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Three Days of Terror and Tears

Eytan Kobre

Twenty years ago this week, riots terrorized the Jews in Crown Heights in what one prominent historian called the “most serious anti-Semitic incident in American history.” Yet while journalists framed their coverage as a balanced case of racial conflict and equated the accidental death of a seven-year-old boy with the lynch and murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, Jews were barricading themselves in their own homes as mobs rampaged through the streets, shouting “death to the Jews.” Two decades and several mayors la

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Monday, August 19, 1991 dawned as just another lazy, hot summer day in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood in which Orthodox Jews, African-Americans and Caribbeans living in close quarters form an uneasy, ethnically diverse mosaic. Many of the Lubavitch community’s kids had been at camps upstate for some six weeks and were due to return en masse the next day. In the non-Jewish areas of the Heights, youths unable to find summer employment during an economically depressed time hung out on the streets, representing a tinderbox waiting to explode.

Rabbi Noson Kopel, a musmach of Chabad’s Tomchei Tmimim Yeshiva, is an actuary and practicing attorney who has lived in the neighborhood for decades. He has a pristine recall of the events that set that tinderbox aflame, and for good reason – they unfolded a literal few steps from his front door: “A little after 8:00 PM that Monday evening, I was at a Mishnayos shiur following Minchah at Frankel’s shul, near the corner of Utica Avenue and President Street, when a mispallel, Naftoli Monyak, ran in to breathlessly report that a car driven by a Jew had struck a black child at the corner, with a large crowd gathering at the scene.

“The implications of his report didn’t really dawn on me and I decide to stay for Ma’ariv. As I left the shul, I reflected with sadness about the child’s uncertain fate, realizing that my own son often rode his bicycle at that same corner and if not for chasdei Hashem, it could have been him. As I walked outside, however, and saw Utica Avenue filled with an unruly rabble clearly headed for trouble, my sympathy metamorphosed into a more immediate concern for my safety and that of my fellow Jews.”

Unable to cross Utica to get home, and wary of remaining on the street, Kopel flagged down a frum fellow driving by and hopped into his car, getting an update on what was to be the most violent week Brooklyn had ever seen.

At about 8:20 p.m., the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s three-car entourage was proceeding west on President Street, on its return trip from the Rebbe’s weekly visit to Montefiore Cemetery in Queens to daven at the grave of his father-in-law, the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak ztz”l. Both the unmarked police cruiser that led the way with lights flashing and the Rebbe’s car behind it crossed the intersection at Utica Avenue, but the third car, a station wagon containing several young chassidim, fell behind. And, attempting to catch up, ran the red light.

The car was clipped from behind by another vehicle heading south on Utica, whereupon it spun rightward, careening onto the sidewalk and pinned Gavin Cato — a seven-year-old black boy, the child of Guyanese immigrants — against the apartment building where he’d been playing with his cousin, seven-year-old Angela Cato. Gavin died shortly thereafter and Angela was seriously injured.

“By the time I got home, roving bands of youths were making their way up President Street, and I heard them from behind my front door murmuring menacingly about ‘killing one of them.’ My wife had been at a shiur in the apartment building across the street, and I called to tell her to remain there, which she did until it was somewhat safer to venture out,” Kopel remembers.

Eventually, the crowds at Utica and President dispersed for the evening. But what Noson Kopel would not learn until the next morning was that at around 11:30 that night, a gang of about twenty hoodlums looking for Jews to assault had surrounded 29-year-old Australian scholar Yankel Rosenbaum near Kingston Avenue, stabbing him repeatedly in the back and beating him severely, fracturing his skull. He died later that night at Kings County Hospital.

The next afternoon, the Kopels walked to Eastern Parkway and Kingston to pick up their children upon their return from summer camp. By the time they returned home in a taxi loaded with the kids’ luggage, it was obvious that big trouble was brewing once more at the scene of the accident. The Kopels made a bee-line for the house, as Noson secured the front door with a large two-by-four.

“I heard loudspeakers being set up on the corner of Utica and President,” he begins, “and it wasn’t long before two voices with which I was only too familiar — those of inveterate race-baiters Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson — began riling the assembled crowd of hundreds. I can still hear Sharpton’s voice booming again and again, ‘We’ve got to make them pay for what they did to little Gavin Cato.’ Then, Sharpton decided to lead the mob in a chant. ‘Who do we need to get?’ he harangued. But the crowd apparently needed cueing, mumbling something about “whitey” and “chassidim.” Again Sharpton prompted the crowd, ‘Who do we need to get?’ But again, only a confused, tepid response from the crowd, until finally, Sharpton thundered, ‘The Jews!’ From that point on, over and over, came the responsive chant: ‘Who do we need to get?’ ‘The Jews!’

 

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