It was the most terrifying four days and nights in American Jewish history, reminiscent of Old World pogroms with nights pierced by shouts of “Kill the Jews” and “Heil Hitler”; roving mobs in Crown Heights throwing stones at Jews; police standing passively; gangs breaking into homes with mezuzahs while Jews hid in closets. One Jew was murdered; others beaten to a pulp; an Israeli flag was burned.
It began with an accident, as tragedies often do. A Chabad student lost control of his Mercury Grand Marquis after a collision, the car jumping the sidewalk, killing a black child. After a barrage of anger and misunderstandings, hundreds of black residents started moving down President Street. One spotted a Jew, Yankel Rosenbaum, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was stabbed to death. According to the Girgenti Report, the governor’s fact-finding commission, there arose a level of “violence rarely witnessed in New York City,” distinguished by how much of the violence was — unlike other riots aimed at police, businesses and authorities — “directed against one segment of the community,” the Chabad Jews who lived in the neighborhood.
The terror is best grasped by “listening” to the 911 calls from Jews on that Tuesday evening. To take a few at random: 9:02 p.m.: “Plenty of people … trying to open my door… Please help me. I got trouble, I’ve got my daughter!”
9:06 p.m.: “They have just come in through the door and they’re attacking my wife! …”
As in the Book of Lamentations, most painful was how alone were the Jews of Crown Heights. Of all the students helped by Chabad on campuses, how many went to Crown Heights in solidarity when Chabad headquarters was under siege? How many veterans of the “black-Jewish alliance” marched for peace in Crown Heights? Al Sharpton, then incendiary, now respected, said later, “Our language and tone sometimes exacerbated tensions and played to the extremists.” A supreme understatement.
Mainstream media, in the name of objective reporting, wrote of “Jewish and black clashes,” as if there was equivalency between broken glass and the rock that broke it. Even this week, in noting the anniversary of the riot, The Daily News wrote of “roving gangs of Jewish and black youth [that] started attacking each other and random pedestrians,” an equivalency myth contradicted by the Girgenti Report.
And yet, there was a blessing in the ashes. A “pogrom” that we feared would be the first, was the last. A variety of Jewish groups — most notably the Jewish Community Relations Council — working with Chabad and black leaders and police, have helped keep the peace. Chabad residents of Crown Heights, inspired by their rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, did not join the “white flight” seen elsewhere after riots, but stayed, invested and grew. When, post-riot, Mayor Dinkins spoke to the rebbe about the “two sides,” the rebbe stopped him: “We’re one side.”
And so it’s been for 25 years, and may it be long into the future.