Twenty years ago this week, American Jews in Crown Heights were traumatized by attacks that echoed those suffered by their brethren in Israel and Europe.
Known by historians as the Crown Heights riots, hundreds of African-Americans and Carribean Americans terrorized thousands of Jews in the Brooklyn neighborhood populated by Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim for three days, starting on the evening of August 19, 1991.
The riots were ignited by a tragic car accident in which a young Guyanese child was struck and killed by a car driven by a Chassidic man.The driver, whose car was hit as he crossed a major intersection, tried to avoid hitting anyone by steering his vehicle into a wall. He did not see two young cousins playing on the hot city sidewalk.
The residents gathered there did not believe him, however, and beat the driver mercilessly when he tried to lift the car to free the children. Police and ambulance personnel who arrived on the scene quickly removed him, realizing the danger to his life.
Before midnight, a rabbinical scholar, Yankel Rosenbaum, was dead. Surrounded by a gang of African-Americans, the Australian student was stabbed to death by 16-year-old Lemrick Nelson.
For three days, hordes of African-Americans roamed the streets of Crown Heights, yelling “Kill the Jews!” and “Hitler didn't finish the job!”
An elderly European Jewish woman leaped to her death from her apartment balcony, unable to face the fear “they” were hunting her down, again.
Hundreds of rioters chased Jews into their apartment buildings and then beat them viciously. Police cars were overturned and torched, windows were smashed, stores were looted, property was destroyed.
Dozens of Jewish families were evacuated from their apartments and taken to other neighborhoods because it was no longer safe to stay in their homes.
African-American neighbors and co-workers who were friends, ashamed and disgusted by what was happening, did what they could to help by shopping and supplying their Jewish friends with groceries and other necessities.
“Simply put, it was a siege. We had no bomb shelters, and no bombs – but the violence was every bit as dangerous,” noted Rabbi Shea Hecht, Chairman of the Board of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE).
“It seemed so personal,” he added in an interview with Arutz Sheva on Monday. “These people did not even know who we were – many of them were not even residents of our neighborhood – and yet they were told to hate us and were committed to our deaths. And the police could do nothing to protect us.”
New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Police Commissioner Lee Brown prevented police from taking concrete action to stop the rioters due to Dinkins' belief that it was best to “let them vent.”
Israelis living in the neighborhood -- and others who were visiting at the time -- gathered to offer their services to defend the Jews as a "commando squad," most having previously completed service in the IDF. The Satmar Chassidic sect in Williamsburg sent an elite cadre of 50 civil security patrol guards, each one armed, to pair together with local Chabad-Lubavitch security personnel.
But few other Jews dared to set foot in the neighborhood, and although a delegation was sent to Rabbi Avrohom Pam, a prominent rabbinical leader from the Lithuanian sector, he demurred from organizing a prayer demonstration to support Crown Heights Jews on the steps of city hall.
It took the firm hand of Brooklyn's Jewish Borough President, Howard Golden, to bring healing to the neighborhood. Golden gathered male and female community leaders from every ethnic group -- including the Jews -- around a massive polished table in his office at Borough Hall to form the Crown Heights Coalition.
The Coalition slowly became an historic body that for the next 10 years worked together to promote dialogue, created a common language, investigated the causes of the chaos and worked to prevent the hatred from festering again.