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August 22, 2011 8:52 pm

Crown Heights Celebrates Summer, 20 Years After Riots

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Deborah Halberstam, Director of the Jewish Children's Museum shared a moment of humor with Richard Green. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

August 18, Crown Heights celebrated twenty years of growing understanding and cooperation between the Black and Jewish communities. Leaders, including Rabbi Eli Cohen of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and Ife Charles of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center welcomed  hundreds of community members, leaders of cultural, educational, service and political institutions and activists who joined together to renew or establish positive relationships. The Ann Lancaster Award was presented to Richard Green, now Chief Executive of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, an organization he founded in 1977, and Michoel Berhman, founder of Operation Survival, a project of the National Council for Furtherance of Jewish Education. Berhman works to combat substance abuse among the youth of both the Black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn.

The celebration was part of the “Crown Heights Summer of Celebration.” Its importance can be readily measured in the words of the speakers who joined the event, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Ruth Messinger, President & CEO of the American Jewish World Service, and Michael Miller, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. From the Chassidic Reggae sung by DeScribe to the Calypso rhythms of The Mighty Sparrow, the music was rollicking, and thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Former Borough of Manhattan President, Ruth Messinger, CEO of American Jewish World Service. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Twenty years ago, the picture was starkly different. An African American child, Gavin Cato, was killed in a traffic accident by a car that was part of a motorcade of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheerson. The driver was a Chasidic Jew. Hours later, Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jewish scholar visiting Crown Heights, was stabbed to death by a roaming mob that attacked him simply because he was “there.”

The two diverse populations, one, African Americans and the other, Lubavitcher Chassidic, lived in close physical proximity in the crowded urban area of Crown Heights.  They shared little besides geography, and now the Jewish community was under attack.

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The streets exploded. For three days, mobs shouting “No justice, no peace” rolled through the streets of Crown Heights towards the headquarters of the Lubavitcher movement on Eastern Parkway. In the maelstrom of the riots, Richard Green, already a respected community leader, and then fifteen year old Yudi Simon were on the streets together, risking life and personnel safety to salve their communities, helping to restore peace in the streets. Standing together, they worked to keep sanity in the two communities caught in a whirlwind antagonism.

In a recent New York Times Op Ed, Sharpton who helped foment an unprecedented level of anger, claims he was” initially unaware of Rosenbaum’s death.” “I have grown.”I would still have stood up for Gavin Cato, but I would have also included in my utterances (at the funeral of Cato) that there was no justification or excuse for violence or for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum.”  In 2011, now twenty years later he says “in hours of tension one must be clearer than any other time.”  Words and attitude quite different than those then said that hot summer.

According to a JTA report, “Jewish residents of the area maintain there was no extremism from the Jewish side during the riots, just defense against what amounted to a pogrom. Ari L. Goldman, who covered the riots for The New York Times, recently wrote an essay in the N.Y. Jewish Week asserting that reports of violence by Jews were fabricated.” Sharpton continues to suggest that Black and Jewish “extremists” were equally responsible for the tensions of that time – not an opinion shared then or now by leaders of the Jewish community.

Despite darkened skies and pouring rain, Crown Heights celebrated with light and music, good fellowship and good food, acknowledging their differences but, more importantly, aware and  involved with the positive values they share.

DeScribe brought the sound of "Pure Soul" to the roof of the Brooklyn Children's Museum. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Richard Green and Yudi Simon were instrumental in claiming the streets during the Crown Heights riots. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

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