Tamar Adelstein spent the second day of the Crown Heights riots huddled in a bathroom with her five children as a mob pelted her home on President Street with bottles and shouted about shooting the occupants.
“We [later] turned off all lights in our home and said tehillim [psalms],” said Adelstein, one of the plaintiffs in the Crown Heights civil suit against New York City that was settled last week.
Pregnant at the time with her sixth child, Adelstein says she feared the stress would cause a miscarriage. Eventually, she and her husband, Simcha, packed up their children “like little refugees,” crouched down in their car and fled their home, not to return for two weeks.
Nearly seven years later, the Adelsteins are less than enthusiastic about the outcome of the lawsuit, which charged that City Hall and the Police Department allowed the rioting to occur, placing Jewish lives in danger.
“We were screwed by the city,” said Adelstein, the most outspoken of several plaintiffs who told The Jewish Week they were dissatisfied with and had mixed feelings about the settlement. “It’s a raw deal.”
Community leaders and the attorney for the plaintiffs insist that most are satisfied.
But Adelstein, 40, a homemaker who lives a short distance from the corner where Australian scholar Yankel Rosenbaum was fatally attacked, was upset that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did not use the word “pogrom” in his apology for the riots last week, and that the fine print of the agreement denies any wrongdoing by the city. “It’s a slap in the face to us,” she said.
Saying that her children needed counseling after the melee, Adelstein said the amount of the settlement — which she did not disclose — was not sufficient reparation for her ordeal.
“This was a civil rights violation,” she said. “We were not compensated accordingly.”
Labeling the Crown Heights riots “one of the saddest chapters in New York City history” last Thursday, Giuliani apologized to the community surrounded by the Rosenbaum family and Jewish leaders.
“There are some things that cannot be prevented in the affairs of human beings,” said the mayor. “This could have been prevented.”
The settlement awards the 91 plaintiffs $1.1 million, in addition to a prior settlement for two plaintiffs of $200,000 total and $250,000 for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, bringing the total settlement to $1.55 million.
Jewish groups hailed the outcome. “[This] is a warranted and appropriate step toward healing,” said Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council.
But the settlement was condemned by former Mayor David Dinkins, who was in office during the riots. He was accused in the suit of allowing black rioters to vent their rage over the death of accident victim Gavin Cato, a black child who was killed by a chasidic driver.
In statements last week and at a press conference Tuesday, Dinkins — who successfully petitioned the court to dismiss him as a plaintiff — claimed the settlement was politically motivated and the case was baseless.“The case against the city would have been dismissed had they but brought the motion,” Dinkins told The Jewish Week. “I have information that the motion for summary judgment was prepared but never offered.”
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Franklyn Snitow, claimed Judge Frederic Block had indicated that such a motion would be futile. “When there was a suggestion that there might be such a motion, the court said it felt we were going forward to the trial,” said the attorney.
But Dinkins’ lawyer, John Harris, had a different account. “The judge never said he would deny the motion,” he said. “To the contrary, he advised the city that it could make the motion and that it should do so soon to avoid delaying any potential trial.”
Bruce Teitelbaum, Giuliani’s chief of staff and principal Jewish adviser, said the agreement was not political because it had been approved by Block and city Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
“David Dinkins’ bitterness has prevented him from being objective in this case,” said Teitelbaum. “Comptroller Hevesi said that if the case had gone to trial, the minimal exposure would have been $5 million.”Teitelbaum added that a motion to dismiss, if defeated, would have harmed the city’s ability to negotiate a settlement.
During the press conference, Dinkins extended what he called “an olive branch” to his successor, inviting him to dinner at his home. (Giuliani later declined the invitation.)
But within a short time the ex-mayor was blasting Giuliani for showing favoritism to the chasidic community of Crown Heights. And responding to a question by Gabe Pressman of WNBC-TV about whether Jews had forgotten his past statements against Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Dinkins said: “The chasidim have done a great job of intimidating some other members of the Jewish community. … They said, in effect, to the Park Avenue Jews: ‘You have abandoned us.’ Now, many in that community felt the need to stand with them.”
Pressman then added: “And the Upper West Side Jews and Forest Hills Jews, too.”
The president of the JCRC, Martin Begun, termed Dinkins’ comments “Unfortunate and inappropriate phraseology.” Detailing what he described as the paralysis of most Jewish organizations during the riots, which he witnessed from the scene, Begun said: “There was no intimidation but a tremendous wave of concern and humility for being so slow to respond to the situation.”
Dinkins also told The Jewish Week he was unsure if Lemrick Nelson Jr. deserved the 191/2-year sentence he received last week for the murder of Rosenbaum.
“I can’t answer that. I don’t know that anybody can,” he said.
But asked if he would do anything differently if he could relive the four days of rioting, Dinkins seemed to blame his former police chief and co-defendant in the lawsuit, Lee Brown.“In retrospect, you do a lot of things differently when you’re smarter,” he said. “There came a time when I said to the police commissioner, ‘Whatever you’re doing isn’t working sufficiently well.’ ”With the exception of Isaac Bitton and his son, Yechiel, who received a separate $200,000 settlement, details of how the money would be divided were not disclosed. If the remaining sum were divided equally, each plaintiff would receive $13,095. But various plaintiffs will receive a larger share based on how severely they were impacted by the riots, Snitow said.
While acknowledging that some plaintiffs wanted the case to go to trial, Snitow said, “The nature of a settlement is a compromise. We believe under the circumstances this settlement provides a fair measure of compensation for the plaintiffs, as well as public recognition of the pogrom that occurred.”
But plaintiff Howard Kupchin disagreed. “We should have gotten a lot more for what we lived through.” Kupchin, 56, a locksmith, said his van was defaced with swastikas and destroyed and his family forced to flee to a friend’s home in another neighborhood.
“A lot of what went on and what happened to people in our area never got into the papers. To my knowledge most of [the plaintiffs] are calling it a slap in face,” he said.
The chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, Sam Malamud, said a minority of plaintiffs were displeased.
“You can’t please everybody,” said Malamud. “But we’ve spoken to most of the residents and plaintiffs and they are satisfied. We want to put this behind us and move ahead.”
Plaintiff Noson Kopel, 47, a law student, said that “overall” he was satisfied with the judgment, although he would have liked to see the city’s culpability addressed in court to set a precedent in other American cities.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an outspoken critic of the handling of the riots, called the settlement a “raw deal” and the amount “minuscule.”
“I’m happy they made a deal, but it’s a raw deal,” said Hikind, who endorsed Giuliani for mayor in 1993 against Dinkins but made no public endorsement in the 1997 race. “If they wouldn’t have prolonged this, they could have given them the money that went to the Corporation Counsel [to fight the suit].”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.