Community leaders on edge as budget cuts, Occupy Wall Street strain NYPD.
UPDATED WEDNESDAY 11/16
After a week of shocking incidents, local Jewish leaders are doubtful that a wave of anti-Semitic hate is emerging in these troubled times.
But they are concerned about the ability of a strained police department with reduced numbers to keep up appropriate patrol strength in areas that have been hit with incidents such as the recent swastika vandalism in Brooklyn and Queens.
A man has been charged with painting the swastikas on two library branches, a shul and a church in Queens, after telling cops he was responding to harassment by Jews, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said.
But residents of Flatbush remain concerned about a wave of vandalism and the arson of three vehicles along Ocean Parkway, the spine of heavily Jewish Midwood. The vandalism included 16 swastikas, the letters KKK and “F--- Jews.” The attack happened a day after the anniversary of Kristallnacht in an area with many Holocaust survivors.
About 100 people including elected officials marched down the parkway’s pedestrian mall Sunday in protest of the acts, and hundreds more came to a community forum with police commanders and representatives of the Brooklyn DA and mayor on Monday night. The meeting at Congregation Ohel Moshe, near the vandalism site, was organized by Councilman David Greenfield, who represents part of Midwood.
“The No. 1 concern was how the investigation is going,” Greenfield told The Jewish Week. “The second biggest concern is about whether we are seeing an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents like this. The resounding opinion of the NYPD is that this is an unusual event in a community that is one of the safest in New York City.”
Tensions were further heightened Friday with reports that a Jewish man was assaulted in Williamsburg, but although there is a recent history of chasidic men being attacked in the area, police are not treating that incident as a bias crime.
“It seems like more than I am used to seeing, that’s just the sense I get,” said Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who led the march down Ocean Parkway Sunday, of recent hate incidents. “And half of these things never get reported. People tend to cover it over.”
On Wednesday, Hikind distributed via Twitter a photo from the subway station at Midwood's Avenue J (below), showing that a sign was altered to read "Avenue Jew." The shopping strip is dominated by kosher restaurants and other Jewish-owned businesses, as well as synagogues, the Yeshiva of Flatbush High School and a branch of Touro College.
( "Avenue Jew" was the name of a parody benefit staged by the casts of Broadway's "Fiddler On the Roof" and "Avenue Q" in 2004.)
Hikind said he was concerned that because of the stagnant economy, “certain people who were anti-Semitic before may come out of the woodwork at a time like this. The damage has been done, the concern is palpable.”
The number of anti-Semitic incidents reported to the Anti-Defamation League in New York City in 2010, according to the group’s just-released survey, was nearly the same as the previous year, at 133 up by only one incident. The number of incidents in Brooklyn also rose slightly, to 53 from 51, while in Queens it shrank to 15 from 17.
With less than two months left of 2011, Ron Meier, ADL’s New York regional director said, “We will probably end close to the last couple of years’ trend.”
Meier said the rate of roughly one incident per week in Brooklyn, which has the state’s largest population of identifiable Jews and much ethnic diversity “is disconcerting and disturbing.”
But Meier said the police department was responding well. “They are marshaling the necessary resources on the [hate crimes] task force level as well as on the beat. I think they have an enviable track record.”
Nevertheless, David Pollock, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said he is hearing concern from local leaders that the ranks of the police department may be too thin to provide adequate patrol coverage.
“The uniformed patrol has gone from 40,000 down to something under 34,000, and police commanders are anxiously waiting for a new class to graduate in December,” said Pollock.
Citing conversations with commanders, Pollock said the continuing police presence in downtown Manhattan to ensure security at the Occupy Wall Street protests was routinely siphoning officers from shifts in other areas of the city, and that overall patrol strength would be affected even more as tourists flood into Manhattan during the holiday season.
“The question of whether the streets are less safe is a good question,” said Pollock. “The perception is that gang violence is on the increase, which not all Jewish neighborhoods are specifically exposed to but there is sometimes a spillover, and people are reacting to that. The cops are doing a great job keeping it together but they need more resources.”
One Midwood resident at Monday night’s forum asked the police officers there if the incident may be tied to gangs, and cops said there was no such indication, Greenfield said.
But Nochem Elek, the man who was assaulted in Williamsburg, believes his attack may be gang-related.
“He started talking to me and asked me for food,” Elek, 51, a social worker, told The Jewish Week Tuesday, referring to his assailant. “I don’t know if it was a gang initiation or somebody who was wronged by someone else and wanted to take revenge on a Jew.”
Elek, who was returning home from evening prayers on Friday night, was wearing a shtreimel and other traditional chasidic garb. He said the solicitation of food was likely just “a way of coming close to me.” After the attack, which left Elek unconscious with a broken nose, the assailant ran off.
On Sunday chasidic leaders and Williamsburg elected officials held a press conference calling for more police protection in the area, particularly on nights and weekends.
“We are very happy with the precinct and its commander, but they lack the resources to really protect the community,” said Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg in an interview Tuesday.
He said there have been assaults and swastika incidents in the neighborhood in the past few weeks that did not make headlines. While the community’s volunteer community patrol, the Shomrim, frees up resources for the police on most nights by answering emergency calls, the rabbi said the NYPD needed to increase its presence on the Sabbath, when the volunteers do not ride.
The NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information, Paul Browne, did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Michael Miller, executive director of the JCRC, said that police were investigating the motivation of the vandalism incidents and that it was possible that the Midwood incident was a copycat of the earlier Queens spree.
“I don’t believe we are seeing an anti-Semitism wave here in New York,” Miller said.
The ADL and Greenfield are offering a total of $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of the Midwood vandals, and Williamsburg leaders are offering $2,500 for leads in the Elek assault. Anyone with information about these crimes can confidentially call 1-800-577-TIPS.
While security cameras have turned up no leads so far, cops reportedly recovered numerous beer bottles from Ocean Parkway they hope will yield fingerprints or DNA of known criminals in the area.
The suspect in Queens was identified by the Queens DA as Franco Rodriguez, 40. He faces three counts of fourth-degree criminal mischief as a hate crime and three counts of making graffiti, punishable by up to four years in prison if convicted.
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