Mind the Gap in Crown Heights

Four Radio Rookies, who are all very recent immigrants from the Caribbean, now attend high school in the heart of what was the epicenter of the Crown Heights riots 20 years ago.  But, as newcomers, the Rookies know nothing about the neighborhood’s fraught history. 

Watch the full multimedia story to see and hear the conversation when Selena, Chantell, Tangeneka and Sabrina meet a group of teenage girls from a yeshiva school in their neighborhood.

When we first came to New York we thought everything would be gold! We thought we’d see celebrities every day and life would be easy, but none of this is true.  New York is dirty.  It’s nothing like the Caribbean--fun on the beach and dance parties almost every day! 

We all attend the High School for Global Citizenship in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Around the school, there are different types of people.  It’s like a mini world in one neighborhood. We thought everyone in this neighborhood would be friendly like in the Caribbean. Wrong! Asking for directions is hard, some people tell us to speak English because of our accents.  

Of all the people in this neighborhood, we were most afraid to ask a Jewish person because we heard that Jews are mean, they don’t take showers, they’re all rich, and they own everything in NYC.

“People like to stereotype,” our US History teacher, Ms. Ali told us, “so when you don’t know something, then you tend to create a lot of falsehoods, rather than asking the community, well what is life like? Now with the Jewish community in Crown Heights they are kind of like a very close knit group so they really don’t allow other people to come in.”

Ms. Ali asked us, “have you spoken to any of the Jewish people in this neighborhood?”

We haven’t. But we found out that our music teacher, Mr. Aldouby is Jewish. We couldn’t believe it! We thought he would have long hair on the sides, a beard, a little black hat, and wear all black. But he dresses regularly, with pants and a dress shirt. And he’s clean shaven – even his head. He told us there are different streams of Judaism. “We have Orthodoxy which is the strictest one, and then the conservative movement, the reform, reconstructionist and humanist one.”

It’s just like how there are many types of black people in Crown Heights, you can’t really tell where a person is from by just looking at them. We watched a short documentary called “Living Apart”—it was about the riot between the Blacks and the Jews in Crown Heights 20 years ago. We couldn’t believe there was a riot.  And all because rumors spread like the flu, you can pass it on till everyone catches it.  

We spoke with someone from within the community like Ms. Ali suggested. Ilana and her husband David are Lubavitch Jews who live in Crown Heights. Ilana told us, “Lubavitch is separated from the rest of Crown Heights because they have a belief that it’s important to preserve Jewish culture and Jewish tradition. And there’s a belief that in order to do that we have to shelter the kids, and maybe even the adults, from outside influences that would take away from that. There’s a feeling like preservation of Jewish culture and Jewish thought is extremely, extremely important -- almost more than anything else. And many other things are considered a threat to something pure.”

At first we thought they were being racist, but now we realize that they’re separate because they want to preserve their religion. Like David told us, this can lead to a lot of misconceptions, “a lot of Jews feel that non-Jews in general are anti-Semitic – and especially when you’re dealing with 20 years ago one of the worst clashes between two cultures. Healing from that is a very difficult thing. It is hard, I think, on our side to have people who really have the drive and really want to build bridges.”

It’s really hard to communicate with people from such a different culture, especially when you’re new to the country and trying to find your own place.  Just for us to even learn more about the Jews in the neighborhood, it took a lot of digging up.  First it was scary because we didn’t know anything about them.  We went to the library and we had to ask questions to strangers around the neighborhood. It was a lot of work but we still don’t fully understand.  

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.  Now, when we see a Lubavitch person in the neighborhood, we won’t think they’re racist.  But just because we’re learning about each other doesn’t mean it’s going to be like a party where everybody is happy and having a good time.  If people just talk it out and listen to each other things should be okay in Crown Heights.


*Editor's Note on video: The Crown Heights Community Mediation Center works to improve inter-group relations in Crown Heights by creating a safe space where people of different backgrounds are encouraged to discuss hard conversations, through activities and workshops.  For example, the scene in the video where Amy Ellenbogen, the Center’s Director, poses a statement about co-existence in the neighborhood is a part of a game, “The Human Barometer”, where participants move to different parts of the room to show if they agree, disagree or feel neutral about the issue.


Support for the Neighborhood to Neighborhood project comes from the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund, a collaborative fund started by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The New York Community Trust.