Critics may dismiss last week’s meeting between a small group of Jewish leaders and Carmel Cato as a “good photo op,” but Howard Teich, who facilitated the meeting, insists that was the last thing on his mind.
Teich, 51, president of the Metropolitan Region of the American Jewish Congress, did not disclose to the press the location of the meeting between himself, three colleagues and Cato, whose son’s accidental death sparked the Crown Heights riots. Gavin Cato, 7, and his cousin, Angela, were struck by a car in the Lubavitcher rebbe’s entourage in August 1991.
“We wanted people to know, but simply after the fact,” said Teich, who issued only a brief statement before the meeting at a restaurant in Jamaica, Queens.
Afterward, Teich was reluctant to be interviewed extensively on the subject. But he was willing to discuss the thinking shared by himself, Martin Begun, Diane Steinman and Martin Bresler that led to the meeting.
Begun is president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Steinman and Bressler are director and past president, respectively, of the New York office of the American Jewish Committee.
“There is a media side to everything, and then there is a human side,” said Teich, speaking in his Madison Avenue law office. “Sometimes we forget that. We get into the politics and we forget about … a father’s pain.”
Since the meeting was announced in The Jewish Week and the New York Post several days before it took place, and after the fact, the four leaders said they have been besieged by irate calls from the Jewish Defense Organization. The militant group also staged a protest outside Teich’s home on the Upper East Side.
The JDO has branded Teich a “Jewish traitor” because the meeting also included the Rev. Al Sharpton, whom the JDO and many others consider anti-Semitic because of his role in Crown Heights and other flashpoints.
“My view of things is that you don’t forget incidents and things that people do,” said Teich. “But it doesn’t mean you don’t give them opportunities to have a positive impact in their life as well.”
Carmel Cato declined a telephone interview.
Teich, one of the few Jewish leaders in New York City who is on a first-name basis with Sharpton, has a long relationship with the fiery preacher that predates his position at the AJCongress. Active in the state Democratic Party, Teich was acquainted with Sharpton — who ran for Senate in 1992 — when Sharpton called to offer his support following the 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shootings. One chasidic boy was killed and three were injured.
The result was a press conference of Jewish, black and Muslim leaders to denounce violence, and the launch of a continuing dialogue between Teich and Sharpton.
That relationship enabled Teich to reach out to Sharpton following the settlement of the Crown Heights civil suit on April 2 to set up the meeting with Carmel Cato. Sharpton has served as an adviser and pastor to the Cato family.
But Mordechai Levy of the JDO was not the only one upset that Sharpton was involved in the meeting.
Begun confirmed reports that members of the JCRC’s executive board took exception to his participation without a vote from the umbrella group’s board.
“I did this as a personal gesture, but it’s hard to separate one’s personal life from one’s [organizational] commitment,” said Begun, whose third one-year term expires in June. He is enjoined by the group’s by-laws from seeking another.
In a sense, Begun paved the way for the meeting with comments made to the New York Post shortly after the settlement of the Crown Heights suit. He said, in summary, that Jewish leaders should not lose sight of the pain of the Catos.
Teich and Begun then started to plan for a gesture to the Catos, which quickly took the form of a meeting during the Easter-Passover season. Begun said he did not consult his board because waiting for approval would be a drawn-out process.
“If I waited for the process, I would have had to tie it to Israeli Independence Day,” he said.
Also upset by the meeting was activist Rabbi Avi Weiss of Amcha/Coalition for Jewish Concerns, who called it “absolutely inexcusable.”
While sympathizing with the loss of the Catos, Rabbi Weiss said the meeting plays into attempts to separate the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights from the rest of the New York Jewish community. Citing a statement last month by former Mayor David Dinkins, who was in office during the Crown Heights riots, that the chasidim had intimidated “Park Avenue Jews” who once defended Dinkins, Rabbi Weiss said “there was always an attempt to bifurcate the Jewish community.”
The brother of Yankel Rosenbaum, the chasidic scholar killed during the riots, also denounced the quartet.
“What they have managed to do is to perpetuate the notion that the accidental death of Gavin Cato somehow is an equivalent to the cold-blooded murder of my brother,” said Norman Rosenbaum in an interview from Melbourne, Australia. “When hard work had to be done and real principles had to be established, the Jewish community of Crown Heights was hung out to dry by the establishment. When there was hard work to be done, they weren’t there.”
It was Rosenbaum’s New York spokesman, Isaac Abraham, who dismissed the meeting as “a good photo op.”
Asked if he considered his dialogue with Sharpton productive, Teich said: “Anyone who is a leader of that community has enormous potential to be reached out to, short of someone like [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan. I personally have seen the value of reaching out and dealing with people.”
To those critics who say the meeting was diminished by the presence of Sharpton — who of late has been striving for a softer image — Teich says: “Al Sharpton wasn’t the issue in this visit. He was a positive force to help us come together as the reverend for the Cato family and assisted us in putting it together.”
Begun said the discussion focused on Cato’s pain. “We did not discuss the riots but events that preceded the accident. He was teaching his son how to ride a bike, and turned the bike toward the corner where the accident occurred, in a sense sending his son to his death. He feels very guilty about that.”
Steinman added: “We would not have had such negative reaction to the meeting had Reverend Sharpton not been there, so clearly that complicated matters for some people in the Jewish community,” she said. “But from my standpoint, his presence at the meeting did not have an impact on our encounter.”