Impact of Crown Heights is Felt Well Beyond Borders of Brooklyn
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Impact of Crown Heights is Felt Well Beyond Borders of Brooklyn

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The cries of “Get the Jew” that were shouted in Crown Heights in August 1991 are still echoing far beyond the boundaries of that Brooklyn neighborhood.

Amid the rhetorical battles, speeches and demonstrations that have surrounded recent events in Crown Heights, one thing has become clear: the images and language of victimization have touched a raw nerve in New York Jews of all religious and political persuasions.

Most New York Jews feel that justice has not been served, since no one has been convicted of murdering Yankel Rosenbaum, who was killed simply because he was a Jew during rioting by blacks in Crown Heights last year.

But beyond that, there are essentially two camps.

Lubavitchers and their supporters suggest that because New York Mayor David Dinkins is black, he is more concerned with placating the increasingly politically-empowered black community and with solidifying his voter base for the 1993 mayoral election, than with justice for Jews.

Other Jews also feel a sense of pronounced discomfort with the way the Crown Heights crisis continues to play out, even accusing the mayor, who has a long record of support for Jewish causes, of being insensitive to Jewish concerns.

But these Jews refute the notion that he is an anti-Semite and say that he is being scapegoated himself.

It is these New York Jews who also resent the first group’s use of the term “pogrom” to refer to the rioting that followed the accidental killing of a 7- year-old black child at the hands of a Lubavitch driver and in which Rosenbaum, a Hasidic scholar, was murdered.

These Jews also bristle at the Lubavitchers’ use of Holocaust imagery, such as wearing yellow stars pinned to their clothes at the arraignment of Moishe Katzman, the Lubavitch man charged by police with beating a homeless black man behind the Lubavitch world headquarters on Dec. 1.

The debate over language and imagery reflects the profound impact of the Crown Heights episode on the Jewish psyche.

“The genius of Avi Weiss and crew has been their description of this as an attack on all Jews, as a pogrom,” said Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.

He was referring to the Bronx rabbi and social activist who has repeatedly confronted the mayor and been the most visible non-Lubavitcher to support the Crown Heights Jewish perspective.

Describing the black violence against Jews in Crown Heights as a pogrom resonates with Jews outside of the neighborhood because it reminds them of their different-ness, after they have spent the last 40 years trying to show how American they are, he said.

“It reminds Jews of how fragile their existence is,” said Heilman, who is also author of the book “Defenders of the Faith; Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry,” published by Schocken/Random House earlier this year.

The way Jewish New Yorkers view the Crown Heights crisis and how it is being handled by the Lubavitchers often depends on how secure they feel in America and in the city — and those sentiments are often reflected in where they live.

Hasidim, including the Lubavitchers, are anomalous in the Jewish world.

They are the only major Jewish group not to have fled the inner city by the 1970s, but they want little, if anything, to do with their non-Jewish neighbors and, with the notable exception of the Lubavitch, have almost nothing to do with non-Hasidic Jews.

Inadvertently, they stand quite literally on the front lines of black-Jewish relations.

Sentiment outside of Crown Heights tends to be divided along an Orthodox/non- Orthodox axis and a Manhattan/outer-borough axis. Jews who live in “Jewish” neighborhoods outside of Manhattan are generally Orthodox. They, along with their more assimilated, less observant and secular neighbors, “fled Manhattan in the first place and are more uncomfortable with the urban environment,” according to Phillip Saperia, executive director of the American Jewish Congress’ Metropolitan Region.

“The city has followed them to the suburbs and they don’t like it,” he said. “Those who live in more insular communities are more likely to feel insecure than those who live in diverse areas.”

Jews in Manhattan have, by and large, acculturated and assimilated into New York’s Jewish cultural milieu and are “hermetically sealed” off from the black- Jewish tensions which beset the outer-borough communities, according to Heilman, the sociologist.

In contrast, Brooklyn and Queens Jews feel themselves to be “just a step away from Crown Heights,” said Heilman.

But even the more mainstream Jews of New York are concerned that ethnic stability is in danger, said Saperia, “lest there be an erosion of the position of the Jewish community sociologically, economically, religiously, or politically.”

The Lubavitch also hold a special place in the hearts of many American Jews. They are perhaps the most popular Jewish religious group in America. Countless non-observant Jews admire the outreach work Lubavitch does, consider Lubavitch the last outpost of “authentic” Judaism and give money to support their programs.

So there is a large measure of sympathy among other Jews for Lubavitch that would not exist if the same things were happening to an even more iconoclastic sect, like Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidim.

Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, executive vice president of the 800-member New York Board of Rabbis — which includes clergy from all the major branches of Judaism — says he has gotten calls from Jews and non-Jews all over the country in support of the Lubavitch.

The Hasidic group is seen “as a besieged and beleaguered minority trying to maintain its integrity and identity as a community and not be forced out,” he said.

Their sympathizers say that if it is the Crown Heights Jewish community that is being victimized by blacks and by the political system today, it could be Williamsburg or the Lower East Side tomorrow and Washington Heights and finally the Upper West Side the day after, said Rosenthal, listing New York “Jewish” neighborhoods from the most religious to the most acculturated.

Outside New York, a straw poll of Jewish communal leaders in some of the country’s largest cities revealed that the Crown Heights crisis and black- Jewish tensions here are not prompting much debate.

The New York dynamic is very different from that which exists anywhere else, they said, and seems far removed from their own interethnic concerns.

“People here are more concerned about what’s going on in Germany,” said one community leader.


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