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A changing Crown Heights marks 25 years since Brooklyn ‘pogrom’

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK (JTA) — Much has changed in Crown Heights in the past 25 years, since the accidental death of a black boy touched off three days of rioting in which black youths attacked religious Jews in the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Many called it a riot. Some Jews call the events of August 19-21, 1991, a pogrom. And some blacks call it an uprising.

Yankel Rosenbaum, a graduate student affiliated with the area’s prominent Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, was killed when a group of black men stabbed and beat him, shattering his skull. Cars were overturned and set aflame. Bricks were thrown. Residents and reporters were pulled from cars and beaten. Stores were looted.

The violence left anguish in both communities, but also led to high-profile community programs intended to create racial reconciliation, many of which have since shut down. And some scars, on both sides of the racial divide, have yet to completely heal.

But today is a very different time in Crown Heights, where charming limestone row houses line side streets and prewar apartment buildings sit tall on the avenues. A growing number of young professionals are moving in from pricier parts of Brownstone Brooklyn and Manhattan in search of more affordable rents. Fancy boutiques and coffee shops are proliferating.

Today, there is less open hostility between blacks and Jews, residents say, though still a high degree of separation, misunderstanding and suspicion. But there is far better communication between leaders of the respective communities, who are quick to quell misinformation when conflict occurs – which was part of what fed the rioting, according to a state-commissioned  report issued in 1993.

And today, Crown Heights’ blacks and Jews share a common adversary: gentrification.

“What people would consider an ‘invading’ population is still white but it’s not just the Hasidim,” said Mark Winston Griffith, 53, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organizing group focused on issues of police and gun violence. “The tensions are no longer bilateral.”

In perhaps the strangest twist, one of the biggest sources of tensions is among Orthodox Jews, specifically Modern Orthodox newcomers and haredi Lubavitch residents who have long called the neighborhood home. The conflict has coalesced around a controversial new eruv erected around large parts of the neighborhood by a group affiliated with a growing modern Orthodox synagogue.

An eruv is a boundary of posts and thin wires essentially creating a “domain” so that religious Jews can carry keys or push strollers on the Sabbath. The new eruv has been vandalized repeatedly – so often that police are now investigating it as a hate crime. Some who carry religious items on Shabbat in the neighborhood say they have been harassed.

The eruv was erected by Congregation Kol Israel, a syngaogue located in Prospect Heights, adjacent to Crown Heights. According to Naftali Hanau, who heads the eruv committee, it cost $30,000 to erect and has since cost several thousand dollars more to repair the vandalism.

Eruvs are common in Orthodox communities, including those led by Lubavitch rabbis, though the Crown Heights rabbinical court, or beit din – which is part of the  Lubavitch community –  recently ruled against the eruv.

For eruv supporters, the boundary makes the neighborhood more welcoming for all observant Jews. Conflict over the eruv is “really about control,” said Naftali Hanau.

The neighborhood has long been the spiritual center of the Lubavitch movement. Many longtime Lubavitch residents view the eruv – and the newcomers it will bring – as an unwelcome incursion into the neighborhood that they have maintained through citywide race riots in the 1960s and ‘70s, white flight to the suburbs in the ‘70s and the Crown Heights unrest in 1991.

“The community has made sacrifices over the years” to keep the community going, said a Lubavitch man who did not want to be named. “A little respect is due.”

Others agree that the eruv demonstrates a lack of “respect.”

“One shul out of 46 in the neighborhood decided there should be an eruv. That’s not an appropriate way of doing things,” said Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. Although the council is not formally affiliated with Chabad, its members, like Cohen, identify with the movement.

While members of the Jewish community disagree among themselves, relations between leaders from the Crown Heights Jewish and non-Jewish communities have improved since the riots.

“We talk with each other, we’re in contact with each other, we have the bonus of the social media metrics, we communicate when issues are happening,” said Richard Green, CEO of the Crown Heights Youth Collective.

Green, who is black and a longtime resident of Crown Heights, was centrally involved in working toward racial reconciliation in the riots’ aftermath.

