Covering up in Crown Heights: Orthodox Jews are on the defensive

“We’re all always on alert."

On the streets of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood (photo credit: SERGE ATTAL/FLASH90)
On the streets of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood
(photo credit: SERGE ATTAL/FLASH90)
NEW YORK – Shashana Davida’s Crown Heights home has an open door every Friday night – all guests are welcome for dinner. This Shabbat, following the spate of attacks on the Jewish community in New York, the 39-year-old mother of three plans to keep her door locked.
“I’m constantly scared. I’m always thinking, What if someone is following me, or what if there is a maniac in the grocery store? Even sending my kids to school is a fear,” Davida, who fled antisemitism in the Soviet Union, told The Jerusalem Post. “I’m even scared to be inside my house. I didn’t feel this way until recently. But it’s not going to get better.”
The latest two incidents reported to authorities happened last Friday – both in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Just before 7 a.m., an unidentified man walked into the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, approached a member of the hassidic community and reportedly threatened to shoot someone. Earlier, a little after midnight, a woman identified as Tiffany Harris, 30, reportedly slapped three Orthodox women in the face, while saying, “F-U, Jews!”
These episodes come shortly after the deadly antisemitic shooting in a Jersey City kosher supermarket on December 10, followed by yet another act of antisemitic violence last weekend in Monsey, during which a man identified as Grafton Thomas, 37, charged in on a Hanukkah celebration and stabbed five people.
Davida isn’t alone in her fears.
Shloy Kapelushnick has owned Regency Dry Cleaners for 33 years. Located on Kingston Avenue, the main shopping drag for the hassidic Jewish population in Crown Heights, Kapelushnick is on a first-name basis with his customers.
“We’re all always on alert. No one is safe, because an attack can happen anywhere at any time. I know it can happen in my store,” the 50-year-old said.
As he spoke, a teenage boy came to pick up his mother’s dress. “Hold your mother’s dress straight! I just pressed it and you’re going to wrinkle it already,” he said to the teenager. “And mazel tov to your family. I’ll see you at your house for l’hayims tonight. Don’t drink too much though,” Kapelushnick laughed.
Hundreds rely on Kapelushnick every week to have their suits and dresses looking good as new in time for Shabbat. Now, he takes note of which customers are afraid to stand with their backs to the door when they enter his shop.
Synagogue is where Kapelushnick said he feels most endangered.
“I choose to sit by the front door. But that comes with the responsibility of having to constantly be on the lookout.”
The father of six says he’s toyed with the idea of obtaining a permit for carrying a concealed weapon.
“I just really don’t want to have to do that. I don’t want it to come to that,” he told the Post. Kapelushnick said he has friends in the process of acquiring guns.
Like most, he and his wife no longer let their kids play outside or walk alone.
“We drive them everywhere,” he said. “Everyone has pepper spray.”
Kingston Avenue – where Kapelushnick and Davida both work – is a street where cars drive up and down with menorahs on top. Brimming with kosher bakeries and store names written in Hebrew, shops compete for who can offer a better sale on tefillin and sheitels.
ORTHODOX JEWS created secure refuges for themselves in places like Crown Heights, after fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, and later the Holocaust. A generation later, the sense of safety within this insular community has been shattered by attacks: 13 in New York state in the past three weeks alone. In New York City, antisemitic hate crimes have escalated 21% in the past year.
At a news conference on Sunday afternoon, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced three soon-to-be launched initiatives aimed at combating antisemitism in New York. The announcement came following weeks of antisemitic assaults and vandalism that have plagued the city and state.
“I don’t want people to forget that we’ve confronted hatred in this city before, we’ve confronted division,” de Blasio said. “We have done it before, and we will do it again.”
First, the New York Police Department will increase its presence in Jewish neighborhoods, such as Borough Park, Crown Heights and Williamsburg, all in Brooklyn. The city will add lighting and security cameras to better protect Jews in those neighborhoods, which have been the major targets of the recent attacks.
Second, the mayor will create Neighborhood Safety Coalitions to serve as watchdogs to help the NYPD in its efforts to stop antisemitic crimes before they happen. The coalitions will be comprised of New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds.
