Today marks the 20th anniversary of the start of three days of black-on (Lubavitcher/Chassidic) Jewish pogroms and rioting in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
As mentioned in this writer’s article “Jewish Week extensively covers 20th anniversary of Crown Heights pogroms” earlier this week, the pogroms and rioting occurred after a car in the motorcade of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, accidentally struck and killed a black, West Indian 7-year-old, Gavin Cato. During the many attacks on Jews and general mayhem that followed for three days after that accident, a mob of approximately 20 blacks, including 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson, Jr., stabbed to death Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-Year-old Lubavitcher Jew from Melbourne, Australia, who was in New York City to conduct research for his doctorate.
Rabbi Levi Haskelevich, associate director of Chabad’s Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania, grew up in the Crown Heights Lubavitcher Jewish community. As a 16-year-old who had just returned from summer camp at the time of the riots, he experienced first-hand the fear that gripped his entire community.
Asked for his specific memories, Rabbi Haskelevich first offers: “I remember a cop running away and shouting. I remember getting stones thrown at me and running into Raskin’s food store at the corner of President and Kingston.”
He also remembers “getting escorted by the Guardian Angels” as well as by Jews “from all over, who came to defend. People from Williamsburg came. Even though Satmar Chassidim didn’t traditionally have such a great relationship with Chabad, they (and others) were there.”
Rabbi Haskelevich points out: “The Guardian Angels were not Jewish. Some of them were black, some of them were Asian. And they came and got involved physically. But they were all strong musclemen and intimidating. But they also didn’t risk it; they went and did it in large packs, wherever they went. But they helped. They helped escort people around because homes were being burnt.”
When asked about the general feelings between the local Chassidic Jewish and the black communities, Rabbi Haskelevich says: “We always had our problems, for example with vandalism and with thefts.”
He continues: “On Kingston Avenue, at one point, every single Shabbas, they knew that shabbas was the time to attack. Every shabbas, they would smash front windows of shops and pull everything out of the front windows. This was to an extent that shop owners who used to have regular gates coming down in front of their windows had to make a change. They would break the glass in through the gates, and they would take a cane or a stick and pull everything out of the front window. If it was a silver shop, they would pull all the silver out; clothing, whatever they could get. What happened is that the shop owners eventually had to put plywood in between the gates and the windows because, every week, somebody else’s shop was vandalized.”
“I don’t remember if this was after the riots or before the riots, but there were all these issues. Crown Heights had its own volunteer security, called Shmira. For 50 cents, you could get a ride around town. They wanted to make sure people were safe.”
Asked in general to describe the situation during the riots, Rabbi Haskelevich says, “It was frightening. Nobody would walk around alone at night, Even during the day. When I went to shul, I wasn’t going home from shul. I was waiting there to find a sure way to get home. Nobody would just walk down the street and go home. That wasn’t an option. We had to put locks on things in the middle of a bright day. These were mobs. Not 5 people, large mobs.”
Rabbi Haskelevich is disgusted by the way some who profess to be leaders in the Jewish community, in the Orthodox Jewish community no less, have tried to commemorate the event. He singles out the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York. The Hampton Synagogue had planned, for this coming Sunday, a four-person panel discussion with the goal of “vanquish[ing] intolerance and bigotry.” Not only were neither of the two Jews invited to be on the panel part of the Lubavitcher Crown Heights Community, the panel’s four members included Al Sharpton, the leading instigator of the 1991 riots. (The event was cancelled yesterday due to widespread outrage.)
Rabbi Haskelevich says, “I called the shul and left a voicemail to pass on a message to the rabbi. I wanted to know who, on their would-be panel, represented the Crown Heights Jewish community. The other Jews on the panel had nothing to do with it. They were far away. I told them it was an outrage to bring in Al Sharpton because he was an instigator. He instigated the blacks to riot. He himself ran up to Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway to serve the Rebbe with papers. He couldn’t get in the door. He had the chutzpah to do that, and he got himself a front-page picture in the Daily News or whatever newspaper it was. I was very hurt that a supposedly Orthodox shul would do that, bringing in this guy who was an instigator while not bringing anyone from the Lubavitcher community.”