On a recent Sunday, about 200 young Hasidic women in long skirts and wigs and men with wide-brimmed black hats and free-flowing beards parked their baby strollers along the tree-lined boulevards of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.
They picked up their bullhorns and raised their homemade posters, some in Hebrew and Yiddish.
“The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference,” one sign read, quoting Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel. The young families chanted “Black lives matter!” and “Jews for justice!” as they marched through the diverse neighborhood, once home to riots that broke out over tensions between black and Hasidic residents.
But on this day, there was largely gratitude and curiosity. Some African American and Caribbean neighbors did double takes as they passed the improbable scene of solidarity. Others touched their hearts and called out “Thank you!”
“It was a way of helping our Jewish community to begin to learn from and listen to black voices in our community,” said Maayan Zik, a black woman who converted to Orthodox Judaism more than a decade ago.
The June 7 demonstration was organized by Zik and other young Hasidic Jews who wanted to build allyship with their black neighbors. It was a trailblazing move for a new generation in the Hasidic community, young people who publicly proclaimed that Jewish law requires them to stand up against injustice and racism, even without the backing of their community’s leaders.
As they organized the demonstration, they welcomed openly gay former members who had been shunned by the community, and asked rabbis to speak about how standing up to injustice and racism is at the heart of Hasidic Jewish values. But their plans proved divisive, unleashing tense and emotional discussions within the community.
“We thought it would make a profound statement as religious Jews,” said organizer Miriam Levy-Haim, 32. She said she was heartened by the large number of people who watched the march via live stream, but not surprised that many rabbis declined to participate.
Some of the religious leaders said the event was too political. Others feared that the Black Lives Matter movement was anti-Semitic and argued that “Jewish lives matter” should be a slogan, too, given the recent spate of attacks on synagogues and Jewish people in New York City.
On social media, the organizers received critical messages. Some attempted to publicly undermine their credibility. Others accused organizers of not being observant Jews and of rebelling against the Orthodox community.
For some Hasidic Jews, the chants of “No justice, no peace” during the rally elicited traumatic memories of the demonstrations and violence that enveloped the neighborhood when black and Jewish residents clashed during the 1991 riots.
The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jews have been rooted in Crown Heights since around World War II. Now home to the worldwide headquarters of the Lubavitch movement and long-established Jewish schools, the uniquely diverse neighborhood includes Lubavitchers living side-by-side with Caribbean and African American residents, often in the same apartment buildings.
Before the 1991 riots, the communities were largely separate and mysterious to one another, with tensions fueled by cultural misunderstandings. Hasidic Jews attend private religious schools, while black Americans largely go to public schools. Lubavitchers follow strict kosher dietary restrictions, meaning they can’t patronize Caribbean immigrants’ community-oriented food festivals. And because of rules that restrict Hasidic men from touching women outside their immediate families, their lack of eye contact and unwillingness to shake hands can be interpreted as disrespect.
Emotions had grown particularly tense leading up to the riots amid accusations that Jewish landlords were slow to make repairs for black tenants, and perceptions that police and government officials gave preferential treatment to the Hasidic community.
Those feelings blew up after Gavin Cato, the 7-year-old son of a Guyanese immigrant, was accidentally struck and killed by a car in the Lubavitch rabbi’s motorcade. His cousin, Angela Cato, 7, was badly injured: Her right leg was broken, she lost half her ear and her tongue was sliced.
The accident touched off days of rioting in Crown Heights. Jewish shops were looted. Bottles and rocks were thrown. Fires raged.
Anti-Semitic chants echoed through the streets, home to refugees from Russian violence and survivors of the Holocaust. An Australian rabbinical student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was beaten by a mob and stabbed. He later died.
Even today, older Lubavitchers call those violent days a “pogrom,” a Russian word for ethnic cleansing. Black residents called it the “rebellion” or “uprising.”
Among the words black residents chanted during that time: “No justice, no peace.”
Hearing young Hasidic Jews chant the same words today offended some older residents who lived through the 1991 violence. And seeing the new generation hold up signs calling to “defund the police” seemed naive to elders who today view police as protectors during religious events and festivals.
Chabad officials said they weren’t aware of the demonstration but were “appalled” by the death of George Floyd, the black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis. Community leader Yaacov Behrman also said he is “disgusted by what happened to George Floyd” but doesn’t support large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You can’t paint all cops with one brush,” he added.
Behrman, a community board member, has been working for decades to bring the black and Jewish communities together through more-official channels, including hosting events to explain Hasidic traditions.
“Rabbis and reverends now all have each other’s cellphone numbers,” he said. “And we communicate at the grass-roots level about everyday issues.”
But for the young Hasidic Jews who led the rally, much of the outreach simply seeks to keep the peace. With the march, they wanted to demonstrate solidarity.
“That an agent of the justice system can murder a person in cold blood doesn’t just call out as a human issue, as an American issue. To me, that calls out as a halachic issue — a Jewish law issue,” protester Ephraim Sherman told the crowd, drawing cheers. “It should call out to every Jew.”
Geoffrey Davis, a black community activist and founder of an anti-violence group that launched after the riots, joined in the protesters’ chants for black lives as they marched past his house last week. He called the demonstration “bold.”
“This was a message to young African Americans, who had never seen this sort of thing before, that some Hasidic Jews do care about their lives,” he said. “Now, that’s powerful.”
The event organizers invited black speakers to talk about food justice, civil rights and poverty. Participants spoke about healing and starting a more honest dialogue about racism and what it looks like in daily life.
“The Crown Heights that I was raised in was a racist and intolerant community that treated and referred to its black neighbors as less than human,” said Chaim Levin, an openly gay former Hasidic Jew who drove nearly four hours to participate in the march. “The organizers behind this rally are part of a force that is finally changing these attitudes. I think this was a moment in time where a shift is starting to happen.”
Street protests and wider civic engagement run counter to the often self-segregated culture of many Hasidic Jewish sects. Many Hasidic Jews see themselves as protectors of the faith and are fearful of outside influences and assimilation, which they feel dilutes a religion and culture with a long history of persecution.
But the Chabad-Lubavitchers are viewed as among the most worldly and open within the Orthodox world. The sect is known for reaching out to secular Jews, driving mitzvah tanks — mini-synagogues on wheels — around the city and asking pedestrians “Are you Jewish?” to encourage a return to a religious life. They have Chabad Houses around the world, from Ghana to Guatemala, open to Jews and others who want to eat a kosher meal or celebrate a holiday.
Zik was drawn to the Chabad-Lubavitchers’ uplifting approach to Judaism and the close-knit, supportive nature of the community, despite a jarring first encounter.
She visited the iconic Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Crown Heights after learning she had a white Jewish great-grandmother in her Jamaican family. But two white Hasidic women questioned why she was there and threatened to call the police.
Still, Zik came back, attracted to the rituals and sense of community. The prescribed gender roles and modesty rules rang true for her. She married a Lubavitcher and now has four children.
After President Trump’s election, she founded a social media group with her young female friends that they called “After the Ugly Cry.” It was a safe space to share ideas about how to talk to pro-Trump relatives who were “at war” with them on Facebook after the 2016 election.
Many of those women were involved in organizing the June 7 rally. Zik, 35, said she’s proud of her generation for taking their views to these streets, despite the neighborhood’s turbulent and tragic history.
“So many people thanked me after and said they were looking to express themselves and their beliefs, and it’s a Jewish value to stand up,” she said in a recent interview. “I wouldn’t say we changed everything. But regardless of comments made about us, this cause is more important than hurt feelings. We started something really good here.”