Reengage! The Legacy of the Crown Heights Riots & Civil Rights

Cover of the Daily News, 1991

This week marks the 21st anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots. When these riots took place in 1991, I was ten years old, and living in the predominately African American and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now, sitting in my office in Jackson, Mississippi, another community historically rocked by racial tensions, I feel the same loss and fear that I did that summer long ago.

I feel the loss of Gavin Cato, the 7 year old son of Guyanese immigrants who died when a Jewish car-driver ran him over, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Yeshiva student who was targeted and killed because of his Jewish identity. I also remember the fear each of the two communities had for the other. The fear that comes along with the lack of experience with and knowledge of another group of people. The fear that sat on the minds of community members for years before the riots broke out and that ultimately led to mistrust and violence.

But while remembering this fear, I also remember a very hopeful message.

A few years ago, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I was asked to reflect on Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement. I wrote something not only about how it was then, but how it should be now. Jewish communities have played a critical role to play in the ongoing pursuit of racial justice – and must continue to do so.

Thomas & Zuchman

The piece I wrote also followed a visit by two Freedom Riders, Hank Thomas and Lewis Zuchman. They came to the ISJL’s office to discuss how the Jewish community can be involved in this important commemoration of the anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Early on in the conversation, it became clear that the scope of their request was not limited to the particular event or to the city of Jackson. Hank Thomas delivered a message delicately framed as an expression of hope.

His message, “Reengage,” was rooted in his desire for Jewish participation as he educates others about the roles that Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement and aims to proactively counter anti-Semitism. More pertinently, it is based on a vision of global communities where Jewish communities and African American communities, in particular, are not isolated from each other. Instead, a strong foundation of meaningful and personal friendships and community relationships are present in all aspects of our daily life.

The 21st Anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots calls on us to reengage. We can pursue a racial reality that moves beyond structured programs such as interfaith dialogues. These programs often present information about groups of people and what “they” believe and “they” experience.

Remembering both communities' losses.

To reengage is to develop strong personal and communal relationships based on strengths, capabilities, knowledge, experience, compassion and interest. Re-engagement is an exchange of personal stories, concerns, losses, struggles, triumphs and priorities that collectively represent the unique “I”s and “you”s that sustain our communities. Generalizations disappear when we are not afraid to come out from behind the shields of “we” and personalize our discussions.

In 1961, the Freedom Riders were on a clear mission: Civil Rights for all. The risks included death and there were many Jewish men and women who courageously participated. In 2012, as we mark the 21st anniversary of the riots, let’s work to build relationships—they are certainly not life-threatening and are, in fact, life-enhancing. It is our privilege to have a history of participation in the Freedom Rides. It is fear that pitted neighbors against each other during the riots.

The work of re-engagement, and civil rights, and all of this history, is complicated. But just because something is difficult does not mean we should avoid it. We must continue in this important work, always seeking not only to make our world better, but also to work more effectively and meaningfully with our neighbors as we collectively engage in the work. That is what will ultimately help eliminate such schisms that lead to painful events like the riots in Crown Heights.

Let us therefore carry on the mission of the Civil Rights movement and the appreciation of all people for who they are–and not the color of their skin, their economic status and all other barriers that keep people apart.

It is my hope that the message of Hank Thomas carries the weight of a directive that travels far beyond the walls of our office here in the Deep South, and Jewish organizations everywhere: Reengage!

In the South and beyond, there is important work to be done to repair our world. What are ways that you are engaging and re-engaging in bettering your community?

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