For Brooklyn’s diverse communities of Orthodox Jews, it was a summer like none other.
To be sure, every year as the temperature rises and the city empties out, there is a heightened sense of lawlessness—fireworks illegally set off in advance of July 4th, homeless men and women sleeping on the streets rather than in designated shelters, and the stench of uncollected trash sweltering in the heat.
But this summer brought additional pressures. By summer’s end, nearly 25,000 city residents had died of the coronavirus, and many more fallen ill, while the rest were confined to life at home and under mask. Hundreds of thousands lost jobs and businesses closed en masse, many permanently. Violent crime rose; the murder rate in June 2020 was up by 23 percent from 2019, and there was a 130-percent increase in shooting incidents compared to the previous year. All of which would be reason enough to lose sleep, if New Yorkers weren’t already losing sleep because of the absurd number—much higher than in previous years—of illegal fireworks exploding everywhere at all hours of the night in the weeks running up the 4th, leading to thousands of desperate complaints and even to conspiracy theories that the police were setting them off in a campaign of psychological warfare. (Perhaps because the other problems were so intractable, everybody I spoke to for this report fixated on the fireworks.)
All in all: an unrelenting atmosphere of insecurity, with families left feeling helpless in their own homes.
While these are all city-wide problems, Orthodox residents of Brooklyn felt especially at risk—or perhaps especially singled out. Though only 20 percent of New York City’s Jews are Orthodox, they have been disproportionately targeted by anti-Semitic crime in the last few years. Along with the high-profile anti-Semitic murders over the last year in Jersey City and Monsey, there was a spate of non-lethal violence—punching sprees, bricks to the head, gang attacks—that eroded community safety in Crown Heights and Borough Park. These communities were made even more vulnerable lately as city workers, forced to focus on mitigating the risks and effects of the pandemic, neglected other essential public services. In the vacuum, lawlessness abounded. As summer came around, families with young children itched to take their kids to the park for exercise and play, for some semblance of normalcy. It wasn’t the pandemic that caused them to hesitate, but the spike in daytime violence in local parks. Two men were shot and killed this summer in Lincoln Terrace park, a popular green leisure space for Orthodox Jewish families in the area. “I feel like I am walking around constantly looking over my shoulder,” the Crown Heights mother of four Chani Majesky explains.
Making things worse, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York hard, the Jewish community was singled out for ridicule and admonition—and by the mayor, no less. Bill De Blasio issued an incendiary rebuke to the Jews of New York on his public Twitter page: “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping the disease and saving lives. Period.” De Blasio was referring to the funeral of a rabbi in Williamsburg that drew crowds of 2,500 people at the height of the lockdown—a funeral that, it turned out, had been arranged with the approval of De Blasio’s own NYPD, which helped block off streets in order to facilitate it.
Yaacov Behrman, a Crown Heights resident, condemned the “completely unacceptable” mass attendance at the funeral. Nevertheless, he pointed out, it was inappropriate for De Blasio to single out the community in this way considering the high attendance at the funeral did not represent the actions of Jewish New Yorkers as a whole. (Behrman personally sacrificed the customarily large wedding he had always wanted for a tiny affair in a backyard.) And, for him and other residents, it felt strange to watch protests over Black Lives Matter erupt a short while later, as many more thousands of people gathered in public squares nearby with De Blasio’s support.
All in all, the mayor’s criticism seemed especially ironic given the city-wide agreement about De Blasio’s own inaction and incompetence on every pressing matter of the summer, from pandemic response to economic stabilization to reorganizing schooling to solving crime.
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The result is that, for the first time in decades, large numbers of Orthodox Jews are seriously considering leaving the area. Will they?
Everyone in Crown Heights seems to know someone who is “exploring his options.” I talked to a mother who is in a “Chabad moms” group chat on the messaging platform WhatsApp. (Chabad is an outward-facing movement of ḥasidic Jews, a movement of Jewish spiritual revival started in 18th-century Europe.) Each day there are conversations sparked by people asking for advice on how to move out: to Florida, to the suburbs—to an area where they get more square footage per dollar, as well as safety. One Crown Heights resident tells me: “I heard rumors of 80 families planning to leave. I know personally about ten families, including five who already moved.”
In Williamsburg live thousands of members of the Satmar community, a different ḥasidic movement. There too I sensed that the community feels panicked. On August 30, there was a hit-and-run in which a car rammed into two visibly Jewish pedestrians walking along the sidewalk. A few days prior, a female worker at the main Satmar Jewish girls’ school in the area was sexually assaulted right outside the campus gates. “Three thousand young girls go there,” one Satmar resident I spoke to said, referring to the school. “This will traumatize the community for months and months.” He hears rumblings about people leaving the area but notes that it would not be an overnight decision.
Indeed, while many affluent and secular city-dwellers have already left town—neighborhoods like the Upper West Side are flooded with U-Haul vans—members of ḥasidic communities, for numerous reasons, cannot simply pick up and leave.
Crown Heights is known to Chabad as kan tsiva hashem es habracha or “the place where God commands his blessings.” The father-in-law and predecessor of the late Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson specifically chose Crown Heights as the home of the Chabad community, a place for them to build a life in America after the horrors of the Holocaust. It was not always smooth sailing. In the 1960s, many American city dwellers started to sell their homes and plan lives in the suburbs, Jews among them. The rebbe was vehemently against this trend. In 1969 he made a formal address at Passover, denouncing the desire to move away as “similar to a disease.” The rebbe invoked a Jewish halakhic—legal—requirement that a Jewish person cannot sell their home to a non-Jewish person if doing so will bring negative effects on the community. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, then the leading rabbinic authority in the United States for the mainstream Orthodox community, concurred in a letter to the journal HaPardes, writing that Jewish families leaving in droves would have dire consequences.
