For One Rabbi, Crown Heights Has Moved On From Old Resentments

By: Megan Taros

The Crown Heights Community Jewish Community Council offices are tucked up a narrow stairway between a deli and a cleaning supplies store. The offices are nearly blocked from sight. Rabbi Eli Cohen awaited me at the top of lacquered steps and led me to his office bursting with books and his desk covered with piles of paperwork. He is a jovial man answering questions about the bloodshed in Crown Heights with a smile. He is hesitant to speak about his memory of the riots, often brushing it aside to speak of a progressive future. Though he maintains that Crown Heights has overcome its past, the fate of the relationship between the black and Jewish communities, he tells me, is often in the hands of leaders for both communities. We spoke about what Crown Heights looked like before the riots and how the Jewish community relates to the black community in the present day.

Q: What was Crown Heights like in the year or so before the riots? What was on people’s minds before they happened? What were they talking about then and what were some of the main concerns?

A:The riots started based on a lot of misunderstanding. There were sentiments in the black community where they felt like we were trying to take resources away from them, that we were favored by the city for social programs like housing and that we were being protected in ways that they weren’t. At the time Jewish people were seen as newcomers and as with any newcomers they were treated with suspicion. People saw us as isolationist, like we didn’t want to make an effort to be a part of their community, that we were trying to take over. I do think there was no real relationship between the two communities then and I think that caused real resentment between these groups. Jews were saying ‘We just want to make a community for ourselves here. We want to find a home here” and that was thought to be indifference to the black community. These ideas were everywhere, in black rights movements and even in places like churches. Back in the 80s and early 90s you might’ve heard priests in the pulpit condemning Jews taking over. You don’t hear that kind of stuff anymore on that scale. I work with black religious leaders and we talk about issues facing our people. Crown Heights is often looked to as a modea:l for healing.

Q:But not long after the Tree of Life shooting there were some anti-Semitic hate crimes in this area of Brooklyn. You don’t think some sentiments from the riots are around today?

A: I’m sure there are some people out there who still believe what was believed to be true about Jews around the riots. The unfortunate fact is that anti-Semitism is a fact of life in all communities. I spent a lot of my childhood in England and I remember English kids used to chase us around and knock our hats off our heads and pick on us at school. Arab students would do it too sometimes although now I think because of attitudes about Muslims they probably get some of that too. Anti-Semitism goes in a circle. There are times where there is relative peace and then it peaks again and
people start to worry and think we’re in a place like we were when riots started. Around Hanukah people will topple menorahs and I get a lot of people coming to me asking ‘what do we do?” And I’m very cautious about telling people to panic. Organizations like this one communicate with the police about our concerns and we keep an eye on it and sometimes, yes, it turns out it was a hate crime but that doesn’t mean we’re back where we started. There was a lot of fear in ’91 and a lot of blame being passed around. People have the right to be scared when there is a hate crime, it certainly brings back painful memories, but these are matters for the police
to handle. I wouldn’t tell anyone that these are reasons not live their normal lives or to lock their doors and hide.

Q: Going off that, I know another thing the black community was concerned about before the riot was policing. They felt like the NYPD was protecting the Jewish community while beating and harassing them. What was the relationship with Jewish people and the police back then and is it not dangerous to say to rely on police considering a lot of these sentiments are
still true for the black community?

A: I don’t think anyone felt like the police were favoring us. The police were criticized after the riots for not doing enough. I remember a lot of people feeling that Crown Heights was unsafe and that the police were not protecting us enough. That sort of created this idea that Jewish people were using the police to their advantage to push out black residents. I remember there were articles about the Shomrim [a Jewish volunteer neighborhood watch] acting like a vigilante group fairly recently and people on both sides were outraged about that obviously for different reasons. But the reason I tell people to let police handle cases where assaults happen is because other than times when there’s an obvious hate crime, someone using anti-Semitic
slurs or swastikas drawn on Union Temple [a nearby Reform synagogue], it can be difficult to know what people’s motives are. Maybe they were trying to rob them or someone could just be unstable and decided they were going to punch the first person they saw that day.

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