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Friday, July 28, 2006

COMMANDED TO STAY: Why the Lubavitcher Jews Still Live in Crown Heights

October 2003

by Anthony Weiss


On Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, African-style hairdressers sit next to kosher butcher shops, and Lubavitcher Hasidim, members of a devout sect of Orthodox Judaism, shop alongside African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans in a colorful bustle of garbs and dialects. Bob Matthews, chairman of Project CARE (Community Alliance Revitalization Effort) and an African-American, says that the media “perceive [Crown Heights] to be a tinderbox. That’s not true. We work our issues out.” Daniel Botnick, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and a Lubavitcher, concurs: “It’s as integrated as any neighborhood could possibly be.” The perception of Crown Heights as a tinderbox stems from the riots that took place there in 1991 and serves as a starting point for most press coverage of the neighborhood. The Lubavitchers’ religious values receive scant mention, yet one cannot understand Kingston Avenue without them. In 1969, when most whites, Jewish and otherwise, were fleeing America’s cities in fear of rising crime and falling property values, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitchers’ religious leader, delivered a speech to his followers—translated from the Hebrew for the first time for this article—saying that Jewish values required the Lubavitchers to stay put. They complied, and found that their ancient values had landed them on the front lines of American race relations.

Hasidim are members of a Jewish sect that originated in 18th century Eastern Europe, one characterized by intense piety and exuberant prayer. Like most branches of Hasidim, the Lubavitchers were, until recently, led by their Rebbe, the spiritual guide of the community. Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994, was the subject of intense veneration; to this day, his bearded, beneficent face looks out from the walls of nearly every Lubavitcher household. He came to Crown Heights in 1941, following his father-in-law, the then-Rebbe Joseph I. Schneersohn. They escaped the Holocaust with a small contingent of Lubavitchers thanks to Irwin Steingut, Crown Heights’s Jewish assemblyman, who convinced President Roosevelt to allow them into the country. More survivors arrived after the war, settling around their Rebbe in Crown Heights and in the adjacent, poorer Jewish neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York. Crown Heights was home to a large, middle-class Jewish population, though by the strict religious standards of the Hasidim, these Jews were not observant. Mendel Shemtov, a longtime community leader, recalls that when he immigrated in 1950, on Kingston Avenue “there was not one Shomer Shabbos store, not one store closed for Shabbos [the Jewish Sabbath].”

The Crown Heights that Shemtov moved to in the 1950s was almost completely white, except for a few black professionals living on Union Street. In the 1960s, however, the neighborhood changed rapidly. A spate of muggings, break-ins, and murders created a panic that predatory real estate speculators, known as blockbusters, moved to exploit. Gerson Jacobson, a Jewish journalist who moved to the neighborhood in 1965, remembers their pitch: “Look, this street, everybody is selling. Now is the time to get a good price. You’re going to have rapists, criminals, dope addicts.”

All across the nation, blacks were moving into urban neighborhoods and whites were moving out. In retrospect, the blockbusters’ predictions inevitably proved true: the neighborhood did go to pieces, but that was because white flight meant plummeting property values and destabilized communities, and because the blockbusters themselves would buy the buildings cheap, pack them with tenants, and then leave them to decay. Upwardly mobile African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans found themselves caught in the middle—the first to move into safer neighborhoods, their mere presence became the unfortunate catalyst for neighborhood collapse. The process could be rapid and destructive, as in East New York and Brownsville, where poor but stable Jewish communities became even poorer black slums.

In Crown Heights, “people started to run,” says former Crown Heights Jewish Community Council head Rabbi Yosef Spielman, and not only assimilated Jews. Another Hasidic group, the Bobovers, sold their bes medresh (house of study) and yeshiva (Talmudic academy) and moved, en masse, from Crown Heights to the burgeoning Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park. Some Lubavitchers made plans to move out to Flatbush, where there was already a Lubavitch yeshiva.