“We do not allow what happened in 1991 to happen. People communicate more than ever before. Whenever there’s an issue that’s happening, folks talk it out,” he told JTA.

Amy Ellenbogen, director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, agrees.

“In 1991, people didn’t even know who the leaders were to talk to each other. Now they’re Facebook friends,” said Ellenbogen, a self-described liberal Jew who lives in a different part of Brooklyn.

And there are periodic issues. Late one night last December a black man, who appeared to be mentally disturbed, entered  770 wielding a knife. When police confronted the man and he wouldn’t drop the knife, he was shot and killed. And recently, a vacant school bus outside a Lubavitch girls school was set ablaze. An 11-year-old was arrested recently for the incident.

Though a minority of Crown Heights residents are Jewish – the Crown Heights JCC’s Cohen estimates Jews are 20 to 25 percent of the area’s 100,000 residents – they continue to wield outsize influence, both in perception and reality. Few groups are better than Hasidim at developing close relationships with elected officials and police, and maximizing access to government-funded programs. And that leads to resentment among some black residents of Crown Heights.

“The police presence has always been this really stark irony,” said Griffith, the community organizer, an African-American born and raised in Crown Heights. “True, there is a concentrated Hasidic population surrounded by black folks. But there’s always been a feeling of resentment that they are being protected, and there’s always the question, from whom? Because the Hasidim are so physically visible, it becomes a very dramatic visual statement that is made that their property, that those lives and livelihoods are more important than the black ones. That tension still exists, but it’s not as acute as it was back then.”

The Mediation Center, where Ellenbogen has worked since 2002, began in 1991 in direct response to the riots, offering conflict resolution training to both the Jewish and black communities, and providing a place where people could work out disputes. In 2005 it changed its focus to address gun violence within the local black community.

Cultural misunderstandings continue to proliferate. Jews and blacks, many from the Caribbean, have little common cultural ground. Perceived slights lead to lasting resentment, said Ellenbogen. For example, Hasidic shop workers, following strict Orthodox tradition, won’t place change into the hands of a customer of the opposite sex. Instead, they put it on the counter. But when they do it with a black customer, the perception is “‘they don’t want to touch me because I’m black and they think I’m dirty,’” said Ellenbogen.

Repair the World, a progressive Jewish social justice organization that opened its New York City headquarters in a Crown Heights storefront two years ago, is working to ease the tensions. Among the members of its board of directors is Melanie Lewis, 38, an African-American, who was raised and still lives in the neighborhood where her parents have resided for over three decades.

Growing up she had no communication with Jews, Lewis said.

About two years ago, Lewis attended a Repair the World Shabbat dinner that brought together longtime African- and Caribbean-American residents and some of the liberal Jewish newcomers. It was the first time she had the chance to sit down and talk with Jews.

Young volunteers from Repair the World now work with local black churches, senior centers and community gardens to help build capacity for other volunteers. The group’s  storefront space also serves as a community resource, offering help with voter registration and public services, and a venue where community organizations – from an entrepreneurship program for black teens to a Jewish women’s prayer service – meet, said Cindy Greenberg, executive director of Repair the World New York City.

Several events to mark the 25th anniversary are scheduled. On August 21,  “One Crown Heights,” supported by an array of community groups and elected officials, will start with a commemoration at the Brooklyn Jewish Children’s Museum, in the heart of Lubavitch Crown Heights. The day continues with a neighborhood festival at a large local park. On August 10, the Brooklyn Historical Society marked the 25th anniversary with oral history clips of the riots and a panel discussion involving Griffith and Cohen, among other local experts.

Commemorations aside, however, today there is “not much more relationship between the communities than there was 25 years ago,” Griffith said. “It went from a sense of ‘lets hold hands’ to a realization that it was a superficial approach and you couldn’t address it without addressing the underlying concerns people had. There isn’t much deeper of a cross-cultural understanding than there was then.”

Says Green, “There’s always more work to be done, but you try and diminish the issues every day.”

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