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Crime wave rattles, unites New Haven neighborhood

By Paul Bass

A Sabbath encounter with a machete-wielding man outside their synagogue in the Beaver Hills section of New Haven has Orthodox Jews wondering if it’s safe to walk their streets in daylight – and neighbors of all backgrounds vowing to work together for change.

The Sabbath encounter was one of two incidents within 48 hours that once again brought an uptick in Beaver Hills crime into the limelight. Police made an arrest in one case and are pursuing leads in the second, an attempted carjacking with a woman inside the vehicle.

In the wake of the incidents, community leaders renewed calls on public officials to deliver on promises of public safety. And 100 signs vowing neighborhood unity began popping up on lawns.

The incidents, which occurred Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, follow weeks of neighborhood meetings, including with the mayor and police chief about the growing violence. The crimes have ranged from shootings, break-ins, and muggings to three successive burglaries of the Norton Street synagogue. As of last month, the department detected 18 shooting incidents in the police district that includes Beaver Hills. There were only seven by this time last year.

Some of the incidents involved references to victims’ Jewish backgrounds; Beaver Hills is among New Haven’s more diverse neighborhoods, with both a sizable Black population and a fast-growing Orthodox Jewish population affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement.

Most of the crimes did not include references to religion, rather mirroring the increase in crime occurring throughout New Haven and in cities nationwide as the Covid-19 pandemic has dragged on.

At the same time, at least four or five different gatherings of Hasidic Jews are engaged in prayer on Saturday mornings and then walking the streets home in the early afternoon. Jewish law forbids driving on the Sabbath. As a result more Jews are often on the streets – and potentially targets for street crime.

“The entire community is shaken up,” Moti Sandman, president of Congregation Chabad Lubavitch, said Sunday. “We don’t know how to react. How do we protect ourselves?”

“I’m Going To Kill You”

Saturday’s incident began around 1:30 p.m., after the second of two Sabbath morning services concluded at Sandman’s synagogue on Norton Street near Whalley. (The congregation began holding two services to comply with Covid-19 restrictions.)

Services had also just concluded next door at the “Shulounge,” an affiliated youth-oriented congregation.

According to Sandman and Avi Meer, a board member of the Shulounge,

two teenaged girls were leaving Congregation Chabad Lubavitch when they noticed that a tall man following them. They crossed the street. The man crossed the street. They started running. The man ran after them. After a few blocks, they ran into two men who were also heading home from the synagogue. They told the men what was happening. The men ushered them to the home where they were having lunch.

Rivka Fenton, who was inside the home, told the Independent that the girls were rattled, reporting that a man following them had threatened, “I’m going to kill you.”

The two men outside, meanwhile, traced their steps back to Norton Street. They found the man who had followed the girls standing in front of the synagogue.

“What are you doing?” one asked him.

The man at first apologized for disturbing the girls – then drew a machete from his pants. He allegedly approached the men and swung the machete at them. The man evaded him and called out for someone to call the police. An employee of the synagogue made the call. Officers arrived within moments and arrested the man.

By that time people were coming outside from the Shulounge.

As police remained at the scene taking statements, another young man affiliated with the synagogue ran up reporting that someone traveling inside a BMW had just shot at him at the corner of Goffe Street. The young man wasn’t hurt; he believes the shot may have come from a b.b. gun. Police Chief Otoniel Reyes said Sunday that the arrested man is known to police as an “aggressive panhandler” who has a substance abuse problem. The man is currently being held in a psychiatric ward.

Reyes said police have beefed up patrols in the neighborhood, which is why officers arrived so promptly to make the arrest. He said there was no evidence that the Saturday incident was a hate crime connected to the victims’ religion; he linked it to the general uptick in violence taking place citywide. Police have arrested some of the people believed responsible for shootings, which have targeted victims known to the shooters, Reyes said, while quality-of-life crimes have targeted victims across all backgrounds.

At the same time, Reyes acknowledged that police have an additional responsibility to make sure people feel safe. “Right now people in the community don’t feel safe,” he said, and he plans to continue reaching out to Jewish community members to track neighborhood crime and work together.

Officers also arrived promptly Thursday night upon learning of an attempted carjacking on Colony Road.

At around 8 p.m., the victim, Sara Atia, had just returned home from grocery shopping. It was cold and raining. Still inside her car, she was talking on the phone with her husband, who was inside the house, she told the Independent Sunday. The car was running. She asked her husband to come help her with the bags.

“Give me two minutes,” he said.

Just then, “I heard somebody try to open the door. He tried again and again.”

In fact, numerous young men were outside the car trying to get in.

“I screamed, ‘Yaakov, you’ve got to help me!’”

After she screamed, and her husband came outside, the men fled.

