In Crown Heights, with the coming of the new month of Adar (Feb. 10), most everyone knew and was exchanging the old Jewish saying, “Adar comes, simcha increases.”
But by 20 to noon that morning the biggest simcha was that Yehuda Leib Brikman, stabbed in the back by a stranger, wasn’t dead. The knife punctured his lung but was slowed by his layers of clothing.
Brikman, 25, was well acquainted with simcha, married just two weeks earlier followed by a week of Sheva Brachos celebrations, but if he wasn’t dressed for winter, his newlywed bride would be a widow.
In an attack that seemed like an eerie echo of the stabbings that have plagued Jerusalem in recent months, Brikman was taken to Kings County Hospital and was said to be in stable condition. But a relative told us that he needed surgery Friday night after internal bleeding was discovered, as well.
Community leaders were quick to say how proud they were of how the community reacted; numerous black and Jewish leaders, elected officials and community activists came together in joint press conferences to express unity and determination to solve the crime and, at the same time, to point out the simcha of how far Crown Heights has come since the riots 25 years ago.
Without an arrest, no one could venture a motive, but Bob Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who has been working extensively on black-Jewish relations in Crown Heights, told us, “Well, everyone’s hoping that this is a mental health thing. We’re almost praying that he’s just crazy. We don’t want it to be anything else. No one is yet seeing this as a black-Jewish issue.”
(Police say a surveillance video showed an African-American man walking away from what was thought to be the scene of the crime, holding a bloody knife.)
New York Police Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said at a news conference, “No words were [exchanged] prior to the argument. He [Yehuda] is dressed in chasidic garb. Right now we are looking at this as a possible hate crime because he [was] dressed in that fashion.” The NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force opened an investigation.
But there was anger on the Jewish street, the kettle was whistling. Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, former chair of Community Board 9, said, “I go to shul. That’s where you find out everything. People are furious. All you need is one more incident, not even a stabbing, and it isn’t going to be good. Some people are going to take care of business on their own.
“I’m just telling you,” the rabbi continued, “as someone who was there in the thick of the pogrom in ’91, the community is angry. All we get are press conferences and Kumbaya. There’s no tachlis [results]. This stabbing isn’t the first.”
After all, in 2013, there was a series of young men randomly punching Jews unconscious, by surprise, without saying a word, in what was known as the “knockout game.” In December 2014, a “disturbed” man, said police, stabbed a 22-year-old rabbinical student in the neck inside Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
Last November, on Eastern Parkway, another Lubavitcher was also slashed in the shoulder, no arrest. The Anti-Defamation League offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator, and then the ADL quickly doubled it to $10,000.
ADL’s New York regional director, Evan Bernstein, and Andrew Frackman, regional chair, said in a joint statement, this stabbing “is just one in a series of traumatic attacks over the past several months in which Jews across the city, especially in Brooklyn, have been singled out for violence. … Enough is enough.” According to the FBI, despite the attention to Islamophobia, Jews are four times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime than any other religious group.
The ADL has documented at least a dozen disturbing incidents in New York City since September. Two Jewish men were attacked with a BB gun in Kew Gardens (Sept. 21); the Stanton Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side was broken into and vandalized (Oct. 14); an Orthodox man was punched in the back of the head in Williamsburg (Oct. 16); the manager of West Side Judaica was assaulted while the perpetrator allegedly exclaimed “(Expletive) you Jews. I’ll kill you. I’m a Muslim” (Dec. 1); a Bukharian Jew was assaulted in Borough Park, while the attacker yelled “(Expletive) Jew, where you running? Slow down you (Expletive) Jew” (Dec. 2). “Visibly identifiable Jews were singled out for violence across the city,” said Bernstein.
Brikman, 25, wasn’t quite sure what or who hit him. He told police that he was walking on Empire Boulevard, across from the Ksav Sofer shul, when a black man that he didn’t know walked past him. And then, there were the sounds of the assailant’s pivoting boots followed by Brikman’s cry from excruciating pain in his back, below his shoulders. With a collapsed lung, he staggered a few hundred feet to the safety of a neighborhood check-cashing shop.
According to sources in the neighborhood, a fellow Chabadnik called for Hatzolah, the volunteer medics, when Brikman collapsed, his white shirt and the under-garment tallis turning red. A few blocks away, a surveillance camera at 11:38 a.m. taped a young black man running, then slowing to a steady walk, on Albany Avenue, in his hand a bloody knife.
Brikman is from a well-known Chabad family; his parents are shluchim (the rebbe’s emissaries) to Chabad by the Ocean, serving Coney Island and Sea Gate. Far beyond Brooklyn, Jews were saying Tehillim (Psalms) for Yehuda Leib ben Rivkah Alta.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, at a press conference, recalled how the Lubavitcher Rebbe, in 1991, said there were not two sides in the neighborhood but one side. “This is one Crown Heights, that came from the rebbe of this community,” said Adams. “All of us, let us continue to be together. As long as we are together, as a community, no one will ever be able to divide us.”
Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, told us he’s been seeing a pattern in crime. “The first time something like this happens, I’ll say, OK, it’s random. At this point, I don’t say random anymore.” This attack “was very similar” to the November stabbing.
Unlike the angry Jews in the community, Cohen thought the situation was handled well. “The police response was quick,” he said. “The hate crime investigators are on the case. We’re getting more patrols so people feel safer and more secure. Everybody’s trying hard. There’s a much improved atmosphere in the community, a lot more cooperation between … all the different segments.”
Leaders may be more positive but does that matter to criminals on the street? “It definitely does,” said Cohen. “If you watch ‘Fire in the Mirror,’ the one-woman show by Anna Deavere Smith,” based on actual transcripts from black and Jewish leaders around the time of the riots, “there were a lot of negative things being said publicly by leaders, and I’m sure it trickled down. Now, most of what has been said by people of influence has been positive, so that trickles down too. Even on the street, there’s been a friendliness, an openness that I see as I walk around, a lot more positive energy on the street.”
Devorah Halberstam, a community activist whose son Ari was murdered in 1994 by a Lebanese immigrant, said, “Listen, you can find any excuse for hatred, if you’re looking for it.
Hatred filled [the stabber’s] heart; he saw a Lubavitcher chasid walking down the street… I know everybody is trying but, truth be told, I was walking home last night and I’m looking over my shoulder. So whatever reason [the stabber] did it – and who really cares – he has to be locked up. It’s more than outrageous. It sends shudders through you.”
She noted, with a tear in her voice, that Ari was shot in Adar, his yahrtzeit’s on Adar 23: “Every year, I get crazy in my head, I can’t say it anymore,” about Adar and simcha. “And in a leap year, the date comes twice. I remember it every day but there’s something about anniversaries. I know what it means at the end of the day, when you feel the pain. … Every time I hear that someone survived an attack I say thank God! Because I wasn’t lucky. My son wasn’t lucky.”
Kaplan noted, “We need a refuah shlayma [a healing] – for the world. We need people who don’t think it’s okay to stab somebody.”
At the end of the day, Kaplan saw Rebbetzin Brikman and Devorah Halberstam hugging, crying on each other’s shoulder.