Twenty-five years ago, a car in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, accidentally hit and killed 7-year-old Gavin Cato in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The incident set off three days of racially motivated protests and violence during which nearly 200 people were injured and Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian yeshiva student, was stabbed and killed by a group of African-American rioters.
New York and the multicultural communities of Crown Heights are marking the anniversary of the event, which took place on Aug. 20, 1991. What some in the non-white majority call an uprising and the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic minority refer to as a pogrom was driven in large part by the hostility, cultural misunderstandings and poor communications that existed at the time between the two communities. On the one hand, the Chasidim felt threatened by hostility within the community, and their African-American neighbors felt that the Chasidim were getting preferential police protection while larger community needs were being ignored.
That was a quarter of a century ago. Today, by all accounts, significant elements of communal relations have changed. Most importantly, the various communities within Crown Heights are communicating with one another. And while some level of mistrust may linger, the contrast is significant: “In 1991, people didn’t even know who the leaders were to talk to each other,” Amy Ellenbogen, director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, recently told JTA. “Now they’re Facebook friends.”
Beyond that, Crown Heights itself is dramatically different. It is no longer just a neighborhood of low-income Jews and African-Americans. Now, higher-income New Yorkers — many of them Orthodox but not Lubavitch — are contributing to the gentrification of Crown Heights. And that has given rise to a new form of conflict, that of competing Jewish communities. Earlier this summer, a symptom of that conflict erupted over an eruv built around the neighborhood by a modern Orthodox synagogue. The eruv, largely criticized by the Lubavitch community, citing the longstanding objection to an eruv by the late Rebbe, was violently opposed by some Chasidim, who tore parts of it down.
We cannot tolerate this new war, specifically the conduct of those who would seek to impose their religious beliefs on others. That behavior has to stop. But we also see the eruv controversy as an outgrowth of the neighborhood’s expanding gentrification, which threatens lower-income residents, whatever their ethnicity.
On Sunday, a street festival jointly planned by black and Jewish leaders took place in Crown Heights in an effort to bring the community together and mend the wounds since the riots. We embrace that effort, both as a way to address the sins of the past and as a path for everyone who calls Crown Heights home to discover ways to live in peace.