Behind the Healines: Streets of Crown Heights Quiet, but the Scars of Rioting Remain

More than two months have passed since riots ripped through Crown Heights, leaving death, property damage and lingering suspicion in their wake.

A few weeks ago, police officers in riot gear stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the neighborhood’s hot spots, forming impermeable human walls.

Nearly all of them are gone now.

The television news crews, ambulances and police vans that took over the streets during the rioting have given way to delivery trucks and residents’ well-worn cars.

A sign pasted to a lamppost by the militant group Kahane Chai, advertising a $10,000 reward for information leading them to the murderers of Yankel Rosenbaum, is almost completely hidden beneath leaflets publicizing Talmud study sessions and ads for “Mazel Tov flower arrangements.”

Life for the residents of Crown Heights has returned to normal. Almost.

On a sunny weekday morning, Raskin’s Fish Market, in the heart of Crown Heights’ Jewish shopping district, was bustling.

Across a display case of whole salmon, bluefish and flounder nestled in crushed ice, proprietor Shalom Raskin bantered with customers whose accents revealed roots in Brooklyn, Russia and several Caribbean islands.

As he told a visitor his first name, one of his Caribbean-American customers translated it, chirping, “peace.”

“When the riots were on, it wasn’t these people,” Raskin said. “They’re the nicest neighbors and customers. We get along fine.”

But “there’s still some anxiety” among Crown Heights’ Jews, chimed in his wife, Esther Raskin. “Everybody’s uncomfortable.”

‘THE EYE OF THE STORM’

“For 99 percent of Crown Heights’ Jews, the tragedies of Aug. 19 are behind them,” explained Rabbi Shea Hecht, a member of the ad-hoc Emergency Committee for the Crown Heights Jewish Community.

On Aug. 19, a car that was part of a motorcade escorting the Lubavitcher rebbe jumped the curb, hitting and killing 7-year-old Gavin Cato, a black child. A few hours later, Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian student, was murdered by a gang of rampaging black youths.

“But for those who live in the eye of the storm,” Hecht continued, referring to the blocks where the rioters raged, “the fear will last for a long time.”

Hecht himself was mugged at gunpoint by four blacks on Aug. 27 while standing at a pay phone in another Brooklyn neighborhood, as he called in to a local radio talk show about the Crown Heights disturbances.

Those who were most victimized by the rioters, those who were “trampled by a group of blacks running down the street screaming ‘Heil Hitler,’ those who had windows shattered by bottles and rocks, who had their cars and apartments firebombed, now live with the kind of fear that “you don’t get over easily,” he explained.

“You have learned to live with your black neighbors, and understand that they are good, (law-) abiding citizens, and all of a sudden your whole perspective on black people changes. Now every time a group of black kids coming home from school walks toward you, your heart starts to beat fast,” he said.

Hecht estimates that the property damage and medical bills suffered by Lubavitchers will total close to $800,000, and said that there are many in the community unable to afford it.

Some money has been donated to help cover the breach, he said, but not enough.

Many analyses of the Crown Heights crisis have been offered since the rioting, and many attempts have been made to arrange dialogues between blacks and Jews and to combat what one observer calls “communal illiteracy.”

“There are misperceptions and perceptions of injustice on both sides,” explained Kenneth Stern, program specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism at the American Jewish Committee.

“Two different languages are being spoken and there are no mechanisms set up to translate from one community to another,” he said at a panel discussion organized by black and Jewish student groups at New York Law School.

Some Lubavitchers say that some outside organizations that have organized dialogues and rallies, including the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the New York Civil Rights Coalition, cannot succeed.

A TIME FOR ‘TACHLIS’

“The goal cannot be this great lovey-dovey stuff that the Jewish establishment is used to,” said Jacob Goldstein, chairman of the local community board.

“The goal is to respect each other, and a lot of people, these ‘great social thinkers,’ want to see it go farther, and that’s not going to happen. We need to be able to do our own thing,” he said. “We don’t need interlocutors from the outside trying to steer it.”

According to some, too many dialogues have already degenerated into nothing more than blacks pointing fingers at the Jews for enjoying preferential treatment that the Lubavitchers say does not exist.

Roughly 10 percent of Crown Heights’ 125,000 residents are Lubavitch. The rest of the population is primarily a mixture of Caribbean-Americans and African-Americans.

Not only are the black contentions “total foolishness,” according to Hecht, “but they indirectly legitimize the bottle-throwers. Trying to understand our differences can potentially make us worse off than we are right now, because it’s not really dealing with the issues.”

He does acknowledge that a period of “airing-out,” of exchanging grievances, may have been necessary after August’s conflagration.

“But now the emergency is over. Now the hard work begins,” he said. He favors blacks and Jews doing “tachlis” (result-oriented) work together on the many problems of mutual concern, and suggests block associations as the mechanism for the coalescing.

But when asked about the likelihood of successful cooperation in the face of mutual suspicion and resentment, Hecht sighed.

“It won’t happen,” he said. There will be “minimal change only. We will push a program or two through, but our whole way of thinking will not change. The problem is that we’re caught up in who is getting what, and we should be using each other’s strengths rather than knocking each other’s weaknesses.”

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