The Depressing Decline of Black-Jewish Relations in Crown Heights

It is my most sincere prayer that this gets resolved and we don’t have another set of riots like the 90s.

The New York Daily Sun reported today, Crown Heights, Brooklyn is about get a 25 foot high police watchtower.


In response to the growing black-Jewish tension in Crown Heights:

In the aftermath of a series of violent assaults on members of the Jewish community in Crown Heights, the police department has deployed a piece of modern technology that is based on an age-old defense tactic: the watch tower.

The “sky tower,” as police call it, stands about 25 feet high on the corner of Carroll Street and Troy Avenue. A police officer sits behind tinted windows on a swivel chair inside the compartment, where he can monitor video feed from four cameras, and even the wind speed from a meter on the roof.

This is the first time the police have used the tower for crime prevention. It was acquired earlier this summer and has been used at the West Indian Day parade and for security during President Bush’s visit to ground zero.

“It literally gives us the high ground from which to deter crime or to respond to crimes in progress,” the police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, said.

Police have also set up command center vans at two other spots in Crown Heights.

Not half a block from the tower, a group of young men assaulted a teenage boy on the night of Yom Kippur last Sunday. The boy, who neighbors identified as Mendel Chesney, 16, was walking on Carroll Street when he was hit in the head from behind by a fist or a rock. He blacked out for a few moments and woke to a group of between five and eight young men pummeling him, witnesses said. Two neighbors down the block ran to his aid, and chased three of the attackers into the arms of the police. Mr. Chesney had a laceration to his head that required three staples, a broken nose, and cuts and bruises, police and community members said. A witness heard one of the attackers call Mr. Chesney a “Jew.”

For many in the chasidic Jewish community, which has lived for decades mixed with the West Indian community in the neighborhood, the recent attacks appear to have been disproportionately against chasidic Jews. In the last year an elderly woman was robbed, several teenagers were violently mugged, and home invasions have been more common, community members said.

This affects me personally.

Black Jews — who are represented considerably in the Lubavitch sect — are caught in the middle of a volatile crossfire. On the one hand, we are often seen as traitors to the black community – many of us are converts who left black families to go and “live with them Jews.” On the other hand, especially for those of us in Ashkenazi communities, we often bear the brunt of racism at the hands of other Jews, the all-too-common upshot of Jews having become white in America.

Situations like this made many black Jews rise to action in the 90s, working for much needed reconciliation between the two communities. Still, don’t think that this went over seamlessly, I am sure many people were not welcomed warmly into black communities, especially in Lubavitcher clothes. Acute “you’re either with us or them” situations often leave us beeling torn and homeless.

We are, in such extreme situations, invariably confronted with the felonious concept of “which are you, black first or Jewish first?” as if one ever has such a choice. There is never a time where one is any less black than they are Jewish or vice versa. And with my yarmulke and beard, the world doesn’t give me the luxury of the choice, either.

Obviously one is bound by the laws of the Torah to help a fellow Jew, to love one’s fellow Jew, etc., but is there possibly a more emotionally potent example of wanting to be a “light unto the nations” as when one’s own birth nation is in need of light, of help?

One can not act as if this is not class-related. And there is the serious issue of racism within the Jewish community that needs to be addressed for the sake of all humanity.

The prophet Ovadia, an Edomite convert, had to prophesy about the downfall of Edom, where he was from. Are the black Jews of today in a similar position, G-d forbid? Of seeing the downfall of the black community underneath a police state and sociologically suicidal waves of hate crimes?

I want this violence to end now and the healing of the root causes to begin.

I am exceedingly distressed. I only hope that a whole reconciliation process won’t be necessary this time.

12 thoughts on “The Depressing Decline of Black-Jewish Relations in Crown Heights

  1. I don’t think it will make you feel any better, but I didn’t know I was white until I was in high school. I never knew how to fill out those forms they make you do in school because there wasn’t an entry for “Jew” and my parents were quite clear that I was not white.
    Brodkin’s writing is super important, and everyone should read it, but there are lots of places in the country where Jews still don’t qualify as white, no matter what shade they can pass as in NYC. ALbeit fewer than there used to be.
    IMO, it’s not a good thing.

  2. And because Jews were never a majority culture, we never learned to be magnanimous with the priviliges we were given. Especially not Orthodox-Republican Jews, like chabad.
    (BTW: what do you expect from a movement that is so steeped in Arab-hate?)

  3. Also, hardly a day goes by without the word “Shvartza” coming out of their mouth.
    It seems they have many (irrational?) fears of Blacks. African-Americans in Crown Heights are talked about as if they’re the new Cossacks.

