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The Rebbe on Race Relations

Friday, 16 January, 2015 - 11:51 am

In late August of 1991 the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn was the scene of a riot, described by Brandeis historian and author Edward Shapiro as "the most serious anti-Semitic incident in American history." (For the full story of event, google Crown Heights Riot 1991.) An automobile (driven by a Jew) accident resulted in the tragic death of a young black child and in the ensuing riots a visiting Jewish student was murdered by a lynch-mob shouting “Kill the Jew.” Subsequently a non-Jewish man with a beard was mistaken for a Chasidic Jew and was also killed while stopped at a red light in Crown Heights. Let’s just say it was time when there was not much judging people by the content of the character, but there was a lot of judging people by the color of the skin.

Al Sharpton and other rabble rousers, who never miss an opportunity to foment trouble under the guise of combatting racism, lost no time inciting the crowd and after all said and done, in addition to the 3 deaths, 152 police officers and 38 civilians were injured, 27 vehicles were destroyed, seven stores were looted or burned, and 225 cases of robbery and burglary were committed. At least 129 arrests were made during the riots. Property damage was estimated at one million dollars.

While I was not present at the time of the riot (I was a counselor at a summer camp in upstate New York that summer), I returned to Crown Heights a week or so after the events and witnessed the simmering tensions that lasted for a while.

I am only sharing this with you because I want to bring to your awareness the different perspective of the Rebbe in response to the event. Every Sunday the Rebbe stood for hours distributing dollars for Tzedakah along with a blessing, to all who came. On August 25, the first Sunday after the incident, then NYC Mayor David Dinkins visited the Rebbe during the dollars distribution. During the brief exchange Mayor Dinkins talked about good people coming together (to which the Rebbe added “from both sides”) to do what is needed to protect everyone. The Rebbe responded by pointing out that we really need to forget about two sides. We need to see it as one side. We are one people united by living in one city. You can view this exchange at www.chabadneworleans.com/1599198.

The Rebbe was actually echoing a conversation he had with Mayor Dinkins two years earlier shortly after he was elected. During that exchange the Rebbe advised that best way to bring everyone together was to stop seeing people as being on different teams, the black, the white, the Hispanic etc., Brooklyn, Manhattan etc. Rather, we should see it all the nationalities living in New York side-by-side in peace and harmony. He advised the mayor to emphasize New Yorkers’ similarities rather than their differences. “We were all created by the same G-d for the same purpose of bringing goodness around us. Every one of them should support their neighbor, especially in matters of charity.” He cited the melting pot idea where everything comes together as one. This exchange can be viewed at www.chabadneworleans.com/604940.

This was not a pollyannish approach to race relations or violent crime. Certainly the Rebbe understood and appreciated the need for security and law enforcement. He was addressing the root of the issue. Indeed color or race was entirely irrelevant in the discussion. In the Rebbe’s eyes every person was created by G-d for a purpose and the Rebbe saw his role as to encourage everyone along the path of fulfilling that purpose.

I will conclude with a story that I shared in the past. A few days before Pesach, some years ago, I arrived in New York late at night. I decided to pay a visit to Rebbe's Ohel immediately upon my arrival as that day was the Rebbe's birthday (Nissan 11). By the time I got there it was nearly midnight. As I made my way to the Ohel lost in my own thoughts, I looked up and I saw an African American couple, holding a young child, coming out of the Rebbe's Ohel. I noticed that the man wore a necklace that clearly identified him as a Christian. I nodded to them in greeting and in a soft voice the man said to me "today is the Rebbe's birthday; we came to pay our respects." Needless to say I was overwhelmed with awe in my renewed realization of how broad the Rebbe's reach was.

Mazel Tov to Talor and Avi Fine and the Fine and Kehaty family upon the Upshernish of Moshe Tzvi.

Stay tuned for an announcement next week about an exciting local twist to our 2015 Raffle for 100K. In the meantime go to www.chabadneworleans.com/raffle to view the prizes and purchase tickets. The drawing will be in early February.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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