In the spring of 1969, Schneerson delivered a sicha, or discourse, in which he urged Jews nationwide to preserve their neighborhoods. In this discourse, translated into English here for the first time, the Rebbe grounded his argument in halakhah—Jewish law—and, as rabbis often do, interpreted the law in response to the new, modern problems he faced. Schneerson saw that abandoning neighborhoods threatened to harm fellow Jews and even weaken Jewish faith itself; halakhah demanded that Jews strengthen rather than abandon their communities.

The Rebbe observed that selling houses led to falling property values, and thus had harmed the income of fellow Jews. Even the act of selling was harmful because “the spread of the news itself, that a non-Jew [i.e., a black] is going to buy a house, causes the neighborhood real estate prices to fall, bringing confusion and fear.”

Migration also destroyed the synagogues, schools, and charities that constituted the essence of a resident’s Jewish life. “In the neighborhood where he lived for days and years, he also had a fixed spiritual inheritance,” said the Rebbe. For those who stayed, these communal institutions would be passed from generation to generation, ensuring a continuity of faith. One who left would tear adrift from these communal moorings, with the result that “this holy inheritance is diminished and lacking for him.” The loss would be even more acute for those who could not afford to move, and who depended on these institutions for support. These, said the Rebbe, were the most vulnerable, “the poor person, orphan, and widow in your midst” that the book of Deuteronomy requires the community to protect.

Beyond those injuries specific to the community, the Rebbe warned that mass exodus “sometimes also has ramifications of life and death.” He saw rising violence as part of an organized anti-Semitic effort to displace Jews. “The very act of selling and moving houses and neighborhoods from Jews to idolaters weakens (God save us) the strength of Israel [i.e., the Jewish people] and adds strength to the Haters of Israel, whose intention in buying houses in Jewish neighborhoods is to expel (God forbid) Israel from its inheritance.” The term the Rebbe applied to the neighborhoods—inheritance, or nachalah in Hebrew—commonly refers to the land of Israel, and its use implies a sacred bond.

Schneerson’s depiction of a tightly knit Jewish neighborhood, besieged by hostile forces, drew upon the idea of the shtetl, the small Eastern European Jewish enclaves where Hasidism originated. During World War II, the Rebbe had watched his own community destroyed by the Nazis. He was determined that such a fate would not be repeated.

The Lubavitchers accepted the Rebbe’s decree. Mendel Shemtov spearheaded an effort to keep Jewish institutions in Jewish hands rather than selling them to non-Jews. “Most of the rabbis from the synagogues cooperated with us, they sold it very cheap,” says Shemtov. When a rabbi would not cooperate, the Lubavitch took him to court, arguing that the synagogue belonged to the congregation and that the rabbi had no right to dissolve it. “Every synagogue was a fight for itself to keep. And from thirty synagogues, maybe we lost one or two.”

Concerns about rising crime led one Lubavitch, Rabbi Samuel Schrage, to organize a nighttime community patrol called the Maccabees. Some saw the rising crime rate as part of the anti-Semitic thrust described by the Rebbe. “Part of the game was to make crime to instill fear in the residents,” says Spielman. “I can’t point a finger at an individual. It’s just that this is the pattern that was happening—muggings, attacks, a couple of murders.”

The Rebbe’s stance might seem racist, but Lubavitchers insist that he was only referring to hostile elements, not to the black community as a whole. “The whole thing that we could live together with the blacks, this is what the Rebbe planted,” says Shemtov. “He said we have to live together. Running away is not a solution.”

Immigration and high birth rates swelled the ranks of the Lubavitchers, creating a housing shortage. The Lubavitchers responded by founding a non-profit organization called Chevra Machazikei Hashcunah [Society for Strengthening the Neighborhood]. This development came at a time when the Lubavitchers were becoming more politically sophisticated. They were one of the first groups to join the mayoral campaign of Abe Beame, one of the old Crown Heights Jews. In 1976 he returned the favor when he convinced the Board of Estimate to split the Crown Heights Community Board in two parts, one of which contained the entirety of the Lubavitch community. Chevra secured government funds for housing renovation and other community programs. Non-Hasidic tenants of Chevra-owned buildings, however, complained that Chevra was attempting to force them out, and the City Council investigated charges of fraud involving government funds. These accusations of fraud soon spread to the Lubavitch community itself, forcing Rabbi David Fischer, a Chevra employee, to flee the country under accusations that he had stolen over $100 million worth of assets. His name still draws rancor among some Lubavitchers.

