Mothers To Mothers
In September 1991, a month after the riots, I was walking with Brooklyn Deputy District Attorney Charles Posner through Crown Heights, when we reached the corner of President Street and Utica Avenue, the spot where cars had been burning, people had been shouting and chaos had reigned.
Across the street, beneath a defaced peace mural that black and Jewish youngsters had attempted to create, stood Jean Griffith, the mother of Michael Griffith, the young man chased to his death on the Belt Parkway by a mob in Howard Beach, Queens. What she was doing here on this isolated corner in the dark of the night? “I thought I could help,” she said.
At that point Charles [Posner], who had recently read of Protestant and Catholic mothers of Northern Ireland who received the Nobel Peace Prize Prize for their work in joining together to end the brother-killing-brother hatred in their country, gave birth to the idea of Mothers to Mothers. I, a white South African Lubavitch woman who grew up in a country that practiced some of the worst systematic racial hatred in modern history, and Jean Griffith, from the African-American community, became the founding “Mothers.”
Mothers to Mothers was made up of about two dozen women, half Orthodox Jews and half African-Americans, who met every third Monday of every month for 10 years, an occurrence that to the best of my knowledge had not happened before in Crown Heights.
Our meetings took place on neutral ground in District Attorney Charles Hynes’ personal conference room. Everyone was on their absolute best behavior; it appeared that the woman were intent on saying exactly what they thought the other group wanted to hear. I decided I had to find a way that would get the women to discuss those issues that were being consciously avoided by all parties.
At our next meeting, I invited a guest who had lived on the corner of Utica Avenue and President Street, where she experienced her windows being broken and crouching in fear as the riots happened around her. Her anger and frustration was apparent.
The women began to open up. The ice had been broken. Our women often left these meetings with much information and insight to share with their own communities.
One specific conversation: One African-American woman asked her Lubavitch counterpart, “Why do Orthodox men walk in front of the women?” The Jewish women turned to each other with a puzzled look, and someone answered that the men walked faster.
Through sharing our common ideals and beliefs, we shattered the ignorance that often created unnecessary and unwanted tensions.
Mothers to Mothers ended on the 10th anniversary of its founding. Throughout the years, many meaningful friendships developed that have continued until today. Many members of our close-knit group continue to share happy occasions; on sad events, we band together to console one another. We blazed a trial for many new groups that foster the same important message of reconciliation.
This is the legacy of Mothers to Mothers.
Henna White is a community liaison in the office of Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes.
The View From City Council
What stands out in my mind is the pain that can come when some senseless incident takes place in a community and affects everyone in the community in a a negative way. So whether it was the black community, it was negative experience, and for the Jewish community it was a horrendous kind of time, the senseless loss of human life. … Those of us who also understand the tragedy that it was to that other child’s family, we tried to play a constructive role on both sides in order to not really escalate what was already a tense time in the community.
I was proud to be able to play a role, being level-headed and [evenhanded] making sure both communities recognized and understood that peace is better than keeping up the struggle of a war. … I am glad that both communities have grown over the 20 years and the whole level of coexistence in the community [has grown]. It’s important that all sides understand the role and responsibility of members of the community, respect of each other’s religion and day of worship and to better understand the customs and traditions of all residents of the community. I’m sure that out of that time it became a better community and a more unified community, and the communication between the groups in Crown Heights has been a key to that.
Una Clarke, a former City Councilmember representing part of Crown Heights, is now a consultant on governmental relations.
The Music Of Dialogue
The riots were a wake-up call for me. A Crown Heights rabbinical organization selected me as liaison between the Lubavitchers and the African-Americans. I had written a song about racism a year before, never expecting I would use it in my very own community.
Our music group, known as Dr. Laz & The CURE, is still alive and kicking. We did three concerts and dialogues for the Hillel Academy day school in South Florida this year on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
We do concerts and dialogues for schools, centers and communities throughout the country. In honor of the 20th anniversary of our coming together as a more united community, we’re releasing a CD that has 12 of our original songs, three of which were used for Showtime’s “Crown Heights” movie.
