On April 6, with Passover only a few days away, young men with yarmulkes on their heads and cardboard boxes in their arms rushed in and out of Schick’s Gourmet Bakery on 16th Avenue in the largely Hasidic Borough Park section of Brooklyn.
Their frantic loading of chocolate babka, mandel bread and rainbow cookies into a delivery truck seemed an innocent echo of the protests staged by hundreds of Orthodox Jews on the same street just two nights earlier. Young Jewish men carried boxes then too, piling them into dozens of bonfires as tensions flared between the usually peaceful community and the police.
“It kept on escalating,” said Sariel Widawsky, 49, a co-owner of Schick’s Bakery on the street where the protest began. “Instead of someone with a calm head just calming the situation down, more police came and more police came and the helicopters swooped down right into the crowd almost. It was like in a Hollywood movie.”
And it was a movie Mayor Michael Bloomberg would have preferred to miss.
Though Mr. Bloomberg enjoyed the support of the politically powerful Orthodox community last year, the protest indicated a level of frustration with an administration that prides itself on widespread popularity without having to appease a particular base. Mr. Bloomberg, some observers say, may have to work harder to reach an insular community that had a direct line to City Hall during the Giuliani years.
In the 1990’s, Bruce Teitelbaum, Rudolph Giuliani’s chief of staff, acted as the liaison to the Jewish community. A graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush and a familiar face among Orthodox Jews, Mr. Teitelbaum’s job was in large part to keep happy the Jewish voters that helped make up the core of Mr. Giuliani’s support.
“Without Bruce Teitelbaum, there is no more communication,” said Rabbi Reuven Lipkind, a community activist based in Crown Heights. “I think Mr. Bloomberg is a trifle aloof. He is hard to get to.”
That said, Mr. Lipkind campaigned for Mr. Bloomberg in last year’s race. Some observers and Bloomberg officials believe such complaints to be a reaction to Mr. Bloomberg’s reluctance to play ethnic politics. He has often said that he makes decisions based on merits and lets the political squabbles take care of themselves.
“Comparisons can be made to previous administrations to say that they gave you more, but that is not what this riot was about,” said Jonathan Greenspun, commissioner of the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit and his de facto liaison to the Orthodox community. “At the end of the day, what a Bloomberg administration can give any community is access, day or night.”
But on April 4, Mr. Bloomberg got a rude reminder that ethnic communities, especially those considered politically powerful, still like to make their voices heard.
At around 6:30 that night, the police pulled over the bakery’s founder, 75-year-old Arthur Schick, for talking on his cell phone while driving. Witnesses said the officers treated Mr. Schick roughly, putting him in a painful arm lock and throwing him into a police van. Within minutes, the neighborhood was rife with rumors—later shown to be false—that police had brutally beaten the elderly man. By nightfall, hundreds of furious Hasidim took to the streets. The majority of them were young men and boys, some too young to shave. In black robes, felt fedoras, beards and peyes, they poured out onto the sidewalks screaming, “No justice, no peace!”
After hours of angry demonstrations and some scuffles, the protest petered out. The next morning, Mr. Bloomberg helped arrange a face-to-face meeting between the Police Commissioner and community leaders, who seemed satisfied. But reaching out to the people who actually work in the neighborhood’s tailor shops, jewelry stores and dozens of kosher delis will be more difficult.
The first significant population of famously secluded Hasidim came to the United States and New York after the First World War. After World War II, large groups of Hasidim transplanted, seemingly via time warp, the decimated shtetls of Poland and Russia into neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Borough Park, which now has more than 100 yeshivas and more than 200 synagogues. Another wave followed the failed Hungarian revolt against Soviet domination in 1956.
Since then, their resistance to modernity, their dark velvet robes, long beards and Yiddish vernacular have made them one of the most distinctive and vibrant communities in New York. But it has also made them vulnerable to racism.
After Tuesday night’s protest, posts written on the Web site NYPD Rant took an especially ugly tone.
“They are animals. Pure savages,” read one post. “They should be on some island picking food from each others beards. Let them riot.”
Another post saw a conspiracy because only three protesters, including Mr. Schick, were arrested during the disturbance. “They guarantee politicians thousands of votes, politicians run the police department, therefore there will be no firm enforcement of the law when it comes to the Hasids,” the post read.
