishly.”
Even before the shooting, then, Mullin was wondering how the synagogue could do more than just exist. In the troubled days that followed it, she was propelled into action by a strange dream. In it, she envisioned a menorah conjoined with a kinara, a candle holder used during Kwanzaa.
Inspired, Mullin asked a local artist to build the object she’d imagined. Then, she invited community organizers to share a Hanukkah-Kwanzaa potluck dinner with B’nai Jacob congregants. After a candle-lighting ceremony, attendees sampled different dishes, played improv games and shared their favorite Greenville memories.
One guest was Pamela Johnson, a local activist and the founder of the Anti-Violence Coalition Movement of Hudson County (ACHC), a non-profit that runs several initiatives including gun buybacks and anti-violence workshops for area youth. After the dinner, she invited Mullin to join the organization’s board. Throughout the summer and fall, B’nai Jacob congregants have attended anti-violence demonstrations organized by the ACHC in front of City Hall.
“We just got the ball rolling,” Johnson said.
Another recurring event in which many B’nai Jacob congregants participate is “White Space,” a series of conversations about whiteness and anti-racism that Mullin hosts through a local art center, Smush Gallery. The conversations have been successful enough that Mullin is considering launching a separate series focused on the complicated intersection of whiteness and Jewishness.
Those events reflected the synagogue’s deliberate choice to involve itself in neighborhood anti-violence initiatives. “We decided as a shul that we were going to be partners,” Mullin said.
It took some persuading to bring congregants on board with these priorities. Some thought that given its financial fragility, the synagogue should focus its time and budget on its own survival.
But while the synagogue might not be able to contribute financially to community initiatives, it had one inexhaustible resource to share: its building. Even after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the synagogue has offered up its space for essential events. It has hosted coat and toy drives run by the refugee assistance organization Welcome Home Jersey City. On Halloween, another local group used the synagogue’s parking lot to host a party for neighborhood kids prevented from trick-or-treating by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The building is really, really helpful,” said Jersey City Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey, who helped connect Mullin to local activists in the shooting’s aftermath. Recently, when a constituent offered to donate Thanksgiving turkeys to local families, she used the synagogue as a pick-up spot. “Just knowing that a space exists that’s open to the public, and is a resource to the public, is a benefit to the community.”
Such events have made B’nai Jacob a more recognized presence in the neighborhood. “That’s been one of the nicest things,” Mullin said. “Whenever we hold events now outside, so many people just walking around the neighborhood just wish us the best.”
They’ve also helped revitalize the synagogue. For one thing, there are simply more things for congregants to do. A morning Shabbat service conducted by a visiting Black Israelite rabbi was the first morning service the synagogue had been able to offer in over a year.
What’s more, Zwain, the congregation’s president, expects the synagogue’s new focus to boost membership. He hopes to attract a cohort of younger Jews who see synagogue as a way to live out social values.
“[They’re] looking for that kind of activity out of the Jewish community, not to just go on Shabbos,” Zwain said.
The strategy seems to be working. In the past year, B’nai Jacob has gained 12 new members, a marked increase over previous years.
“It’s not an avalanche, but it’s a start,” Zwain said.
“Stay in Your Lane”
As the year progressed, Mullin felt she was establishing a good rapport with local non-Jewish activists. Her relationship with the Satmar community was very different, though.
Like her, the Satmars were relative newcomers to Greenville. Many had migrated there from Brooklyn in search of more affordable housing and a higher standard of living. In the past few years, they established the communal infrastructure around which tight-knit, insular Hasidic communities revolve. Besides its kosher supermarket, the neighborhood offered a cheder, or elementary school, a ritual bath open every night and a private shuttle to Williamsburg.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Mullin thought she could function as an intermediary between the Satmar community and the non-Jewish activists with whom she was cultivating relationships.
But when she put out feelers to Satmar leaders, she didn’t get much of a response. In fact, they were working on their own to build bridges with the Black community. Ahead of Christmas last year, Chesky Deutsch, a local Hasidic activist, worked with Assemblywoman Angela McKnight to organize a coat and toy drive for Jersey City residents.
Mullin didn’t learn about those meetings from her Satmar counterparts. Instead, activists like Johnson, the ACHC founder, looped her in. It seemed to Mullin that the Satmars “didn’t want anything to do with me or my community.”
But, she said, “As much as it hurts, it’s not more important than the work getting done.”
Deutsch said that Satmar leaders had not intentionally excluded anyone. Rather, they developed the relationships they felt were most necessary. To them, it made sense to focus on building bridges with leaders who represented Greenville’s large Black and Hispanic population, rather than the substantially smaller community of non-Orthodox Jews.
“We typically don’t, as a community, engage in any outside events,” Deutsch said. “But when it comes to productive work, we’re ready to work with anyone.”
Mullin agreed that relationships between Greenville’s Black and Satmar communities were the most important ones. She has bowed out of meetings on Black-Jewish relationships, including one between Terrell-Paige and several Satmar rabbis, when she sensed her presence would be disruptive.
The last year, she said, has taught her a lot about “what it means to stay in your lane.”
When B’nai Jacob set out to organize a memorial on the shooting’s anniversary, members felt well-equipped to reach out to non-Jewish speakers — but a little unsure about how the Satmars would receive their overtures.
Rodriguez’s pastor will eulogize him. A Jersey City Police Department chaplain will do the same for Detective Seals. Assemblywoman McKnight will speak about her community service collaboration with Deutsch, and Johnson will discuss the ACHC’s work.
By contrast, Shapiro, the congregant who is also one of the event’s planners, said she was initially unsure if outreach efforts to the Satmar community would be successful.
In the end, organizers were more successful than they hoped. Through the synagogue’s relationships with leaders like Johnson and Assemblywoman McKnight, they connected with Deutsch, who will speak about the two Satmar victims.
Though Deutsch was reluctant to deliver his remarks from B’nai Jacob’s bima, he arrived at a compromise with the synagogue committee planning the event: He will pre-record his speech, which will then air as part of the virtual memorial.
Deutsch said he couldn’t refuse the opportunity to talk about “all the things that came from working together, seeing each other as human beings.”
To be sure, an inclusive memorial doesn’t necessarily signal close friendships between the city’s various constituencies in perpetuity. Deutsch said it’s unlikely that many Satmars will tune into the virtual event.
Baskerville, the pastor, noted that while last year’s hostility has eased, the city’s Black and Satmar communities still live largely in separate spheres with little interaction. Johnson added that despite productive meetings in the shooting’s aftermath, the coronavirus pandemic scuttled plans for further in-person events.
Mullin concurred. She doesn’t expect that the work B’nai Jacob has undertaken alongside other local groups will be finished soon, if ever. But for the congregation, there’s been one enduring lesson in the events of the past year.
“It really brought to the forefront the importance of doing Jewish, which means doing justice,” Mullin said. “We can’t just sit back and take our existence here for granted.”