The memories from back then are very much alive. When it comes to overcoming racism and stereotyping, it’s a lifelong struggle. Project CURE has expanded to include special-needs children as we work to break through those negative stereotypes.
Rev. Paul Chandler and Richard Green from the Crown Heights Youth Collective, my partners in Project CURE — and all of the youth and other people who joined our efforts — show that people of different ethnic backgrounds can respect and enjoy each other’s company.
David Lazerson, a founder of the interracial Project CURE music-and-dialogue group in 1991, is a special education teacher in the Broward County school system in South Florida.
Getting Beyond ‘The Tinderbox’
Today, Crown Heights is a very different place than it was 20 years ago. So is New York City.
In 1988 I attended a meeting of African-American and Jewish leaders, hosted by Mayor Ed Koch. When I diagnosed Crown Heights as a “tinderbox,” the mayor chided me for contributing to a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Then, Crown Heights was the scene of multiple turf battles over housing, services and political clout. The anti-Semitism was palpable. There was little communication and virtually no cooperation.
On that fateful day in August 1991, I was leading a mission of New York leaders in Israel, one that included Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. When we returned to our hotel I was greeted by a fax (this was before cell phones), informing me of the horrible accident and brazen murder. The tinderbox had exploded. The image of Yechiel Bitton kneeling over his father’s prone and bloody body is indelibly seared in our minds as a symbol of those awful days. That Caribbean-American reporter Peter Noel and others shielded the Bittons from further attacks, gave hope for a better future.
During the worst of the pogrom, JCRC staffer Phil Abramowitz ducked rocks and bottles thrown by a threatening crowd. JCRC’s President Ken Bialkin and others went to Crown Heights to meet with the heads of the Jewish community there. What they learned led to meetings with city officials and a broader group of Jewish communal leaders.
Since 1991 there have been important changes for the better. For example, when Raymond Kelly was named Police Commissioner in 1992 he sent a clear message: another “Crown Heights” would never occur under his watch.
Over the past 20 years the neighborhood dynamics evolved. The leaders of the African-American, Caribbean-American and chasidic communities meet often — with JCRC acting as a catalyst. They still head multiple communities co-located on shared turf, but that’s much less of a problem these days. Now, the shifting casts of leaders know one another and have each other’s cell phone numbers. Through ongoing contacts, they recognize the overarching commonality of hopes and aspirations of all of the neighborhood residents. When a problem arises, the conversations, the recognition of overlapping cultures and the sense of shared purpose guide all these communities to solutions beneficial to all Crown Heights residents.
This week, the people of Crown Heights celebrate 20 years of progress. It’s no utopia, but it’s no longer a tinderbox. Crown Heights is gentrifying, making affordable housing a rare commodity. The federal, state and city budget cuts are likely to affect everyone — young and old. Still, the future remains undimmed. If a brushfire breaks out, there are trained firefighters throughout the neighborhood, with the tools to keep Crown Heights intact.
Michael S. Miller is executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, a post he held during the Crown Heights riots.
Communities Growing Together
From that infamous night of the pogrom on Aug. 19, 1991, to where the community is today, there has been a sea change in attitudes for both communities. The African-American community has learned a lot about the chasidic community and its customs and schools. For instance, they understand why men don’t shake hands with women — that it’s a religious thing and has nothing to do with skin color or race — and why boys and girls attend separate schools.
Our community board has been a co-sponsor of a day at Wingate Field for everyone, usually around June 1, for fun, rides and kosher food for children and adults; it’s a day enjoyed equally be everyone. The Jewish community now has an understanding about some of the distress that is associated with the African-American community, with single parenting being a major reason for that. So we begin to learn from one another, and we are growing together — that is a marked event. It took years for us to develop this understanding, and today we are seeing the fruits of that understanding.
I don’t think [the riots] can happen again. I think the city leadership under Mayor Michael Bloomberg would never permit that to happen. At the time the city was under poor leadership.
Jacob Goldstein is chairman, Community Board 9, and a chasidic community activist.