The Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force is investigating a post-Shavuot attack on a group of chasidic men on the Coney Island waterfront early Sunday morning.
"We’re looking at it as a possible bias crime," said Police Commissioner Howard Safir on Monday.
But while the assailants, described by police as Hispanics, were said to have used anti-Semitic slurs during the attack, sources say the investigators are trying to determine whether the attack stemmed from a confrontation between the two groups, or a misunderstanding.
"It may have been that they were speaking in Yiddish and the Hispanics thought they were talking about them derogatorily," said a police source.
The eight men, members of the Borough Park-based Bobover sect, were approached by a group of Hispanic men at 4:20 a.m., taunted and assaulted before four of the chasidim were stabbed, authorities said. According to one report, the most seriously injured of the victims, Matisyahu Gluck, 19, was beaten and dragged to the wate’s edge where he might have been drowned had police not arrived at the scene.
The other victims were identified as Levi Bensch, 20; Naftali Stauer, 19; and Alexander Follman, 19. They were treated and released at Coney Island Hospital, while Gluck (who suffered from a punctured lung and numerous bruises and lacerations) was transferred to New York Cornell Medical Center.
No arrests had been made as of Tuesday. "We are looking at a number of leads," said Safir. "We expect to make some arrests, but at this point it’s still under investigation."
The case has taken a relatively low profile both in the media and among Jewish organizations, largely due to the families’ hesitance to press the issue publicly. Members of the insular Bobover chasidic sect were said to be wondering what brought the youths to the deserted boardwalk area in the early hours of the morning.
Reached by telephone, Gluck’s mother, who declined to give her first name, said she was unable to speak to her son about the incident because he was on a respirator. But she dismissed the notion of an altercation between the two groups, as opposed to a predatory attack.
"If there was a fight don’t you think something would have happened to the other side?" she said. ‘You don’t start up with goyim. It doesn’t make sense. My son was no weakling. When the knives came out they ran to the car and my son either fell down or was tripped. He is such a quiet boy. He never had a fight and was never a wild kid growing up." She added that she thought it was a "crazy thing" to go to the boardwalk at 4 a.m., but "they said they always do it. They go for a walk. That’s the big thing."
Rabbi David Halpern of the Flatbush Park Jewish Center in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, where Gluck’s father is a cantor, described Matisyahu as "a distinguished chasidic young man" who often accompanies his father on the miles-long walk from Borough Park to the Jewish Center.
"We are shocked and outraged that they tried to murder him," said the rabbi. "His father is very concerned but optimistic that he will have a refuah shelayma," or full recovery.
Rabbi Halpern said he believed the young men were in synagogue on Saturday, the second day of Shavuot, until late in the evening and "went to find a cool spot" on a day that saw record temperatures.
Borough Park Councilman Noach Dear, who visited Gluck at Coney Island Hospital Sunday afternoon, said the boardwalk is "a common place just to walk. This was the most kosher place they could go. The families would be more upset if they went to the movies or to a bar."
From the victims’ descriptions, Dear said he believed the attackers were Mexicans. "We’re going to throw the book against them," said Dear. "If they are illegal immigrants they are in for a surprise. We will go after them big time. These kinds of criminals we don’t need."
The incident prompted the city’s top Hispanic elected official, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, to call a press conference to denounce the crime. Speaking to a group of media that included Latino radio and TV stations, Ferrer issued a plea in both English and Spanish for information that could lead to arrests.
"This is an affront against every community in New York," said Ferrer. "This is a crime against New York and it must be punished severely."
The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, whose political action committee has endorsed Ferrer for mayor in 2001, has offered to provide a $1,000 reward to be paid by Ferrer’s office for tips that lead to the capture of the assailants.
Joining Ferrer were leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Congress, as well as Harlem state Sen. David Paterson and other officials, who said the incident illustrated the need for a state hate crimes bill. "They did more than just assault some men," said Paterson, a Democrat who has sponsored a version of the bill. "They attacked our entire society."
The attack took place three days after the state Senate for the first time approved a version of the hate crimes bill. An agreement with the Assembly was expected as early as Wednesday. If enacted, the bill would increase the penalties for crimes proven to be motivated by bias on religious, racial, ethnic, sexual or other grounds. The penalty for an assault conviction, for example, would increase by as much as 100 percent.
The NYPD has recently enlarged its unit investigating bias crimes, from 12 detectives to 30, with a plan to include as many as 40. The new Hate Crimes Task Force also operates a 24-hour hotline: (888) 440-HATE.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind said he was concerned that the incident was not receiving the proper amount of public outcry. "People are so critical of Al Sharpton when he jumps at every incident in the black community," said Hikind. "Where’s our Al Sharpton, to take an incident that is really outrageous and yell and scream?"
Hikind said questions about what the chasidim were doing on the beach "are really irrelevant. This was a bias crime."
But Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, said, "Until the investigation is completed, I believe it’s getting the proper amount of attention."
Howie Katz, regional director of the ADL’s New York office, said a low-key response was preferred by the chasidim: "The community did not initially want to do a lot of publicity … sometimes you have to respect the wishes of the community."
Sue Fox, representing the Shorefront Jewish Community Council in Brooklyn, said the area where the chasidim were attacked was not known as a dangerous area for Jews. She described the Brighton-Coney Island area as "a wonderful community rich in diversity where we take steps to develop coalition building and make sure that the hatred that exists in this community can be mitigated." She said there had been some gang activity, but "we’re not seeing any bias attacks."
The incident is the most serious violence against New York City Jews since 1995, when a Harlem man shot four employees in a Jewish-owned store at the center of a property dispute and torched the building, killing eight.