New York Is a Model of Diversity, Tolerance and Justice
2020 will be remembered, among many things, as the year that brought New York to its knees. It began with the quarantines and the lockdowns, a challenge in all settings, which left millions confined for months inside cramped apartments with few windows or access to fresh air.
For months now, the city has felt like a ghost town. Even the traditional urban perks — museums, theaters, and nightlife venues — were shuttered. The fear of infection made strangers act stranger than they normally would — an airborne tension over an airborne threat.
Almost en masse, urban-dwellers found themselves suddenly dreaming of a move to suburbia, if not even further to open country. Many, including some of my closest friends, actually made the move.
The pandemic arrived with a force that left one questioning the very value of cities this big. Even as healthcare workers labored heroically beyond exhaustion, hospitals were overwhelmed, and nursing homes swept up in a cloud of death. One after another, I discovered that friends of mine had lost loved ones. Terribly, tens of thousands would die, all in or near a single city.
Then, as spring edged toward summer, the demonstrations (virtuous) and then the riots (horrible) hit. Watching as tens of thousands of protesters marched down Fifth Avenue demanding racial justice was inspiring. George Floyd’s murder was not just an injustice, but deserved national outrage and demands systemic change. I deeply appreciate and respect the NYPD and law enforcement across the country. But America’s dark legacy of the abomination of slavery and Jim Crow must be confronted, and racism utterly rooted out.
The ferocity of the protesters who turned violent spoke its own kind of terror. Entire blocks were burned, businesses robbed, and streets littered with broken glass. Walking through New York, once energizing and inspiring, now spurs concern. All around me, I see signs of a city sliding back towards a more ignominious past, when Central Park was a gangland and Times Square a walkable Pornhub.
I love New York — all of it: its size and its grandeur; its priceless art and eclectic architecture; the way it quakes through every day, a supercity glistening with every stripe of life. But saving New York isn’t just about preserving a unique and beautiful city. New York, after all, is more than just a city. It’s a living, breathing testament to the ability of people from all walks of life to come together and be one. More so than anything else American, New York brings our national motto — E pluribus unum — to life.
Utterly unparalleled in its diversity, New York comprises a patchwork of communities representative of just about every corner of the globe. Add to that New York’s service as the spine of so many global fields — theater, fashion, diplomacy, medicine, and finance, to name a few — and the city seems to bring so much of the world together inside itself. Never has the sheer force of shared human potential been so apparent in one place. The Lubavitcher Rebbe praised the city as a melting-pot that proved humanity’s common origin in one God.
As we head into the future, don’t we want to see this bold, modern project actually work?
New York is the graceful host to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, including dozens of Hasidic sects and some of the world’s most beautiful synagogues (and most cutting-edge kosher restaurants and supermarkets). Jewish schools prosper throughout its boroughs and children walk fearlessly about. Jewish communities from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East — forced by pogroms and persecutions to flee the towns of their ancestors — now thrive across New York’s boroughs. Last year’s uptick in violent anti-Jewish attacks proved that things are far from perfect — which is why I am utterly opposed to Mayor de Blasio’s blunder in proposing a $1 billion reduction in NYPD funding — but where else would communities of this magnitude be so seamlessly woven into the municipal fabric?
Like so many other Hasidic dynasties, the Chabad movement had its roots in the Jewish life of old Europe, but its home is in New York. Every year, members of the global Chabad community celebrate the date of the Rebbe’s arrival in the city, on the eve of the Holocaust he narrowly escaped. For him, as for millions of Jews (including my own grandfather), New York offered a refuge from millennia of antisemitism.
As its future hangs in the balance, we have to fight for the city that we love by coming together. Building on traditions of openness and unity — and as a direct result thereof — New York has risen as arguably the most influential city on earth. If we want to see a world modeled on those values, we must fight for our city and prove to all mankind (and to ourselves) that multi-ethnic enclaves are cities that work.
Those rioters who want to destroy New York in the name of social justice ought to be using the city as a model of what should be emulated rather than torched.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s book on Judaism and the messiah, The Wolf Shall Lie With the Lamb, is available on Amazon and at Shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.