More than the pizza ovens got heated Monday night at the Basil Pizza and Wine Bar, 270 Kingston Avenue, where a backroom of mainly black Crown Heights residents aired gripes towards their Orthodox Jewish neighbors at the Kosher eatery.
James E. Caldwell, president of the 77th Police Precinct Community Council, brought the council’s regular monthly meeting to Basil so that the two communities could air out some of their cultural differences. He also brought along Rabbi Eli Cohen, Executive Director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council (CHJCC).
The outreach was part of Project Care, an initiative started almost 20 years ago by Rabbi Cohen, Caldwell and the late Rev. Clarence Norman, the influential head pastor of the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, 450 Eastern Parkway, to develop better community relations between the diverse neighboring Crown Heights communities. It was “a beautiful cross-section of the community coming together with the common goal to better interrelations,” Rabbi Cohen recalled.
But many at Monday night’s turnout couldn’t help but express their frustrations at the present state of relations between the black and Jewish community.
“I’ve been getting harassed over the phone at all hours of the day with people asking me if I want to sell my home,” one elderly woman exclaimed to Rabbi Cohen, “This has to stop. Or what about the garbage on Kingston Avenue? We can’t even walk on the sidewalks, it’s so bad.”
Another woman, clearly vexed at the whole situation, rose from her chair to say a few angry words and promptly left the restaurant. When being questioned outside, Sandra Stanton, 53, declared that the first thing that has to happen for the black community is to unify, similar to how it was during the Black Panther movement of the 1960s.
“The worst thing that ever happened to us was that civil rights movement! We were more together as a people back when we were segregated then we ever are now,” said Stanton.
Caldwell, who’s worked with the CHJCC for 22 years, promptly jumped in with a few words of his own. “Coming in here to complain about the Jewish community is wrong. We have a lot that we can learn from them and how they care for their community,” said Caldwell, later expressing that he was also grateful for people sharing what they’re feeling so to have the discussion on how to better deal with these problems.
Rabbi Cohen noted he has seen some positive results on black/Jewish relations, amid recent anti-Semitic attacks with his recent visits to public schools with Crown Heights Democratic District Leader Geoffrey Davis, who is black and wrote the children’s book, Love Yourself, Love Each Other, which draws on his experience getting to know the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson when he was a young boy growing up in Crown Heights.
“Some people will always see things through a negative perspective. Some will try to look at things through the lens of which group they are affiliated, or what things they are supposed to be saying as opposed to what are the facts of the situation. It’s important to remember that we are all individuals trying to do the right things. At the end of the day, we all want the best for our children,” said Rabbi Cohen.
City Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuels (Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, East Flatbush, Crown Heights in Brooklyn) was also in attendance at Basil, who silenced the packed room with her passionate talking.
“When my family first moved to Brownsville, I used to hear of how different the community was back then. My mother used to tell us that when she needed bread, she would go to the local grocery store to Mr. Rappaport and buy it. But as I grew up, that diversity wasn’t there anymore. What we need right now is one Crown Heights,” said Ampry-Samuel.