The murder of a rabbinical student on a busy shopping strip in Midwood, Brooklyn, Monday night immediately set off fears of an anti-Semitic attack or a spillover of Mideast violence in the heavily Jewish community.
But police on Tuesday had all but ruled out the possibility that Avner Abensour, 26, had been attacked because he was a Jew.
“At this point it has not been deemed a bias incident,” said Lt. David Nadel, the NYPD’s liaison to the Jewish community.
Abensour, a Los Angeles native whose family came from Morocco, was stabbed in the back while walking on Coney Island Avenue, between Avenues K and L in the Orthodox enclave at about 8:15 Monday night. He had just left a kosher supermarket, and was said to be on his way to meet a learning partner at nearby Yeshiva Bais Yisroel, where he was a student at the kollel, a program that provides subsidies to adult scholars.
Abensour collapsed on the sidewalk in front of a car rental firm and was taken by Hatzoloh ambulance medics to Maimonides Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Sources said the victim was a complainant in a burglary case involving another Orthodox Jew that was to go to trial on April 1, and that police were investigating a possible connection. Abensour and the burglary suspect’s family had reportedly worked out a settlement with local rabbis involving a monetary payment in exchange for charges being dropped.
Abensour, who was also a teacher at a Midwood yeshiva for special students, left a wife and young son. His funeral was held Tuesday night at Bais Yisroel yeshiva, and his body reportedly flown to Israel for burial.
A knife believed to be the murder weapon was recovered by police in a trash can several blocks away.
News of the murder stunned residents of the middle-class neighborhood, where young children often walk unescorted to and from yeshivas, stores and synagogues.
The attack occurred within two blocks of a synagogue and several homes that were defaced with swastikas last year, but crime rates are generally low.
The Jewish community enjoys good relations with the police and a volunteer patrol, Shomrim, works closely with officers of the 66th and 70th precincts.
But Akiva Homnick, and several other residents complained that police had taken more than half an hour to respond to a 911 call when the victim was discovered.
“The dispatcher told me they’ll get there as soon as possible,” said Homnick, a yeshiva student who lives in the area. “I said this guy is lying here bleeding.”
Homnick said he initially called Hatzoloh, then dialed 911 to report the crime, and had timed 35 minutes until the first officers arrived, time in which the perpetrator may have still been in the vicinity. The Hatzoloh ambulance arrived immediately.
Several calls to the police department’s public information office were not immediately returned.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Borough Park and Midwood, said he had asked for the dispatch logs to determine the response time. “We want to make sure that’s not the case,” he said. He added that the police were “doing everything possible” to solve the crime.
Chaim Deutsch, the founder of the Shomrim patrol, said he believed the 911 call had been recorded as a person injured, with medics on scene, and not as a crime.
“If it’s a person wounded and EMS is at the location they don’t rush to that location,” said Deutsch.
Another Midwood resident, Eli Ruzhorsky, said he and other students at the nearby Chaim Berlin yeshiva had called police several times prior to the murder to complain about an apparently disturbed man in the area, who was shouting in Russian and walking in and out of traffic. “There must be 40 or 50 people who got harassed,” said Ruzhorsky. He said 911 calls were made around 7:45 p.m. and 8 p.m., shortly before the murder, but he saw no police response.
Ruzhorsky said he was acquainted with Abensour, whom he described as a “sweet guy. You don’t get any nicer. He was as yashuv [straight] as you get.”
In addition to the heavy Jewish population, most of it Orthodox, Midwood also has a growing Muslim community, and that led several residents to fear that ongoing violence in the Mideast or the U.S. war on terrorism had prompted the attack.
“We definitely should be concerned,” said Shaya Lebowitz, a real estate broker, as he surveyed the bloodstained sidewalk Tuesday morning. “It’s a neighborhood waiting to explode. I’ve always thought it’s only a matter of time until something like this happens.”
Others noted their agreement as employees of Best Rent-A-Car washed the sidewalk, and a police sound van drove up and down the block, urging anyone with information about the crime to call (800) 577-TIPS.
Hikind said his office had been “inundated” with calls suggesting a bias attack.
But the assemblyman, together with police and Jewish community leaders, cautioned against jumping to unfounded conclusions.
“We’re asking the Jewish leadership in the community to try to dampen down any sort of rumors,” said Bob Kaplan, director of community concerns for the Jewish Community Relations Council. “Rumor mills can be very destructive to the community.”