  4. I have neer actually been to Crown Heights but have read a bit about it. From what I gather, it often does not help when Haredim express open racism in both English and Yiddish. The Black folks in Crown Heights are likely aware of this and may view the Haredim as the same kind of racist one might find in Howard Beach but in dofferent clothes and less openly aggressive.
    Of course, the crimes reinforce negative stereotypes of the Black community (not just as criminals but anti-Semitic criminals), continuing the cycle of hatred and violence in Crown Heights.

  5. “It is my most sincere prayer that this gets resolved and we don’t have another set of riots like the 90s.”
    I as well. But I think it is important to differentiate between:
    1) Prejudice
    2) Discrimination
    3) Violence
    Let’s face it all of us are prejudiced to some degree. I don’t think there is anything we can do about it. And, in fact, our Constitution protects peoples’ right to think and speak the way they want to. So, while I don’t think it is nice that some people dislike black folks or Jews, I do not think there is anything I can do to force them to change their opinion. I can try to persuade them or provide a different perspective but if they choose not to listen, that’s their right.
    Discrimination—physical manifestation of prejudice—is another matter. When someone refuses to rent to an individual or family because they are black or Jewish, for example, that is illegal. Ditto in hiring for a job. I am in no position to enforce these laws, but I think they are a step in the right direction and have done a lot of good in this country.
    Lastly, criminal violence is simply unacceptable, whoever is committing it. People who commit acts of violence need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law whether they are black, Jewish or whatever. But we need to ask ourselves, who is committing these acts of violence?
    My point is if blacks, or any other group, are committing acts of violence in response to prejudice on behalf of Haredim, or any other group, they are criminals and should be locked up, end of story. We can try to understand why they are committing these criminal acts but, at the end of the day, we as a society need to stand firm against violent individuals.

  6. It’s so sad. I wish there were more black Jews, converts and otherwise, in the liberal Jewish communities I travel in. Why? Because I welcome a Jewish community that looks a bit more like the general community in NYC. Because diversity makes us stronger. Because there are stories there that can enrich our collective torah. Because it serves the community to move away from the sense that we are ‘white.’
    None of this would be a persuasive argument for someone to convert though. Just saying.

  7. well, what we could do is just start adopting some of the excess black/african children from the world, if not entire countries under our protectorate as “new Jerusalem.” Can you imagine, Israel taking responsibility for Africa the way Rome has? Who could hate us then?

  8. I would love to meet you! We are BLESSED to have a beautiful island lady in our shul. I don’t even think she considers herself “african American” as she is from the Carribean Islands, not Africa. She, like many who have converted are “better Jews” than some us born that way.
    I love talking to her and spending time with her.
    Sadly, the truth is we just don’t meet many black Jews in the South. I wish we did/could. I would love to be your friend.

  9. >>>African-Americans in Crown Heights are talked about as if they’re the new Cossacks.
    Abraham Foxman (rightly) called the Crown Heights riots a “POGROM”.

  10. From the Sun article:
    “Police identified two of the boys arrested as Lensley Thomas, 16, and Jelani Thomas, 16…Several hundred members of the community rallied in front of Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters on Friday, calling on police to charge the three boys with hate crimes.”
    They definitely should be charged with hate crimes and tried as adults as well. This would send a message that we, as Americans and New Yorkers, take these crimes of violence extremely seriously. Unfortunately I suspect that they will get off with a slap on the wrist. This—the failure to enforce and prosecute individuals under existing laws—is what contributes to the “cycle of violence.” If thugs think they can get away with committing criminal acts, they will continue to commit those acts. Every law-abiding resident of Crown Heights will continue to pay the price until we stand up to these criminals and say “ENOUGH!”

  11. >>>the felonious concept of “which are you, black first or Jewish first?” as if one ever has such a choice. There is never a time where one is any less black than they are Jewish…
    Judiasm is color blind. skin color is irrelevant except maybe to black converts like yourself or Jews who happen to be the brunt of ghetto violence. There is no doubt that a truly comitted Jew with a Kosher conversion considers himself/herself a Jew first and nothing else before that… same as in the eyes of the goyim black, white or whatever.
    With regard to Crown H, it seems the solution may come from the lyric of an old 60’s song: “long haired hippies & afro-haired blacks, lrt’s get together & UNITE across the tracks”

  12. As a former inmate of Croswn heights from 1956 to 1970, at the corner of Troy and Montgomery, my personal experience with prejudice there was from all ends.
    Chasids had no love for non Chasidic Jews such as us and felt free to beat us and scream epithets at us at all times.
    The black people in the neighborhood had no lack of desire to rob and beat us as well. Count 3 bikes stolen at knifepoint in one year, not to mention stolen lunch money and random beatings.
    A pox on both your houses. Maybe you could beat and rob and kill each other and leave the middle men out of it.

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