Crown Heights Under God, Under Siege


The streets of Crown Heights are haunted by madness, a “slow-motion pogrom,” said a chasid, that has only intensified in recent weeks. There have been random beatings, women having their wigs pulled off and an intimidation of Jews that started months ago, even years ago, according to some calculations.

Incidents without injuries have become so frequent that they rarely enter Jewish conversations outside the neighborhood. While the Chanukah machete attack in upstate Monsey was widely discussed, few Jews outside Crown Heights knew that the night before, a man entered Chabad’s main shul at 770 Eastern Parkway, during Friday night davening, and started yelling, “Kill, kill, kill,” according to court papers. He’s being held without bail.

Every day, another neighborhood story. Col-Live, a Chabad news site, displayed footage from a security camera near Albany Avenue of black men throwing a chair and hitting a chasidic man in the head on Dec. 24.

The almost daily crime and harassment during Chanukah has brought an infusion of police to Crown Heights. On Monday, a state trooper could be seen outside 770, which is also Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters and the site of its vast study hall. Two large white mobile command centers were parked near 770, one from the police, one — with a flashing menorah — from Chabad’s Shomrim volunteer security group.

“As much as City Hall’s giving, it’s not enough,” said Rabbi Eli Cohen of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Relations Council. “The mayor announced he would do more, and then I saw that ‘more’ simply means four or six officers per shift. That’s two or three police cars; what we need is four to six cars. It’s a pretty big area,” more than a mile across. The mayor called this week for increased police patrols at Jewish institutions, better street lighting, Neighborhood Safety Coalitions comprised of New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds, and inserts into the school curriculum that address anti-Semitism.

Although there have been a number of threatening intrusions into the shul at 770, a place as crowded as a December department store, there is no guard or security pat-down at its entryways.

And yet, on a cold and rainy day, all seemed well. Lubavitch Youth posters asked, “How are you lighting up another Yid’s Chanukah? Bring a Chanukah party to the elderly or visit Jewish families in local apartment buildings.” There were lines in the bagel store and pizza shops, and tourists, mostly non-Jews and Europeans, were unafraid, waiting at “Jewish Brooklyn” on Kingston Avenue for Yoni Katz’s highly regarded walking tour of chasidic Crown Heights.

Come sundown, though, caution prevailed. In the tour office, Rabbi Shlomo Friedman told us, “People are looking over their shoulder. Women are less likely to go out after dark, or they walk in pairs.” Others in the neighborhood noticed that chasidic parents are placing restrictions on their usually “free range” children.

The Guardian Angels, an unarmed safety patrol group that had its heyday back in the ’80s, announced it was prepared to intervene in fights, make citizen’s arrests and alert the police to incidents. It is deploying three shifts in Crown Heights, operating around the clock, said Benjamin Garcia, 56, a Guardian who lived in the Bronx.

“We’ll have from 10 to 20 of us,” in teams of two or three, visibly on the street, said Garcia, a sergeant with the New York City police reserve. Outside 770, earlier in the day, women were running over to thank the Guardian Angels. “I was here in 1991,” recalled Garcia, when three days of anti-Semitic rage, violence and home invasions convulsed — and still traumatize — Crown Heights. “And I came yesterday,” following the Monsey attack. “It’s very tragic what we’ve been hearing. People see the red berets,” the famous Guardian Angel uniform, along with their red jackets, and “they’re less stressed. They know we’re looking out for these great people. The more people looking out, the more eyes and ears, the better.”

Feeling Abandoned

In the shuls and shops, Chabad neighbors charged that they were abandoned by local politicians, who say all the right things but have instituted legislation that the chasidim feel is protecting criminals rather than the victims. Rabbi Cohen, of the Crown Heights JCRC, was frustrated by recent bail reform, which eliminates bail or the court’s option to deny bail for many misdemeanors and harassments that happen to include most anti-Semitic crimes. There have been more than 150 of these crimes, mostly in Brooklyn, in 2019.

For example, Tiffany Harris, 30, was arrested Dec. 28 for hitting three chasidic women near 770, yelling “FU, Jews,” when she was detained by police. She was freed without bail, and the next day punched a Jewish woman in the eye.

Rabbi Cohen said, “I understand why they wanted to reform the bail process, but we need something in its place to keep the streets safe. When something is obviously a hate crime they need to be able to hold someone who is a serious threat to commit another hate crime.”

Some locals said that some crimes were not being reported because of another new reform, the Discovery for Justice Reform Act, that could require the police to give the accusing victim’s personal information to his attackers.

There have been various attempts at denting the crime wave by educating children. For several months, Cohen, together with Geoffrey Davis, an African-American district leader in Crown Heights, have been meeting with more than a thousand students “from nursery through high school,” said Cohen. “Geoffrey and I tried to share our friendship with them.” They talk to the children about bullying, gentrification, stereotyping, “while modeling a positive Jewish-black relationship.”

Last week, in a separate project, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams announced a “Breaking Bread” initiative to invite children, in groups of 10, to 100 dinners, and educate them about anti-Semitism. Adams said that hate stems from ignorance, people not knowing each other, not knowing history. “Many of them didn’t know the significance of the swastika,” he said.

But one Chabad mother told us, “There are many Jews who think a smile and a handshake, and a seder meal, will make them love us. It’s very painful to me. There needs to be education, but this is beyond children’s education. When you’re dealing with maniacs, mentally ill people, wild people who seriously hate Jews, can that really be solved with a ‘Be nice, don’t hate’ program?”

While others did like the idea of cross-cultural dinners, there were some in Crown Heights who thought that that train left the station a long time ago. These Jews — who remembered the home invasions during the 1991 riots — were talking of buying guns.

We asked the Chabad mother what she thought of guns. “Let’s put it this way,” she said. “I don’t think we should have laws that will take guns away. Guns for an individual’s protection? I know that in shuls, people have them, quietly. Oh, I never thought I would ever be talking like this, or even thinking like this.”

Told that in shul some men were saying it was time to call out the National Guard, or to ask the government to declare a state of emergency, the mother replied, “I hope not. I hope we’re not at that point.”

Cohen takes solace from a big difference from 1991: “Today, the black religious leadership and political leadership are on board with us, they really want to see this neighborhood come together.”

Cohen’s community council has been doing more than talking to children. They’re interacting with adults. CHJCRC has a storefront operation on Kingston Avenue offering anyone advice on social work services: medical insurance, food stamps, immigration, government services, senior services, rent subsidies, and replacing boilers in public housing, to name a few.

Cohen added, “Negativity comes out of a sense of randomness, meaninglessness, a lack of direction. As the Rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad movement] said in 1991, we have to bring more goodness and kindness into the world, to make the world a more godly place. I guess if we’re not doing it, it comes to our doorstep and we’re forced to do it.

“You can never put enough policemen on the block,” said Cohen. “What’s more important is to teach a child that even when you think no one is watching, Someone is watching.”