As someone who grew up in Crown Heights in the 1960s, I was both heartened and disappointed by last month’s Solidarity March. I was heartened because unlike what I experienced as a young person, the Hasidic and Haredi Jews that had been recently attacked are clearly not invisible to contemporary mainstream Jewish establishment. Undoubtedly, the liberal Jews’ own fear of anti-Semitism and their dislike (or should I say loathing) of President Trump played a role. Nevertheless, I experienced it as a “repair” (tikkun) of the way that liberal establishment Jews related to inner-city Orthodox Jews over 50 years ago. However, I was disappointed that so few Hasidic and Haredi Jews participated. The Haredi community is constantly growing in significance — demographically, religiously and politically. Their collaboration with the non-Haredi and non-Orthodox segments of the community is more important than ever, especially when those segments reach out towards them.
I grew up in Crown Heights in the 1960s. My parents moved there from Williamsburg in 1947, and we moved to Queens in 1968 when I was 16 years old. I vividly remember the neighborhood changing, twice. When we moved in and during most of the 1950s, the neighborhood was Jewish, but not necessarily Orthodox. Indeed, the Brooklyn Jewish Center (the BJC, as it was called) on Eastern Parkway was the largest Conservative congregation in the United States. Gradually, the neighborhood became increasingly Orthodox, with more and more Hasidic groups moving in. Then, just as it reached its Orthodox apogee, say around 1963, it began to change again — as if by a law of nature. At the edges, at the margins at first, blacks and Hispanics began moving in. At first, they moved in to the “vulnerable” apartments — the top floor of the four-story walk-ups. Then, once there were one or two black or Hispanic families in the building, the whole building started to change, and relatively quickly became entirely black and/or Hispanic.
Later, I heard that the neighborhood had been deliberately block-busted. Real estate businessman deliberately introduced black families into buildings and streets, so that the Jewish residents would sell their homes cheaply. These businessmen then bought these homes and sold them at a steep markup to the aspiring black middle class who wished to move into a white Jewish neighborhood. These developments were accompanied by a rise in crime and — as I experienced it — “friction” between black and Jewish kids, on the streets and especially in the playgrounds. More and more Jewish kids were attacked, and there were increasing attempts to take money or watches from them. Eventually, we stopped going to places like Lincoln Terrace Park to play handball.
The Jews of Crown Heights responded first and foremost by moving — to Flatbush, to Forest Hills and to the Island. Only the Lubavitch, led by the Rebbe, refused to move and hence gradually became the Jewish center of gravity of the neighborhood. Secondly, they tried to organize self-defense programs. The first attempt was by Lubavitcher Hasidim in 1965. They organized the “Maccabees” — patrol cars manned by young men armed with baseball bats and radios. Afterwards, Rabbi Meir Kahane organized the Jewish Defense League which initially tried to provide defense for Jews in Crown Heights, East New York, East Flatbush and other neighborhoods.
The years in question were of course, the years of the Civil Rights Movement and the overall Jewish community wholeheartedly supported it. I, too, firmly supported integration and racial equality. Yet, I felt that we were the “foot-soldiers” of integration, the residents in the places where integration was actually happening on the ground, and that we had concerns that nobody cared about, certainly not the liberal Jews of Great Neck or New Rochelle. To me, it seemed that Orthodox inner city Jews like myself were of little concern to the liberal non-Orthodox Jewish establishment. These seemed to be far more concerned with “radical chic” than with worrying about us. When Rabbi Kahane and the JDL sat in and disrupted the New York Jewish Federation offices, I supported this move. These were liberal Jews who supported policies that they did not pay any price for. Based upon this experience, the Solidarity March represents a welcome change. I only wish that the Hasidim were more forthcoming.