A home surveillance video captured the incident. Chief Reyes said the men had already stolen one car, which they were driving in the neighborhood, looking for another car to steal. They came upon Sara Atia’s car apparently not recognizing someone was inside. They ran back to the stolen car when they heard her and drove away. Police recovered the stolen car later and are continuing their investigation. He emphasized that police have been making arrests, and that there was no evidence in the two most recent incidents that the perpetrators targeted victims because of their religion.

“Thank God my door was locked,” Atia, who moved here from Israel six years ago, said Sunday. “Now I look around before I open the door.”

At “eight o’clock, nobody should have to worry about coming home with groceries,” she added. “We need to do something.”Fine Racial-Religious Line

“Love Your Neighbor

Rivka Fenton, who is Jewish, and her neighbor Mareika Phillips, who is not Jewish talked about how non-Jewish neighbors could show support for Jews targeted in some attacks that were religiously motivated. They came up with the idea of printing signs for neighbors of all backgrounds to display on their lawns to show solidarity. “Love Your Neighbor,” reads one side of the sign, above representations of four people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The other side reads: “No hate. No fear. We Stand for Peace & Love Here.” That side shows a drawing of a man dressed in Jewish religious garb. “We stand with our Jewish neighbors,” it reads in small type.

“As a mother of young children and as a wife of a rabbi who clearly looks like a rabbi I asked myself and my friends, ‘What is happening in our neighborhood?’ and more importantly, ‘What can we do to stop it?’” Fenton, a music educator, said Sunday. “My family has been living in New Haven for five years, and we love it here. We love our school community. We love our faith community. We love our friends and we love our neighbors. We love the diversity here. People of all colors and religions living together harmoniously.”

At the same time, she worried about the uptick both in general violence and in antisemitic incidents. “It feels like almost every day something new and terrible is happening. Two days ago an attempted carjacking. Yesterday an attack with a machete. Last week young rabbinical school students pushed around and chased. Two weeks ago nasty names screamed for absolutely no reason – other than being Jewish.” She noted that the girls followed and threatened on Saturday, and the men who dodged machete swipes, were dressed in “obvious” religious garb. So whether or not the attacker mentioned religion, she has difficulty removing it completely from the equation.

She and others in the neighborhood have sought to navigate a sensitive line between race and religion. Beaver Hills has for decades had both visible Jewish and visible Black populations. The Jewish population has grown by hundreds of families in recent years because of a new influx of Lubavitch Hasidim. That’s part of the reason the city is hearing more from Beaver Hills these days than from some other neighborhoods where crime has seen an uptick: The community is organized, with hundreds of people connected to their neighbors through a WhatsApp discussion group, for instance. The challenge for organizers has been both to recognize the existence of antisemitism while also acknowledging that crime is afflicting people of all backgrounds.

At times racial tensions have emerged in communal discussions, along with appeals to racial unity.

Shafiq Abdussabur, a retired police sergeant who lives in Beaver Hills, picked up one of Fenton’s signs Sunday to place in front of his home. He also checked in on neighbors to make sure they were OK and see if they needed advice on security systems. He said he worries about the threat to cross-cultural neighborhood unity posed by the recent crimes. He said it’s important to recognize both the effect on Jewish families and the effect on the neighborhood as a whole.

“It fractionalizes the community,” said Abdussabur, who is Black and a practicing Muslim. “The conversations should not be about race. It should be about community wellness. We literally all live next door to each other.”

Kelvan Fitzpatrick was walking past Fenton’s sign on Sunday when he learned about the machete incident. He was saddened, and glad an arrest was made.

“I think it’s terrible,” said Fitzpatrick, who has worked in maintenance at Yale and Yale New Haven Hospital for 37 years. “I’ve been living in the neighborhood nine years. My neighbors are Jewish; they’re very beautiful people. This bothers us all; it should happen nowhere.”

“Something’s definitely happening. I’m wondering: Why is this happening? It’s out of control. People should be able to walk down the street and feel safe,” said Beaver Hills Alder Jill Marks.

Avi Meer talked about that too – about how an out-of-town guest visiting this weekend and considering moving to town asked if it’s “safe to walk home at 1:30” on the Sabbath. “Of course,” Meer remembered replying. That was half an hour before the machete incident.

The girls followed home and threatened are now “traumatized,” Sandman said. “The community is absolutely traumatized.”

“I was born in Beaver Hills,” he said. “My mother grew up here. We’ve never had issues this bad.” The community is doing its part by reporting crime and pushing police officials and elected officials to respond. Now, he said, they need to deliver results.

This article first appeared in New Haven Independent and is reprinted with permission. It has been edited slightly for space concerns and can be read in its entirety at newhavenindependent.com.

Main Photo: Neighbors Safiq Abdussabur and Rivka Fenton, with the new sign that is gracing the lawns of many Beaver Hills homes. (Credit: Paul Bass)

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