Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Fatal Brooklyn Traffic Accident Sparks Widespread Racial Violence

August 22, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Thousands of black-hatted, bearded men surrounded the black-draped coffin of 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum as it was carried down Crown Heights’ main thoroughfare Wednesday in a mournful procession.

The coffin contained the remains of a young Lubavitcher Hasid stabbed to death Monday night during a black-Jewish melee that continued to boil in the racially mixed neighborhood Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council reported that, in addition to the murder of Rosenbaum, the previous night had seen 18 Hasidim injured, 50 Jewish-owned cars vandalized, a Lubavitch “Mitzvah tank” destroyed and 60 Jewish homes damaged.

Compounding the tragedy was the fact that the murdered Talmudic student, a native of Australia, was in no way involved in the incident that touched off rioting in a neighborhood that is no stranger to ethnic strife.

It began after a car driven by a Hasid, 22-year-old Yosef Lifsh, jumped a curb and pinned seven-year-old Gavin Cato to the wall of an apartment building at the corner of Utica Ave. and President St. at about 8:30 p.m. Monday.

Gavin was killed instantly. His 7-year-old cousin, Angela Cato, suffered a broken leg.

Lifsh’s car had been part of a small motorcade escorting the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, back to Crown Heights from a visit to his wife’s grave at a Queens cemetery.

When Lifsh fell behind the rest of the motorcade, he ran a red light, hit another vehicle and lost control of his car, which swerved and jumped the curb.

An ambulance from Hatzoloh, an ambulance service sponsored by the Hasidic community, was the first to arrive at the accident scene. It was followed by a city ambulance.


Jewish residents said the Hatzoloh driver was told by the police to “take your guys and leave” — referring to the three Hasidim involved in the accident — while the city ambulance crew ministered to the children.

But the rumor quickly spread among blacks that the Jewish ambulance sped off with the Jews, leaving the injured black children unattended.

Angry shouts filled the air. Gangs of black youths began rampaging through the neighborhood.

Some three hours later, Rosenbaum’s car was stopped at an intersection a few blocks from the scene of the accident, where he was assaulted by a gang of about 40 black youths.

At 11:35 p.m., Rosenbaum was stabbed once in the chest. He died a few hours later.

Representatives of Jewish organizations stressed that while both deaths both tragic, one was accidental and the other a deliberate murder.

“What did we do to the black community? Did we torch a black house? Did we mug a black couple?” asked Rabbi Shmuel Light, associate director of the Crown Heights JCC.

Light and Rabbi Shmuel Butman, another spokesman for the Hasidic community, recalled that when a black driver killed a Jewish child in an accident last year, the Jews did not riot or respond with violence and vandalism.

After Rosenbaum’s funeral on Wednesday, knots of Lubavitchers angrily discussed the rioting. They said that Lifsh had saved two black children from a fire last year, earning a commendation by the Fire Department.

“But the black community didn’t give him a medal after that, and now that he accidently killed someone, they want to arrest him,” said Rabbi Shimon Hecht.

Rev. Al Sharpton and Alton Maddox, two radical black leaders who almost invariably show up at black-white confrontations, came to Crown Heights at about 6 p.m. Tuesday to lead a rally near the scene of Gavin Cato’s death.

The rally quickly degenerated into rioting.

The windows of nearby stores were smashed and some were looted. One of the hardest hit was the Korean-owned Sneaker King.


Gangs of blacks roamed the streets of Crown Heights all Tuesday night, pounding on the doors of Jewish homes, hurling bottles and rocks at windows and at passing cars, and reportedly assaulting Hasidim they encountered.

Many Jewish families barricaded themselves in their homes, and many Jews, afraid to walk from their parked cars or subway exits to their homes, asked for escorts.

Some were assisted by the police; others by the Guardian Angels, a multi-racial group of young volunteers that offers subway riders and pedestrians protection in dangerous neighborhoods.

“Cars were smashed and firebombed. There was a lot of verbal abuse going back and forth from both sides. Cops were pulling out their guns and pointing them at people, telling them to leave” the area, said Sebastian Metz, who identified himself as the Guardian Angels’ international coordinator.

Some of the blacks were from outside the area, he said. “They had a whole rap down to instigate things. They knew just what to say.”

The violence raged from late in the afternoon into the early hours of Wednesday.

“It was like Kristallnacht,” said Rabbi Hecht. “People were afraid for their lives.”

On Wednesday, the site of Gavin Cato’s death had become a shrine, with flowers, candles, the child’s picture and a small blue teddy bear.

Above the photograph was a sign asking, “Where is the ‘white’ Jewish man who was taken away in the ‘special’ ambulance — unhandcuffed and escorted by the New York Police Department’s finest? While the Baby was lying dead under his car with his bicycle, and his cousin was pinned to the wall! At Eastern Parkway and Kingston — Lubavitcher?”


A handwritten piece of cardboard next to the sign read: “We black and strong. This is not Palestine. We want Justice. No Justice, No Peace.”

New York Mayor David Dinkins visited the neighborhood Monday night for several hours. But city officials did not attend Rosenbaum’s funeral.

While black residents prepared for a second Sharpton-led rally Wednesday afternoon, Jews were preparing for a third night of violence.

Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, chairman of Community Board 9, said that “we told the cops either they take care of business or we will–and they won’t be happy if we will.”

Saura Bermanson, a Lubavitch woman, said she would not repair the windows of her home smashed by stones Tuesday night because “tonight, there will be more.”

Recommended from JTA