The competition for housing, the Maccabee patrols, and the Lubavitchers’ growing influence in city politics stoked interracial tensions in the neighborhood. In Hasidic People, sociologist Jerome Mintz recorded the inflammatory rhetoric of some Caribbean-American and African-American leaders: Reverend Heron A. Sam, a frequent antagonist of the Lubavitchers, complained of “Zionist expansion” in the neighborhood; Reverend Herbert Daughtry took aim at the Maccabees, saying, “When the people of the long black coats meet our men, let us see what will happen.” They and other leaders repeatedly complained about the police car that the city kept stationed outside Lubavitch headquarters, which they interpreted as a sign of favoritism. They also complained that the Lubavitchers received a disproportionate level of city funding—although later newspaper investigations proved this claim unfounded. Ultimately, the tension between the groups hurt both sides. “The city fathers could get away with telling one side that the other side was getting everything,” says David Pollock, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council a non-Hasidic organization. “In reality, both sides were getting nothing.”

In spite of the confrontational atmosphere, some people built alliances that crossed racial and religious lines. In 1982, Joan Gil joined Rabbi Israel Rosenfeld to run on a coalition ticket for District Leader. She was interested in better race relations, but also saw the alliance as a means to improve the lot of the black community: “I look at someone successful, and I see they’ve got the jobs, they’ve got the housing. I said, ‘We’ve got to find out what they’re doing, so we can do it too.’” A number of black leaders criticized her as a sell-out, including Reverend Sam. Nonetheless, she and Rabbi Rosenfeld ran two successful campaigns in the face of opposition by powerful local Assemblyman Clarence Norman, Jr. But in 1986, Norman defeated Rosenfeld in a bitter race that trafficked heavily in racial loyalties. According to Mintz, a frustrated Rosenfeld was left to ask, “Who believes in integration?”

The tensions continued. “Every Monday or Tuesday night, black activists would march, saying ‘Our streets, our neighborhood,’” says Rabbi Spielman. “Basically, push the Jews out.” Yet the issues cut both ways. Some blacks, too, felt they were being harassed out of the neighborhood. In the late 1980s, a group of Lubavitchers made it a practice to go about the neighborhood on Sundays and knock on the doors of houses without mezuzahs—religious scrolls affixed to the doorways of Jewish homes—asking the occupants if they wanted to sell. South Crown Heights, where the Lubavitchers live, has long had a significant population of homeowners, not only among the middle class but also among poorer residents, including the Caribbean immigrants. According to Bishop Owen Augustine, a local religious leader and native of Saint Lucia, these immigrants place great emphasis on home ownership: “The first thing they do is get a job; the second is to buy a home.” The Lubavitchers “thought they were being nice,” says Pollock, but to local homeowners, “it was an affront.”

Hostilities exploded on August 19, 1991, when a Lubavitcher driver struck and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Guyanese immigrant. Enraged blacks spread out across the neighborhood, looting stores and attacking Lubavitchers. That night, Lemrick Nelson, Jr., an African-American resident of neighboring East Flatbush, stabbed and killed a Lubavitcher named Yankel Rosenbaum in apparent retaliation. For three more days, gangs of youths, some from other neighborhoods, roamed through Crown Heights, chanting “Get the Jews!” Rioters clashed with police and vandalized property—including many black-owned properties.

To this day, the Lubavitchers call the riots of 1991 “the pogrom” in reference to organized attacks by Eastern European Cossacks in the late 19th and early 20th century that killed thousands of Jews. The riots frightened many of the black residents of Crown Heights as well. “The newspapers focused on what it was like for Jews during the riots,” said the late Councilman James E. Davis. “They didn’t focus on what it was like for African-Americans and Caribbeans during those three days.”

