Jewish Groups Learn Painful Lessons in Aftermath of Crown Heights Riots

The lessons learned from the debacle in Crown Heights in August 1991 will no doubt be considered and reconsidered by New York City officials for a long time to come.

It was those officials — from Mayor David Dinkins and then-Police Commissioner Lee Brown on down to Herbert Block, then the mayor’s liaison with the Jewish community — who were blasted in a state report for their mishandling of the rioting that raged out of control in the Brooklyn neighborhood.

The report, released Tuesday, was commissioned by Gov. Mario Cuomo immediately after Lemrick Nelson, a black teen-ager, was acquitted last year in the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic scholar killed during the four days of rioting. It was authored by Richard Girgenti, the state’s director of criminal justice.

But city officials are not the only ones who have learned difficult lessons from the Crown Heights crisis.

Jewish organizational representatives, too, some of whom had been criticized by the Jews of Crown Heights, have considered what they will do differently next time a crisis involving a Jewish community in New York City erupts.

The New York Jewish Community Relations Council has fundamentally altered the way it handles emergencies.

On Aug. 19, 1991, when Gavin Cato was accidentally killed by a Lubavitch driver and long-simmering tensions in Crown Heights exploded into rage, the two senior professionals at the New York JCRC were in Israel.

There they were leading a trip of city officials and influentials, as they do each year, and, according to Michael Miller, the organization’s executive director, they did not get the impression that they needed to rush home.

Miller returned to New York the following Sunday, days after the crisis had ended, and his associate, David Pollack, returned the next day.

In the meantime, the agency’s president was in Crown Heights, as was Philip Abramowitz, director of the group’s Task Force on Missionaries and Cults, trying to assist the Lubavitch community.

‘WISH YOU COULD TURN THE CLOCK BACK’

“Lessons have been learned” from the experience, according to Miller. “I wish you could turn the clock back and we wouldn’t have taken that trip. But things don’t work that way.”

As a result, he and Pollack now have an “unwritten policy” to never be out of town at the same time.

And soon after the riots, the JCRC implemented a new crisis-management plan.

It establishes a plan of operations and several contingency plans, and enables Miller to categorize crises from the most urgent to the least.

Oct. 30, 1992, the day Lemrick Nelson was cleared of charges that he was one of Yankel Rosenbaum’s murderers, was classified as “red,” or most urgent. This classification enabled the JCRC to quickly schedule meetings, issue statements and mobilize key players.

One of the meetings was with the deputy mayor for public safety “to alert him to our concern regarding police readiness to ensure the safety of Jewish residents of Crown Heights,” said Miller.

The JCRC’s communications technology has also been updated so it can now issue a press release from a computer-fax to 200 recipients simultaneously.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that since the Crown Heights crisis, his organization has consciously built relationships with the Lubavitchers.

“Before, it was a relationship of respect but not engagement,” said Foxman. “Now we talk to each other and see each other on a non-crisis basis. Since the crisis we have developed channels of communication which did not exist before.”

The American Jewish Congress and its executive director, Henry Siegman, were particularly criticized by some of Crown Heights’ Jews for the organization’s support of Mayor Dinkins.

AJCongress ran an advertisement in the New York Times on Dec. 10, 1992, defending Dinkins against the charges of anti-Semitism that some in Crown Heights were wielding against him.

The ad was titled “Enough!” and signed by Siegman and AJCongress President Robert Lifton.

‘CAUGHT WITH OUR PANTS DOWN’

Jacob Goldstein, a Lubavitcher who is chairman of Brooklyn’s Community Board 9, which covers Crown Heights, criticized AJCongress’s position.

Mainstream Jewish groups including the AJCongress “say they help Jews all over the world. So they should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with us, left their pool parties and come to Brooklyn,” said Goldstein.

“We’re the victims, and I haven’t seen them out there. They’re so decoupled and detached it’s unbelievable. They have 90 percent of the money and represent no one. The grass roots don’t know who they are or care,” he said.

Goldstein’s advice to the secular Jewish groups: “Get involved with Jews, the poor people in the boroughs. You may not subscribe to our politics, but help us. And don’t try to assimilate us,” he said.

Siegman responded: “I think those are inaccurate statements and do not reflect reality.

“It is not at all clear that there is anything Jewish organizations could have done had they acted differently. The responsibility for law and order rests with the police, not Jewish groups.”

The responsibility that Jewish groups like AJCongress do have to help the Jews of Crown Heights is to monitor the city agencies responsible for safety to make sure that they implement remedial action, said Siegman.

A fundamental part of the problem, according to Phillip Saperia, the newly appointed mayoral liaison with the Jewish community, is that the mainstream groups and New York City’s fervently Orthodox communities “really don’t know each other.

“All of us were caught with our pants down, partially because we didn’t know what to do or who to contact” in the Crown Heights Jewish community, said Saperia, who worked as executive director of the New York metropolitan region of AJCongress until taking the job with Dinkins last month.

Saperia succeeded Herbert Block, who was criticized by the state report as not being “credible” in his assertions that he was unaware of the severity of the situation until late on the third day.

The report presented numerous instances in the first two days of disturbances in which Jewish leaders and more junior mayoral aides told Block and other top advisers that the violence was raging out of control.

In an interview, Block, now political director of Dinkins’ re-election campaign, said, “In hindsight you can always learn from your experience. I think I did the best job I could at the time.”

The fervently Orthodox communities do not fully understand community relations, said Saperia, and repudiate the overtures of Jews involved in that kind of work.

“Those Jewish organizations that had community relations expertise which could have been of considerable help then and now are not welcomed” by the fervently Orthodox, said Saperia.

“There needs to be a whole rethinking about how, if the haredim (fervently Orthodox) of the various communities want to be represented by the Jewish community fully and have them respond with alacrity, both sides have to do the work now, before the crises.”

NEXT STORY