Caribbean girls discover Jewish neighbors are really OK

May 2, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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'We heard Jews are nasty, they don't take showers, they're rich and own everything in NYC'

By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

CROWN HEIGHTS — This neighborhood, which was the scene of black-on-Jewish rioting in August 1991, has come a long way.

While tensions and misunderstandings still divide Crown Heights, today's reality is more complex and relaxed than in the '90s.

When four teenage girls arrived recently from the Caribbean, they knew nothing about Jews — except what they heard on the street. And what they heard suggested they should fear their Jewish neighbors and keep their distance.

"We heard that the Jews are mean, they're nasty, they don’t take showers, they practice incest, they’re all rich, and they own everything in New York City," the girls said.

As members of WNYC’s Radio Rookies Club, the girls set out to interview members of the Hasidic community; they also did a lot of reading on the subject.

They were surprised to discover that their music teacher, Yiram Aldouby, is Jewish, because he is clean-shaven and doesn’t wear black Hasidic garb. He had to explain to them about the different streams of Judaism, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox.

"In the beginning, we felt a certain way about the Jewish people because each of us had a bad experience or was given the wrong information. And from then on we just made generalizations about a whole group of people," they said on the WNYC website."Now, when we see a Lubavitch person in the neighborhood, we won’t think they’re racist."

The Radio Rookies Club is made up of groups of teenagers, with each team comprising students from the same high school. WNYC staffers help them learn to record, write and edit radio copy.

These Crown Heights girls — Selena Brown, Chantell Clarke, Tangeneka Taylor and Sabrina Smith, natives of Jamaica and Guyana — are students at the High School for Global Citizenship at 883 Classon Ave.

A video about the project shows the girls interviewing David and Ilana, a young Lubavitch couple who explain to them why they believe it’s important to nurture Jewish tradition and to separate their children from unwanted outside influences.

It shows the girls walking around the neighborhood, with scenes of a Hatzolah ambulance, the Lubavitcher headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, a sidewalk sale of Jewish holy books, and even a controversial poster of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, with the words, "Moshiach has come!" (While it is not official Lubavitch doctrine that Schneerson is the messiah, many people in the community believe this is so.)

The video also shows them taking part in a workshop run by Amy Ellengbogen, director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, in which Ellengbogen presents a statement about coexistence; participants move to different parts of room to indicate whether people agree, disagree or are neutral about the statement. Toward the end of the video, there's a song by Matisyahu, an Orthodox Jewish reggae singer.

"Very brave and courageous of these four young ladies to find out what goes on rather than believing rumors and sticking with what is said," said a poster on the Lubavitch website. "Makes me proud to be Chabad [the outreach arm of the Lubavitcher movement]. We need to be more respectful of other people no matter what the race or religion. Past is past."

In another indication of coexistence between Hasidic Jews and African- and Caribbean-Americans in the area, in two separate incidents in one week, black and Latino victims of violence were helped by Hasidim, according to the Jewish newspaper Algemeiner.

In one, a Jewish man came to the aid of a Latino woman who was being mugged, whereupon the mugger fled. The man informed the Shomrim — an Orthodox Jewish civilian patrol group — who in turn informed the NYPD.

A day earlier, several students from a yeshiva, or Jewish day school, witnessed a fight between two African-American boys, called 911 and stayed with the victim until an ambulance arrived. Later, they were able to give police detailed descriptions of the incident.

"There’s always been an ongoing effort in the neighborhood for one group to learn about the other," said Pearl Miles, district manager of Community Board 8, which covers Crown Heights South. "It’s still continuing."

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