The third initiative will address antisemitic hatred with schoolchildren.
“We have to reach our young people more effectively,” de Blasio said. “Our young people have to understand this history, but we have to teach it to them. We will be adding immediately in these communities in Brooklyn additional curriculum in our schools starting next month to focus on stopping hate.”
On Monday, The UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York announced a new director for the $4 million Community Security Initiative, which provides physical security and guards for Jewish institutions in the New York region.
“The safety and security challenges facing Jews and our communal institutions are unprecedented. This new initiative will have the resources to provide professional guidance and training to synagogues, schools and other Jewish organizations, in order to best protect all who enter our doors,” Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of JCRC-NY, said.
But in Crown Heights, community leaders insist that long-term change is in the hands of citizens themselves.
Zaki Tamir, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council and a resident of the neighborhood since 1999, said New York City’s strategies couldn’t make an impact if community members don’t first step up to protect each other.
“If you want to have prevention, you have to have a person who cares about that block. People know their neighbors. They know if somebody is out of place,” Tamir said. “The mayor isn’t giving the resources for a permanent presence. The police are doing their job as responders, but we have to do our job to prevent in the first place.”
Last February, following a round of violent crime in the neighborhood, Tamir divided the area into 14 sectors and assigned volunteer residents to patrol from 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. The team had recruited 30 volunteers. The volunteers did not have any form of self-defense training, so were instructed by Tamir to just “observe and report.”
Tamir said the neighborhood watch groups that he organized “didn’t take off.”
“We have the structure already set up, but I lost momentum. I’m just one person,” he said. “I’m telling everyone, ‘what are we going to wait for?’ People just don’t want to commit the hours. But we’re not asking for vigilantes, we’re simply asking for people to drive up and down their own blocks. They could do it while listening to the radio or chatting on the phone.”
Tamir said his starting point in getting residents involved is naming the dozens of victims attacked in 2019.
“It’s not personal until it hits someone in the face. There’s a bit more interest now because of what’s going on,” he said. “I’m no prophet, but it doesn’t seem that anything will change unless we get involved and do something.”
Also patrolling the streets are Shomrim and Shmira – Brooklyn safety patrol groups first formed in the 1970s in the Crown Heights and Williamsburg neighborhoods in response to rising neighborhood crime and the belief that the police were not up to the task of keeping Jews safe. The groups, named for the Hebrew word “guard,” have a friendly rivalry and are made up of unarmed volunteer hassidic “cops.”
Ben Lipshitz has spent the past 10 years volunteering for Shomrim.
“We’ve increased our readiness and patrol schedule since the shooting in Jersey City,” he said.
“Police can only do as much as the law allows them to. People are genuinely afraid, and it’s compounded by the fact that law enforcement isn’t always there,” he said. “When we don’t pay attention to the smaller crimes, it leads to a climate where people may be emboldened to do worse.”
Despite the sizable ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Crown Heights, the neighborhood remains majority African-American. The current violence has sparked painful memories of the 1991 riots there, which began when a black boy was killed accidentally by a car escorting Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late head of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement headquartered in the neighborhood. The death sparked three days of rampages in which black youths attacked religious Jews, murdering one.
Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Center, said the neighborhood is more united today than it was in the 1990s.
“Our black neighbors are calling me to ask how they can help,” Cohen said. “Overall, community and political relations here right now are very good, so I don’t see any specific cause to the current outbreak. It’s just a given that antisemitism always has been and always will be. Sometimes, it’s just something in the air.”
But not everyone is affected by “something in the air.”
Denton Vessell drives for Uber in Crown Heights and Williamsburg, often picking up hassidic passengers. He said that as a black man, he is hyperaware that some of his Jewish riders are apprehensive about getting into his vehicle.
“I feel bad that it has become so hard for them to go out and worship. It shouldn’t be that way for anyone,” Vessell said.
He said that ultra-Orthodox female passengers usually don’t speak to him, but that the men are mostly “really friendly.”
“Either way,” Vessell said, “I always try to go out of my way to give them my regards and just make them feel comfortable.”