Such sentiments are not limited to angry e-mailers. In the bars and art galleries of Williamsburg, where hipsters and Hasidim live in close quarters, seemingly open-minded young professionals openly express their disgust with Hasidic dress, customs and the Orthodox emphasis on large families.
Even Mr. Bloomberg has shown some discomfort with certain rituals. City Hall has tried to stop a controversial practice in circumcision rites, in which a practitioner, or mohel, sucks the blood from the baby’s wound. After an infant died in 2004 from a case of herpes contracted during the practice, Thomas R. Frieden, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, wrote an open letter to the Orthodox community warning of the act’s dangers. Many Orthodox Jews argued that the city was interfering with their religious freedom.
“They see themselves as in America but not of America,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history in New York at Yeshiva University and the author of American Jewish Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective. “These people are premodern, but there is also a very modern piece to them. Between 1919 and the Nazi invasion in Poland, they became a political group and they learned how to use political influence for the promotion of Jewish causes. They know where Washington is, and they know where Albany is.”
And especially during the Giuliani administration, they knew where City Hall is.
In 1994, when a van filled with Hasidic students was sprayed with bullets while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, Mr. Teitelbaum was notified instantly. In a matter of minutes, the news got to the Mayor, who sent Mr. Teitelbaum to the scene in a police car. In 1999, even after he had left City Hall to manage Mr. Giuliani’s U.S. Senate campaign, Mr. Teitelbaum had a role in the city’s response to the police gunning down Gidone Busch, a mentally ill Hasidic man wielding a hammer in Borough Park.
According to news reports at the time, Mr. Teitelbaum helped cover the neighborhood with posters “from the Rabbonim” that ordered “all members of the Boro Park community who fear the word of G-d, to stay away from any demonstrations.”
“Teitelbaum could defuse the aftermath of a riot even if he couldn’t prevent it,” said Norman Adler, a consultant who has worked in Orthodox communities. “He was important and he was high up.”
But these are supposed to be different times. Mr. Bloomberg’s landslide victory was so impressive because he did it without any traditional ethnic base.
“Every borough—every ethnicity, religion—believed the city was headed in the right direction, that we were better off,” said Stu Loeser, a spokesman for the Bloomberg administration. “No one has ever been able to do that before.”
For these less-tense times, the Mayor calls on Mr. Greenspun, who lived in Borough Park for 24 years. On the night of the protest, Mr. Greenspun worked the phones from City Hall and stayed in contact with Fred Kreizman, his point man for Brooklyn.
Mr. Greenspun said his contacts in the community were more than sufficient, a claim backed up by some Orthodox community leaders.
“Whenever we need a favor, they are only a phone call away,” said Moishe Indig, a community leader who has worked closely with the NYPD.
“Greenspun was totally accessible,” said Abraham Biderman, a former housing and finance commissioner who was present at the protest.
But other members of the Orthodox community complain that they have less access to City Hall now, and that Mr. Greenspun is not as available and as active as Mr. Teitelbaum was during the Giuliani administration.
In Mr. Teitelbaum’s absence, some power has shifted to elected officials such as City Councilman Simcha Felder and State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who had strained relations with Mr. Giuliani. But unlike Mr. Teitelbaum, who was deeply loyal to Mr. Giuliani, the two Democratic politicians seem to have their own agendas.
On Tuesday night at the protest, Mr. Felder, an Orthodox Jew who represents Borough Park and who was present at the protests, accused NYPD Chief of Department Joseph Esposito of shouting, “Get the fucking Jews out of here!”
Chief Esposito, the city’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, was the commander of the neighborhood’s 66th Precinct from 1990 to 1993, and last October was given an award by the Shomrim Society, an organization of Jewish police officers.
The Mayor announced that the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board would investigate the allegations against the chief. Mr. Felder and Mr. Hikind, who also represents Borough Park, met privately with Mr. Esposito late Thursday night.
“It was the three of us, and it was brutally honest and eye to eye,” said Mr. Hikind, who added that both he and Mr. Felder were satisfied with a letter that Mr. Esposito issued after the meeting.
“I used language that was inappropriate,” the letter read. “However, I can assure that nothing I said reflects my personal bias against you or the community.”
It is hard to imagine that such a meeting would have been necessary between cops and Orthodox leaders when Mr. Teitelbaum was around.