He was right. The Jewish families in New York who moved from neighborhoods like Brownsville in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side in Manhattan in the 1960s often left behind the sick, the elderly, and the poor who were unable to follow them. This taught harsh lessons. Orthodox residents in Brooklyn tend to prioritize the needs of their community above individual concerns. By and large, they are wary of packing up and leaving.
There are many good reasons to stay. In Crown Heights, they are situated in their place, brought together in neighborhood relationships by obligations and blessings given and received. The bonds of community endured even at the socially alienating heights of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chani Majesky and her husband run the Crown Heights chapter of “The Friendship Circle,” a communal organization for families with children who have disabilities. The pandemic upended the organization’s model of providing essential in-person programming like respite opportunities and social development. But they quickly adapted and were able to move their services entirely online. Chani expressed her appreciation for the teen volunteers that continued to show up for her online programming. “They came to show face and give encouragement,” she says. In a broader sense, Chani was impressed at how the community at large in Crown Heights banded together in other ways to support the vulnerable. She explains: “There are food packages every Thursday night for whoever wants to come. Real necessities that people have organized. The amount of money given out to help people get by because so many people lost their jobs is amazing. There is food, finances, clothing—before Passover we got a call from the wine store giving 100 cases as a donation. People are putting other people’s needs before their own.”
The community’s close-knit structure lends it an easy propensity for banding together in times of crisis, like the threat of the never-ending fireworks, something that may sound silly to outsiders but that awakened children and families at all hours of the night in the month of June. At midnight towards the end of the month, members of the community, wanting to respect social-distancing guidelines, gathered some 250 cars in protest outside the mayor’s residence and honked him awake. The next day, De Blasio promised an end to the fireworks.
As the summer comes to a close, those who are still here await the new Jewish year and its High Holy Days with both eagerness and trepidation. Chani Majesky is feeling uncertain. “We can plan for tomorrow, but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” she says. “I love planning and organizing and I’m feeling shaky and unstable not knowing what’s coming around the corner. Will our kids be in school, will we end up hosting people for holidays?”
Schools are open, for now. But thanks to the recent rise in coronavirus cases in the area—exact numbers are unclear, but the Gedaliah Society, a group advising Crown Heights residents during the pandemic, described “multiple cases of COVID-19 . . . both in residents and those from out of town”—schools are being increasingly meticulous. A local boys’ school sent out a letter to parents warning that they will not allow children onto the school bus without masks. In addition, Jewish schools in the area, like many others that have reopened, have a system through which they limit interaction between grades. For parents, these precautions are welcomed mainly because they enable their children to leave the house and safely get back to learning in person. “I will do whatever it takes for my kids to stay in school,” one father tells me. “It’s not healthy for a kid to spend six hours a day in front of a screen at home,” he says. “Education has always been an essential throughout Jewish history.” Indeed, online learning was not seriously considered for this fall. The community viewed the measure to close schools in March as a very extreme one; the idea was always to open them as soon as it was possible to do so.
The question of the holidays is still unanswered. Though they begin this week, no one is yet quite sure what they will look like—whether synagogues will be full, whether families will be able to gather and in what size groups. Brooklyn’s ḥasidic communities await precise guidance from their rabbis and doctors. Things are moving fast, but decisions will most likely only be made just before the holidays begin. “Nobody wants the same thing to happen as happened after Purim,” one Crown Heights resident tells me, referring to the Jewish holiday that coincided with the major spreading of COVID-19 in New York City.
Right now that’s a risk. Yaacov Behrman is concerned about large groups coming to Crown Heights from Israel, as is customary for the High Holy Days. “Usually thousands come. Large groups crowd into small apartments,” he says. “The streets and synagogues also become very crowded. I would call that reckless and dangerous behavior. Thirty people in an apartment and you have nowhere to quarantine; that’s unconscionable behavior,” he says. But he also deems blanket bans on visitors unreasonable and advises a sensible case-by-case approach. “If you’re coming to visit your parents in a large house and you have somewhere to quarantine, that’s a personal or family decision.”
Only visitors with a positive COVID-19 antibody test have been advised by religious institutions to come, but there is no official mechanism for monitoring or enforcing this. Some young yeshiva students studying at 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s famous headquarters, have contracted COVID-19 over the last few weeks. And concerns have been raised inside the community and out about the tightly packed crowds, apparently comprising hundreds of people, who gathered inside 770 to pray over the weekend. A prominent doctor working with the Gedaliah Society recommended that worshippers resume outdoor prayer rather than praying in large groups indoors, and one mother I spoke with yesterday told me that one of the largest synagogues in Crown Heights has announced it will refuse people entry if they do not comply with masking and social-distancing regulations.
Ultimately, Chani tells me, as a woman who helps families with disabled children, and with so much out of her control, she is focused on “being creative in a time like this, coming up with ways to give our families the level of joy and feeling of community and unity that they are used to.” For one, this includes sending flowers before Shabbat to families of children with disabilities—a socially distanced activity that brings much joy.
To end with an earlier question: will Brooklyn’s Jews soon pick up and leave in great numbers? No one can say for sure. Chaos has unsettled everyone in New York; on the other hand, this has hardly been the first season of Jewish discomfort there. What is clear is that if they do leave, the city will be worse off for it. The Lubavitcher rebbe, speaking in 1969, was right: New York City is nothing without its people.