A deadly anti-Semitic attack on a Hasidic Jewish grocery store in New Jersey has pushed a tight-knit, deeply religious community into the national spotlight.
Four people died during the hours-long shootout in Jersey City on Tuesday, including two Jewish Americans ― Mindel Ferencz, a 31-year-old mother who owned the grocery store with her husband, and Moshe Deutsch, a 24-year-old rabbinical student from Brooklyn who had come there to shop.
Hundreds gathered in Jersey City and Williamsburg, where Deutsch lived, on Wednesday night to attend the two Jewish victims’ funerals. One person from south Williamsburg who said he lost a relative in the shooting said the community is feeling “traumatized.”
“We are very lost and very sad and very shocked,” he told HuffPost on Thursday. “If this can happen here on the doorstep of New York City, it’s insane.”
New Jersey officials said Thursday that the two shooters, who died while exchanging gunfire with police, showed a clear bias against Jewish people and law enforcement. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said both shooters expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites, groups of Black Americans who claim direct descent from the ancient Israelites. Some offshoots of the Black Hebrew Israelites hold anti-Semitic views.
Ferencz and Deutsch were members of the Satmar Jewish community, a branch of Orthodox Judaism that values separation from modern American life. Members of this religious group tend to live in close-knit, insular communities within walking distance of key institutions, such as synagogues, ritual baths, religious schools and kosher markets.
Like other sects of Hasidic Judaism, the Satmar Jews have a distinct way of dressing. Their appearance is yet another way of putting their faith into practice ― but at the same time, it makes them targets for anti-Semitism, according to Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at the City University of New York who studies Orthodox Judaism.
Over the past year, there has been an increase in attacks against Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, New York. Last month, several Jewish men and boys in the Borough Park community were chased and punched. In Crown Heights, two Hasidic Jewish teens were assaulted by five men in November in what’s being investigated as a hate crime.
The New York Police Department documented 311 total hate crimes from January to September of this year, over half of which targeted Jews, the Times of Israel reported.
“There’s been a rise in anti-Semitism all over, and it’s not directed particularly at Hasidim. But Hasidim are much easier to pick out than more assimilated Jews,” Heilman said. “When people oppose Jews and they want to make sure they are doing that in a very iconic way, then Hasidim are easy targets.”
The Williamsburg Satmar individual who spoke to HuffPost said that over the past few years, he’s started to feel nervous walking outside his neighborhood.
“Whenever I walk outside the tight-knit community streets, I look right and left ― every noise I hear I think it’s a gun coming after me. It’s sad. It’s sad,” he said. “And it shouldn’t have to be this way.”
Williamsburg is a major center for the Satmar community. But rising real estate prices in that neighborhood have proved to be a burden for these Jewish Americans.
Since Satmar Jews view having children as a central obligation of Judaism, it’s not unusual for one family to have more than 10 children, Heilman said. As a result, community members have been on the lookout for places where their big families can find more affordable housing. Satmar Jews have moved to places such as Kiryas Joel in Orange County, Jackson Township in New Jersey and Willowbrook on Staten Island.
A few years ago, young Hasidic Jewish families from Brooklyn began moving to Jersey City, just a 30 minutes drive from Williamsburg.
Ferencz and her husband, Moishe Ferencz, were one of the first members of the community to move to New Jersey’s second-largest city, according to Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn (UJO), which serves Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish groups.
Niederman called Ferencz a “pioneer.”
“They did not do it for themselves, but to pave the way for a new community that lives harmoniously with their neighbors,” Niederman said in a statement.
Ferencz and her husband set up a kosher supermarket on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the Greenville neighborhood of Jersey City to ensure that the community’s families had a place to “shop and feed their children,” Niederman said.
Kosher markets are key, Heilman said, because the Satmar community needs food that is certified kosher according to its own specific standards.
“Food plays a very important part religiously and ritually in the community, so a grocery will be a meeting point,” he said.
Right next door, a boarded-up dry cleaning business was reopened as a community center where people could pray and study.
Joseph Mandel, an accountant who works in Jersey City, told HuffPost on Wednesday that he would occasionally drop by to purchase kosher food at the market or help form a minyan, the quorum of 10 men necessary for communal Jewish prayer.
Asked whether he felt safe in Jersey City, Mandel said, “We always say, think good and we’ll be good,” Mandel said. “I found this place to be a very safe place. The community here is very friendly.”
“It’s just unbelievable what happened,” he said of the attack.
There is also a school and day care center on the block, where 40 students sheltered during Tuesday’s shooting.
Jessica Carro is a Jersey City real estate agent who has had several Hasidic Jewish clients from Williamsburg. She told HuffPost she’s noticed a trend of Hasidic clients buying “cheap, distressed,” multi-family property in Jersey City that they can renovate themselves. They have no qualms about buying in a poorer neighborhood that isn’t attractive to other buyers, she said.
Because of how the Jersey City market has changed, many Hasidic Jews are buying property there with the intent of staying, Carro said.
“In Jersey City, they’re buying to build themselves a home, a community where they see themselves,” she said. “This is not a fix-and-flip property; it’s a home.”
After Tuesday’s shooting, it remains to be seen whether young Hasidic Jews in search of more space and less expensive housing will continue to move to Jersey City, especially if they feel targeted there, Heilman said.
“I think a lot of it depends on whether the housing continues to be accessible to them and whether other people continue to move or stop moving,” he said.
Though the Hasidim are “easy targets,” Heilman said the repercussions of these attacks are felt in all American Jewish communities. For those with violent anti-Semitic views, distinctions between all the various Jewish denominations don’t matter, he said ― what matters is that the targets are identifiably Jewish.
“The people who attacked them called them Jewish, and that was enough,” Heilman said of the shooters.
“Every attack on Jews feeds into a collective consciousness that Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, have that they are always living on the edge of catastrophe,” he added. “Insecurity about attacks on Jews are part of the Jewish collective consciousness.”