In Kew Gardens Hills, one pulpit rabbi last week sent a stern letter to the neighborhood’s City Council member, criticizing him for support of proposals to “defund” the New York City Police Department.
Another rabbi from the Queens neighborhood recently attended an online public forum with the same Council member, Rory Lancman, during which the rabbi and other members of the Jewish community took Lancman to task for backing bail reform measures last year.
Both measures, say critics of Lancman, endanger public safety in general and the Jewish community in particular.
Jews can be found on all sides of the recent demonstrations against police brutality, with many major organizations and local activists voicing their unqualified support for reforming the criminal justice system. In Forest Hills, near Kew Gardens, another rabbi said he has heard a diversity of opinions among his congregants.
But the Kew Gardens leaders represent wary constituencies that fear that a reduced police presence and other reforms there will lead to more street crime. And, shaken by the looting that took place in Midtown Manhattan during early protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May, some in their communities say they are considering moving out of New York City. Many, but not all, are Orthodox, or politically conservative, or both.
“We feel we’re under siege … we’re extremely upset,” Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, told The Jewish Week.
He was among several Jewish residents of his neighborhood who took part in the recent meeting with Lancman, a progressive Democrat who has supported bail reform and NYPD defunding.
“We let him have it,” the rabbi said. They cited what they called an increase in crime there since last year, when the Council approved liberalized bail procedures.
“It’s terrible,” Rabbi Schonfeld told Lancman, as the legislation released more dangerous criminals onto the streets of the city. “They know it’s a revolving door.”
David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said NYPD statistics do not reflect the anecdotal claims of increased crime in the past year in Kew Gardens Hills or other heavily Jewish neighborhoods. “It’s perception,” he said.
Jews have millennia-old experiences of being the “canary in the coal mine,” of being the first victims of society-wide discrimination and lawlessness, Pollock said. However, he added, “So far we haven’t seen it.”
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, said many members of his politically diverse area are less to the right than those in Kew Gardens Hills. “I haven’t heard widespread opposition to bail reform and NYPD defunding from residents of my neighborhood,” he said. “Most don’t feel that way.”
The varied Jewish reactions to criminal justice reform follow a fault line in the Jewish community that has become more evident in recent years: between a largely liberal majority and a minority that tends to be more religiously observant and more likely to vote Republican.
Politically conservative Jews are speaking out against steps that they say will make more crime, some of it of an anti-Semitic nature, an inevitability. This fear has been exacerbated by deadly attacks on Jews in recent years in Pittsburgh, Jersey City and Poway, Calif., and a series of assaults last autumn and winter on Jews living in Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox neighborhoods.
Liberal members of the Jewish community support many of the new reforms, calling them necessary to counter police excesses and to redress years of institutional racism. Since June, more than 500 Jewish organizations and synagogues in the United States have signed on to a letter that asserts support for “the Black-led movement in this country that is calling for accountability and transparency from the government and law enforcement.” The letter calls Black Lives Matters the “current day civil rights movement” in the United States.
Conservative Jewish groups, however, are focusing on a 2016 platform written by the Movement for Black Lives, a constituent of the wider BLM movement, that demonized Israel. They also point to reports of vandalism and rhetoric aimed at Jews during some of the demonstrations taking place around the country.
Jewish neighborhoods may be a target of future attacks by people affiliated with BLM, some conservative Jews say.
‘Shame on You’
This internecine debate, which threatens to weaken the already frayed black-Jewish coalition that coalesced in the civil rights era, is taking place in the context of a recent spike in crime here. The city surpassed 400 shootings in the first half of the year for the first time since 2016; the 205 shootings in June were the highest for that month since 1996; the city logged 125 shootings in the first three weeks of this month, more than double the number recorded over the same period last year.
Some attribute the rise to tensions surrounding the pandemic and the unrest, as well as the start of summer, when crime tends to spike.
Police officials and police unions blame criminal justice reforms put in place over the last few years by lawmakers and prosecutors. Those changes, which include efforts by the mayor’s office to reduce the population of the Riker’s Island jail complex, have put more violent criminals back on the street and erased deterrents and consequences for carrying guns and shooting them, the police have argued.
These figures are leading some congregants to consider moving away, said the spiritual leader of a major Manhattan synagogue who asked that its name and where it is located not be named. “They are demoralized, frightened,” the rabbi said.
“So-called bail reform plays an important role” in the increase in crime, said the rabbi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that he feared being attacked by people who disagree with his views.
The bail reform law, which was subsequently amended by the State Legislature, was designed to prevent indigent people accused of a crime from being held in jail indefinitely while awaiting trial and to give judges more discretion in setting bail and other conditions of pretrial release.
The basic framework established by the original bail reform law has not changed. For most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, judges are still required to release people with the least restrictive conditions necessary to reasonably assure the person will come back to court. For these crimes, cash bail is still prohibited.
The rabbi also rejected calls to “defund” the police. “I was as horrified as anyone by the murder of George Floyd,” the rabbi said. “The answer” to such atrocities, he said, is “reform, training. The answer is not getting rid of the police.”
All of those who spoke to The Jewish Week for this story stressed that defunding means not an elimination of police departments, but a reallocation of resources, shifting some responsibilities that should not require armed police to trained personnel like mental health professionals. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to cut $1 billion from the NYPD involves moving school safety officers to the Department of Education, cancelling the planned hiring of roughly 1,160 officers and shifting the monitoring of homeless people.
But some people said they feared that the climate of reduced public support for the police may lead many experienced officers to retire.
In his letter last week to Lancman, Rabbi Moses Birnbaum of the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills wrote, “Shame on you and your colleagues on the council for following our moronic mayor’s lead in defunding NYPD. I expected more from you, representing a district that may, God forbid, be targeted by the riotous mob … there is great concern in my neighborhood … I am deeply disappointed with your stance that will only encourage mob rule.”
Lancman, chairman of the City Council’s committee on the justice system, and sponsor of a bill that would limit use of the chokehold, did not respond to a request for comment by The Jewish Week.
“If this [recent violence] continues, people will arm themselves,” Rabbi Birnbaum said, stressing that he was speaking only for himself. “There is a significant group of people who feel this way.”
“No one should be arming themselves,” said the JCRC’s Pollock, who deals with security matters.
Rabbi Birnbaum suggested that the unarmed Shmira Safety Patrol, similar to the private Shomrim patrols in several New York City neighborhoods, may increase its activity to forestall an increase in crime in Kew Gardens Hills. Shmira and several Shomrim units did not respond to a request for comment from The Jewish Week.
Aryeh Cohen, professor of rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University and rabbi-in-residence at Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice group, said critics of the protests are focusing on their own fears at the expense of victims of police violence.
“So when white folks ask, ‘Who will protect ‘us?’ there is a clear meaning. Who will protect us from them?,” Cohen wrote in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. “The police are not there to protect the residents of Black and poor neighborhoods. They are there to keep the residents of South L.A. from Bel Air and Beverly Hills.”
But Rabbi Schonfeld sees the need for counter-protests, like the one held in front of Gracie Mansion in June against illegal fireworks, against what he calls “the lawlessness taking place in our country and city.”
“We need more like them, including right here in Queens in front of the offices of those politicians who have encouraged this lawlessness,” the rabbi wrote.