In the aftermath, Lubavitchers and blacks sought to reestablish common ground. Richard Green, an African-American, and David Lazerson, a Lubavitcher, organized a much-publicized interracial discussion group and basketball game. The Jewish Community Council founded Project CARE as an umbrella organization for local community groups and as a conduit for better communication.

By all accounts, Crown Heights has become more peaceful. Recently, a car driven by a Hasid from another community struck a black girl in North Crown Heights. Project CARE’s leaders quickly met with the girl’s family, spoke to members of the community, and addressed the press. The incident passed without a disturbance, and the girl recovered.

Some Lubavitchers remain skeptical of the reconciliation. Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, chairman of the local Community Board, dismisses the basketball games as “social engineering.” Rabbi Spielman instead credits Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for calming the neighborhood. Under Giuliani’s administration, crime fell steeply in Crown Heights—the former Mayor often pointed with pride to the 89 percent drop in murders —and confrontational protests were kept under strict supervision.

Recently, white professionals have returned to Crown Heights, and housing prices have skyrocketed. Whenever Lubavitchers discuss the panic of the 1960s and ‘70s, they invariably refer to how much prices have risen since—one bought his for $25,000 and estimates its current worth at $350,000; another bought at $25,000 and estimates it would now fetch $600,000.

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, however, many Lubavitchers are poor. Because their community is in Crown Heights, they cannot move somewhere cheaper. The high prices, while a boon for homeowners, bring hardship to the rest.

The level of true integration in Crown Heights remains uneven. Botnick, who moved into Crown Heights on the day the riots broke out, says he has developed close friendships with several black neighbors. “The level of tolerance has increased tremendously over the years,” he says. “On Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year], walking along the street, I can’t tell you how many black people say ‘Happy New Year’ to me.” Richard Green points to a higher level of understanding in the black community. “Most people that want to be enlightened, they’re enlightened. Those that aren’t…you’re never going to get a hundred percent.”

Other Lubavitchers, however, aren’t interested in more than a cordial relationship with their black neighbors. “We don’t bother anyone, and we expect not to be bothered,” says Rabbi Spielman. Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, chairman of the Community Board, agrees: “We’re not intermarrying, we’re not going to social dances, we’re not going to church. What else is there?”

The Lubavitchers were not the only Jews who tried to fight the tides of racial change that swept through American cities—idealists who believed firmly in integration tried to stay in neighborhoods like Brownsville, but there were too few to counteract the social and physical decay that set in around them, and most eventually left. The Lubavitchers stayed because they were united behind the Rebbe’s decision. The religious institutions that the Rebbe spoke so passionately about preserving stabilized and nurtured the community.

In nearby decimated Brownsville, it was another religious organization, the predominantly black East Brooklyn Congregations, that revived that neighborhood in the 1980s by rebuilding housing under the Nehemiah program. In both cases, religious institutions proved powerful because they enabled their members to act collectively in a way that the logic of economics, geared as it is towards individual self-interest, does not accommodate. In the case of the Lubavitchers, though, their insular loyalty to one another has been one of the great barriers to integration with the surrounding communities. Though they may wish to be left in peace, peace ultimately depends on forming lasting bonds with those around them.

Crown Heights’s Councilman James E. Davis, who was assassinated by a political rival during the writing of this article, was a firm advocate of communication. Just as Rebbe Schneerson looked to Jewish law to respond to the white flight of the 1960s, Davis, too, learned to draw inspiration from unexpected sources. Seeking to emphasize the importance of a unified community, he recounted a conversation between Rebbe Schneerson and then-Mayor David Dinkins in the wake of the Crown Heights riots. “Dinkins said to the Grand Rebbe, ‘We have to get these two communities together.’ And the Grand Rebbe said, ‘No, it’s one community.’”

The Next American City Inc. © 2004

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