Crown Hts. Strife Revives Black-Jewish Coalition


In an effort to head off tensions that have been building in Crown Heights, a dormant black-Jewish community group has quickly convened three meetings in the wake of a spate of violent incidents.

Forged in the fires of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, Project Care is an ad hoc group of community leaders that has met for more than 15 years to keep open lines of communication.

“The original goal was to provide a rapid response to incidents in the neighborhood, engage in a dialogue and move the community forward,” said Letitia James, a founding member of the coalition who is now a city councilwoman representing Crown Heights.

Members apparently had grown complacent as relations between the neighborhood’s chasidic enclave and the far-larger African-American and Caribbean-American communities enjoyed generally good relations.

While that’s still the case, recent months have seen a spate of attacks by blacks on Jews, some with anti-Semitic overtones. And when a 20-year-old black man told police he was assaulted on April 14 by chasidic men suspected of belonging to a controversial civilian patrol group, the reaction by police and the district attorney has many in the Jewish community complaining of disparity in law enforcement and a rush to judgment against the patrol group.

“There has to be one set of rules for everybody,” said Chanina Sperlin, vice president of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.

Evidently fearing a backlash, Project Care is back in business, meeting twice since the incident, with a third meeting planned for next week — three times as many meetings as it held in at least a year.

“We’ve been dormant,” said James, who got involved with Project Care as an aide to Al Vann, who was then a state assemblyman.

Amy Ellenbogen, director of the Crown Heights Mediation Center and a Project Care participant, said the group fell silent because, “What happens in the community is that everybody has their own priorities. We are all running our own organizations. From time to time you have to focus inward.”

But she said the member organizations, including her own, “have been consistently doing inter-group work” individually.

Richard Green of the Crown Heights Youth Collective said that while Project Care “as a big group hasn’t met in a while,” participants such as himself and Robert Matthews, chairman of Community Board 8, have been in regular contact.

“We have been doing the work in small settings,” said Green. “There is definitely a sense now that the weather is changing and there are people back out on the street, we want to include all members of the community in dialogue.”

The revitalized Project Care, which is funded by private donations, community groups and city grants, includes about an equal number of African Americans and Jews: members of the community boards and precinct councils, religious and lay leaders, some two dozen in all.

“It’s not just a politically correct meeting,” said Devorah Halberstam of the recent series of meetings. Halberstam is director of the foundation for government services at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights who was invited to join Project Care. “Whoever is sitting in wants to see positive action. People are recognizing that there is a need to make changes.”

Halberstam and James both said members had agreed not to discuss Project Care’s specific goals and meeting topics to outsiders and the media.

Project Care isn’t the only group coming out of retirement. Mothers to Mothers, a black-Jewish dialogue group formed a year after the riots that disbanded after about a decade of meetings, will also reconvene.

Henna White, a Jewish liaison working for District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, who administered the mothers’ group, said the group members had decided several years ago they had accomplished their mission of opening channels.

“When it had been quiet for a while I decided we would stop,” said White. “But I said to the women, if it was needed again we would be back. Not that 16 women can change the world, but what mattered was that it existed — chasidic and African Americans sitting twice a month and talking about issues that we were concerned about.”

The groups’ re-emergence suggest the extent of concern among Crown Heights community leaders and elected officials that the hard-won peace and mutual tolerance that has marked the neighborhood in nearly 17 years since the riots may be rattled by sporadic incidents of violence, including the reported harassment and stabbing of a Jewish man on Tuesday night.

In the first five months of 2008, there were four incidents investigated as hate crimes by the police department: three anti-Semitic and one anti-black. That’s fewer than the seven incidents recorded during the same period of 2007, which included an equal number of anti-Semitic incidents. But tension is building as the summer draws near.

Community leaders and inter-group specialists insist the recent crimes are not a symptom of rising tensions as the chasidic enclave gradually expands into new segments of the neighborhood.

“I’m not concerned that we’re sitting on a powder keg,” said state Sen. Eric Adams, who represents Crown Heights. “Cooler heads are prevailing.”

An estimated 12,000-15,000 chasidic Jews live among approximately 135,000 African Americans in Crown Heights.

Adams said both groups are equally apt to complain about disparate treatment.

“It’s amazing,” said Adams, who is a retired police captain. “If you sit in a room of African Americans, they will say the police are unfairly targeting them and the [chasidic community will say the same thing]. If you were to close your eyes in the two rooms, you wouldn’t know which room you’re in because they’re both saying the same thing.”

Last week Jewish leaders wondered aloud why Hynes convened a rare investigative grand jury to probe the April 14 assault on Andrew Charles, 20, on Carroll Street while numerous recent attacks on Jews did not garner the same treatment, and questions were raised about the police response. Charles’ father is an NYPD detective.

Hynes told The Jewish Week he was acting in part to rein in a civilian patrol group he described as “renegades” prone to vigilante behavior.

The Shmira Patrol group is involved in an ongoing feud with members of the larger Shomrim Patrol, from which it broke off about 10 years ago. After Hynes likened the group to urban street gangs (a remark he later moderated in a letter to The Jewish Week), one Crown Heights blog criticized the DA for “chutzpah,” while another said he “got it right on! G-d bless you!,” accusing the Shmira members of criminal behavior.

But this week, chasidic community leaders said, a former Shmira member was credited with interrupting the attempted rape of a black woman he heard screaming in his apartment building hallway and scaring off her knife-wielding attacker, while summoning police.

“A detective called me the next day to confirm the details,” said Leonid Yavich in a statement distributed by the Crown Heights JCC. “He was very emotional when he told me that I literally saved the girl’s life.”

Bob Kaplan, director of inter-group relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said Project Care participants were proactively making a difference in the effort to cool down attitudes.

“They have told me that things are pretty calm,” said Kaplan. “What typically happens at these meetings is that people look for unique and important ways to work together. The primary focus is youth and also quality-of -life issues.”

Kaplan added that Project CARE was seeking to expand participation. “The steering committee is looking to make itself more inclusive and make sure they represent the full breadth of the community.”