Hate crime or robbery gone tragically bad?
In the wake of the murder last week in North Miami Beach of Rabbi Yosef Raksin, 60, a Brooklyn-based member of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement who was shot to death on his way to shul, there is no clear-cut consensus in the Jewish community.
The killing came a month after Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza began and a few weeks after a nearby synagogue was defaced with spray-painted swastikas and the word “Hamas.”
Following statements by the Miami-Dade Police Department that investigating officers had found “no indication” that the rabbi’s obvious Jewish identity was a factor in his shooting, the Anti-Defamation League and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation also hesitated to call the murder a hate crime.
But Lubavitch chasidim said his murder was clearly fueled, in part, by anti-Semitism, which has grown worldwide during the fighting between Israel and Hamas. North Miami Beach residents said they heard reports that Jews who live in the neighborhood are afraid of a repetition of such attacks, and that some might arm themselves for protection.
“The community is very concerned, feeling vulnerable and upset – especially in light of what’s going on in the Middle East,” Hava Holzhauer, the ADL’s regional director in Florida, told The Jewish Week. “People would say they’re scared.”
“I believe it was a hate crime,” Shuly Labkowski, Rabbi Raksin’s daughter, told the crownheights.info website. “[He was killed] simply because he’s a Jew.”
“The feeling on the street” where the shooting took place is that “anti-Semitism could have played a part,” said Rabbi Rafi Rosenberg, a Chabad emissary who lives in North Miami Beach.
“What’s happening in Israel and around the world certainly puts anti-Semitism at the forefront of all our minds,” Rabbi Rosenberg said in a telephone interview. “It’s the first logical guess.”
Rabbi Raksin’s murder came a week after two cars that belong to a Jewish family in the area were defaced with the words “Jew” and “Hamas” scrawled on them.
In Crown Heights, most members of the Lubavitch community also believe that the murder was a hate crime, said Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a community activist and former chairman of Community Board 9.
“The mood in the [Crown Heights] community is anger — anger at the ADL who went ahead and said it was a robbery,” he told The Jewish Week.
“Mourners [at Sunday’s memorial service] expressed dismay that the Miami-Dade Police Department was so quick to downplay the possibility of anti-Semitism,” the Crown Heights-based Jewish Leadership Council stated in a press release.
The car of one of the mourner’s at Sunday’s memorial service was vandalized, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported — a swastika and Iron Cross were etched on the mourner’s BMW.
On Saturday morning at about 9 a.m., Rabbi Raksin, who was retired from a job with the Landau Vitamins & Supplements firm, was walking a few blocks from his daughter’s home to the Bais Menachem Chabad synagogue.
A brief argument reportedly ensued between the rabbi, who as an observant Jew was not carrying money on Shabbat, and a pair of assailants; it was unclear if any biased words were said by the robbers, who escaped empty handed.
Despite the lack of eyewitness testimony that the crime had an anti-Semitic element, Lubavitch Jews in the area took that as a given, members of the community said.
Immediately after the killing, Police Department spokeswoman Elana Hernandez said there was “no indication of this being a hate crime.”
Police require a specific set of evidence and circumstances for a crime to fit the legal definition of classification as a bias or hate crime. At a press conference Monday, Maj. Hector Llevat, assigned to the homicide bureau, said that the department is investigating the murder’s motive as robbery, but is not “closing that door” on anti-Semitism.
As of Tuesday, no suspects were in custody.
Unnamed members of the Miami Jewish community are offering a $50,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of the suspects in Rabbi Raksin’s murder. (Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers:  471 TIPS.)
“There just isn’t any evidence to support [accusations of] anti-Semitism at this time,” said Michelle Langold, chief planning officer of Miami’s Jewish federation, which will co-sponsor a community-wide security event before the High Holy Days next month, with the ADL. “Over the holidays there’s always a greater sense of security awareness,” she said in a Jewish Week interview.
“At this time, it appears to be a robbery that went badly,” Hava Holzhauer of the ADL said in a statement.
However, Bran Siegal, director of the American Jewish Committees’ Miami and Broward Regional Office, said in a statement that the killing, and a recent act of vandalism at the nearby Torah v’Emunah synagogue may be related.
And Holzhauer, in a phone interview, said anti-Semitism “could be” a reason for the attack on Rabbi Raksin. “It is an easy conclusion to draw,” she said, because of the rising tension caused by the recent Israel-Gaza fighting.
Rabbi Raksin, a native of Montreal, moved to Crown Heights as a child and attended several Lubavitch yeshivot.
“He was meticulous,” said Rabbi Shea Hecht, a lifelong friend of Rabbi Riksin. “Yossel was a guy you could count on,” said Rabbi Hecht, a Crown Heights activist who serves as chair of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education. “He was a guy who wanted to live his life very quietly. He didn’t want to be center stage.”
“When it came to emergencies, he went beyond his [financial] comfort zone,” Rabbi Hecht said. He cited times when a member of the community needed a transplant, or needed help with expenses for a “high-profile court case … he gave way beyond his means.”
Rabbi Raksin is survived by his wife, Faigy; six children; his mother, Yehudis Raksin; two sisters and four brothers.
Rabbi Raksin was a familiar face in the North Miami Beach neighborhood because of frequent visits to his family. His body was flown back here on Sunday, was buried Monday in Old Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens, Queens, following a funeral in Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a recital of Psalms and other prayers outside his hearse across from the Lubavitch movement’s world headquarters at 700 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights.
Several North Miami Jews said police advised them to walk in groups, and to be more aware of their surroundings in general.
Rabbi Rosenberg, the Chabad shaliach who lives in North Miami Beach, said his wife “was afraid” before she set out on her daily early morning jog with a group of female friends on Sunday, the day after Rabbi Raksin’s killing.
“But she went out,” Rabbi Rosenberg said.
He said he expects a bigger-than-usual turnout at area synagogues for Shabbat services this week. “We’re not going to be afraid,” he said. “We’re not going to be afraid and cower in our houses.”