Then again, Mr. Teitelbaum’s influence appears to have come at great cost.
During the Giuliani administration, the Orthodox community benefited from a large share of the limited supply of day-care vouchers. After a 1997 protest in which thousands of Borough Park Orthodox rioted when a sheriff tried to impound a Hasidic man’s car, there was a drop in the number of cars towed in the neighborhood for several months, one source said.
When a Mexican worker was killed in a building collapse in 1999, an investigation by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes examined whether Hasidic building contractors got special treatment from City Hall. Accusations of those improper relationships focused on Mr. Teitelbaum.
That same year, Mr. Teitelbaum worked behind the scenes to replace a rabbi in the Lubavicher community in Crown Heights who was antagonistic to the Mayor. Mr. Teitelbaum also had his problems with Mr. Hikind, who has blamed Mr. Teitelbaum for instigating a 1996 U.S. Attorney’s office investigation into accusations that he stole federal funds. He was acquitted of those charges.
“Simcha’s relationship with the Mayor, and mine, whether it is with the Mayor or [Deputy Mayor] Kevin Sheekey, is better than it has ever been,” said Mr. Hikind.
Why the Anger?
But if the relationship between the leaders of Borough Park and the Mayor’s office is so strong, what caused so many people to protest for so long?
Community leaders and protesters attributed the explosion of anger to everything from frustration over an increase in traffic tickets to the meddling of non-Jews, who some say started the first bonfires, to bored boys home for the holiday stirred up by the warm April air.
“Kids were out of school; there was a carnival atmosphere,” said Mr. Greenspun.
At Yidel’s Grocery on 12th Avenue, Pinny Schwartz, 18, and Israel Rosenberg, 27, pressed their noses to the storefront to inspect a couple of snapshots of the protest. One showed a man dressed in a varsity jacket lighting posters as wide-eyed boys in fedoras looked on.
Next to the photo ran a paragraph that appeared in the Daily News on April 5. The caption read: “Angry mobs of Hasidim screamed at cops and set fires in the streets of Brooklyn.”
Beside the picture, somebody wrote: “Is this really a ‘Hasidim’ setting a fire?”
Others, like Mandel Zitronbaum, a heavy-set 25-year-old, took pride in the protests. He said he saw the police confront Mr. Schick. “They were hitting him with sticks,” Mr. Zitronbaum said while sitting at the counter in the Dairy Luncheonette on 48th Street, eating a cheese Danish and then ordering a cheese sandwich. “He started screaming that ‘this is what the Nazis did to me 60 years ago.’”
A woman behind the counter rolled her eyes.
Up the block on 49th Street, at the Famous Schwartz deli, a man with a long, graying beard and yarmulke wrote Passover Seder orders down right to left on a scrap of receipt. Like many of the people walking around Borough Park, he said the protest was really a response to police papering the neighborhood with tickets for parking violations.
“The thing is that here, they are giving tickets right and left. Even if you are sitting in the car, you get one. This is not right. This is why people are so upset. I think in the other neighborhoods, they don’t do this,” he said. “They take advantage here because the people are quiet and nice.”
Both Mr. Hikind and Mr. Felder argued that such excuses were unacceptable.
“I just want to say clearly that the behavior of the young people in our community was a horror, it was inexcusable—I don’t tolerate excuses for anyone,” said Mr. Hikind. But he also said some of the blame rested with the overreaction of the police, especially members of a task force brought in to assist the members of the 66th Precinct. On Monday, videos showing police using aggressive tactics against some of the protesters made their way around the city. “I hope that their tactics to fight terrorism are more effective than what happened in Borough Park,” Mr. Hikind added.
Late Thursday afternoon, things seemed to have settled back to normal at the Bobov Yeshiva on 48th Street. Old men with phylacteries wrapped around their creased foreheads and books fanned opened under their noses sidestepped boys playing tag. Teenagers, many of whom stood on the street corners Tuesday night, taunting police and lighting fires, studied in libraries stacked to the ceiling with leather-bound religious texts.
“Everybody is saying different things. The story is messed up; you can’t get a straight story,” said Israel Solomon, an 18-year-old who had just stepped out of the yeshiva, where he had been studying when the protest broke out. “Everyone was itching for a fight.”