When you exit the Kingston Avenue subway station in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the first thing you see is the headquarters of the Orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement. On a gray day in January, a large number of police officers are positioned at various spots surrounding the stately building. There are two New York State Police troopers and two NYPD officers standing next to the entrance, each of them with one hand on their service weapons. Another NYPD officer is posted across the street. And a police car as well as a larger NYPD vehicle the size of a mobile home are parked around the corner.
That’s not what Crown Heights, a neighborhood with a large Orthodox Jewish population, normally looks like. But ever since the end of December 2019, everyone here has been on high alert. Throughout the month, New York and neighboring state New Jersey had seen a rise in anti-Semitic crime. And then the Monsey attack happened.
On the night of December 28, a man armed with a machete entered the house of a rabbi in Monsey, roughly a one-hour drive northwest of New York City. It was the seventh night of Hannukah, and almost 100 people had gathered in the rabbi’s home to celebrate. The attacker stabbed and injured five people before the crowd managed to force him out. He drove away but was arrested by police later that night. He has been charged with five counts of attempted murder; federal prosecutors have filed hate crime charges. One of the victims is still in a coma caused by a severe brain injury. Should he die, the perpetrator could face the death penalty.
‘Now it happened in our community’
“I was told it could have been even worse,” Rivkie Feiner says sitting in the conference room of her communications agency in Monsey.
Feiner just returned from a business trip to Israel a few hours ago, but doesn’t seem jet-lagged at all. She has no time for that — in addition to her job, where she works with clients across the US and the world, she volunteers with various organizations and sits on several committees. She is also somewhat of an unofficial public spokeswoman for the Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey.
“Had [the attacker] come in 10 minutes earlier, everyone would have been crowded in the entrance area and would not have been able to fight or get away,” Feiner says. “And 10 minutes later, only women and babies would have been left because the men would’ve already gone to the synagogue next door.”
Steve Gold, the co-president of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County, where Monsey is located, is sitting across from Feiner in her office. He still remembers every detail about the night of the Monsey stabbing attack.
“The night of the attack, I was out to dinner with my wife and my business partner and his wife, celebrating the end of the year,” he says. “We were about to pay when I got the phone call.”
Gold drove to the scene of the crime right away only to see that there wasn’t much he could do. “It was shocking, this thought of ‘Oh, now it happened in our community,'” Gold says. “This country isn’t safe for the Orthodox [Jewish] community.”
Fear as a part of daily life
Feiner emphatically agrees with that statement. “I never used to be afraid. But now when my husband goes to synagogue —” her voice breaks a little. “My heart goes: ‘Will he come home?'”
After the stabbing in Monsey, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said there had been 13 anti-Semitic attacks in his state since the beginning of December. Allen Fagin, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, an Orthodox Jewish association based in New York, told DW via email he regularly hears security concerns from Jewish community leaders.
“Jews, like the members of every religious group, are entitled to practice their religion without fear,” Fagin wrote. “We should feel safe walking to synagogue, sending our children to school or shopping at the local kosher supermarket without fear of being attacked.”
Violent Hanukkah attack
The pop songs playing at the Crown Heights “Chocolatte” cafe sound a little like a modern take on Klezmer music. You can get oatmeal, brownies or chocolate rugelach — small, crescent-shaped Jewish pastries. At one of the tables in the back, Dalia Shusterman talks about the night in December when she and her friends were attacked after a Hanukkah celebration.
“We were five ladies coming back from a party on the fifth night of Hanukkah. A woman had just hit someone in front of the Chabad headquarters. Then she came in between our group and hit one of my friends in the back of the head,” Shusterman says. “I turned to her and said ‘Are you kidding me?’ but she just yelled ‘F*ck you Jews’ and ran away.”
The attacker was arrested by police a short while later, after a Jewish community patrol had stopped her in the street. But after a report had been filed, she was allowed to go home to await her hearing. The next day, she hit a Jewish woman in the face. At the time of the attack, the victim had her baby strapped to her and was holding her toddler by the hand.
Looking at this case and at the Monsey attacker, Shusterman says: “There has got to be a way between the death penalty and letting someone [who has committed a violent crime] right out again.”
Amid a spike in anti-Semitic violence in New York, many Jews no longer feel safe in their neighborhoods
Guns for everyone?
A young man standing in front of the Holesome Bagels deli on Kingston Avenue says he has lived in Crown Heights for years but doesn’t feel safe in his neighborhood anymore. “You’ve got to watch your back if you live somewhere where you can’t even have both headphones in when you’re walking down the street,” he said. The young man with short hair and a light-blue yarmulke adds he doesn’t want to risk anything after his wife has been yelled and chanted at for being Jewish.
Other members of the Jewish community in Crown Heights said on this afternoon in January that they weren’t afraid because God was watching over them. But the young man with the light-blue yarmulke, who’s originally from Switzerland, says he’d prefer to defend himself. New York has some of the toughest gun laws in the US and he wants them to be loosened.
“In Switzerland you’re allowed to keep your gun after you’re done with military service. If that was allowed here, people wouldn’t be so quick to say stuff to you in the street.”
Feiner says she doesn’t want to live in a world where that would be necessary. Instead, she is calling for holding social media networks like Facebook responsible for hate posts that they don’t remove fast enough or at all. Gold adds that tolerance and knowledge about different faiths should be taught in elementary schools to stem the tide of anti-Semitic crimes.
Gold himself has never been physically attacked, probably because as a secular Jew who doesn’t wear a yarmulke or traditional dress, he isn’t as visible as Orthodox Jews, he says. But some time ago, someone sprayed swastikas on the pavement in front of his house. Now Gold is having a high tech security system installed in his home. Better safe than sorry.