By Eve Mykytyn
On August 19, 1991, a car driven by Yosef Lifsh, was part of a three car motorcade escorting Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, then the leader of the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Judaism.
The motorcade passed through Crown Heights, New York led by police officers in an unmarked car with police lights.
Lifsh’s car reached the corner of President Street and Utica Ave, and ran through (depending on whom you believe) either a yellow or red light. The car was hit and smashed into a building on President Street, knocking down a 600 pound stone pillar. Two seven year old cousins who were playing on the sidewalk were pinned by the car; Gavin died instantly and Angela ultimately survived but sustained severe injury.
Lifsh claimed that he immediately jumped out of the car to try to help the children. However, the EMT drivers who arrived three minutes after the accident found Lifsh in the car surrounded by angry neighborhood residents. Gavin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. While workers were still trying to free Angela from under the car, a decision was made to protect Lifsh from the crowd and send him out of the area in an emergency vehicle. Angela was eventually freed and sent to the hospital.
Accounts vary, but the crowd was angry about the hurt children and the perceived preferential treatment afforded Lifsh. The situation devolved into a riot. About three hours after the accident, a group of young black men surrounded 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jewish student.
Rosenbaum was stabbed and severely beaten by the group and he died a few hours later. Police claimed that before he was placed in an ambulance, Rosenbaum identified 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson, Jr. as his assailant in a ‘line up.’ Nelson was charged with murder and acquitted. Later, after the Lubavitch community mounted a huge political push, he was retried and convicted in federal court of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights.
The riots continued for three days and eventually caused about one million dollars of damage. Tensions in Crown Heights between black and Jewish residents have been a cause of concern both before and after the riots.
In what is certainly very strong hyperbole, Edward Shapiro, a historian at Brandeis University, called the riot "the most serious anti-Semiticincident in American history." Others, only slightly less hysterical, viewed the incident as a pogrom. Mark Winston Griffith, 53, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organizing group, notes that a quarter century later, even what the riots should be called remains an issue. The black community, outraged over the disproportionate power of the Lubavitch community calls it “an uprising,” Griffith said.
Were the Crown Heights riots evidence of anti-Semitism, a visceral reaction to the traffic death of a child, or a protest over the status of a disproportionately empowered community?
Time magazine described the situation at the time, “Behind the violence lay decades of uneasy coexistence between local blacks and members of the Lubavitcher sect, who established their world headquarters in Crown Heights in 1940. Lubavitcher Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky claims that ”Crown Heights is a model community of integration where whites and blacks live in peace together.” But blacks describe a different atmosphere. ”The Hasidim set up an apartheid situation in Crown Heights,” says Dr. Vernal Cave, a black dermatologist who has lived in the area for 36 years. Cave claims that the Lubavitchers have long received preferential treatment from police and city authorities.”
But 25 years later, the Forward has good news for us. Crown Heights has changed. Although blacks and other New Yorkers have clashed with the Hasidim over issues like dress, bike riding on Saturday and the like and occasionally been forced to cede their own rights to the streets and, although blacks and others believe that the Lubavitch wield disproportionate political power, at least: “Today there is less open hostility between blacks and Jews, …though still a high degree of separation, misunderstanding and suspicion.”
In any case, the Hasidim, who make up about 25% of Crown Height’s population, have a new enemy: Orthodox Jews. The problem? Non Hasidic Orthodox Jews have placed an eruv (a string surrounding a neighborhood allowing the pious to carry their possessions on a holiday) in Crown Heights.
The Lubavitch Beit Din (rabbinical court) declared the eruv not kosher (something about the distance between poles supporting the wire). Beit din member Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Halevy Segal called the erection of the eruv, “the devastation of the Shabbat in our honorable neighborhood.”
The eruv was completed by the end of May, 2016. It has been regularly vandalized ever since. “It was broken in 20 places,” said Naftali Hanau, a Crown Heights resident who advocated for the new eruv. “This was clearly vandalized.”
Since Lubavitch Jews can simply ignore the existence of the eruv, it’s unclear why anyone feels the need to vandalize the string. Observers have suggested that Beit Din members might fear that some Lubavitchers will begin using the eruv, despite their opposition. It’s also possible that those rabbis might feel that having any type of Jew, Lubavitch or not, use the eruv lowers the standard of Jewish observance in the neighborhood.
May I suggest that after so many years of political and racial tension in Crown Heights, the battle over the eruv at least provides some comic relief to nonbelievers.