BROOKLYN, N.Y. ― A wave of anti-Semitic violence that has gripped the metropolitan New York City area for months became national news in December following a deadly shooting in Jersey City and a machete attack in the suburb of Monsey on Dec. 28.
The assaults — which have ranged from beatings and hateful epithets to mass murder — have shaken the larger Jewish community, which is holding a solidarity march from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn on Sunday.
The victims of the attacks have come almost exclusively from the tristate area’s sizable ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic communities, whose conservative adherents live in tightknit communities and stand out for their unique attire.
Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, a self-described moderate Democrat who hails from a Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, began representing his devout neighbors in Albany in 2019. Eichenstein, a veteran of city and state politics who previously worked for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, has a reputation for pragmatism and collaborating with colleagues from a range of different backgrounds.
Now, along with representatives of the Orthodox Jewish community across the city and state, Eichenstein is clamoring for the resources needed to combat what he calls a hate crime “epidemic” against his faith community and constituents. Eichenstein spoke to HuffPost on Tuesday about the rising sense of insecurity in his neighborhood, why he blames media outlets for spreading misinformation about Hasidic Jews, what he wants from his colleagues in government, and why he introduced a bill making it easier to jail people accused of hate crimes.
When did you hear the news about the Monsey attack and what was your response?
I got a call Saturday night a little bit after 11 p.m. And it was obviously on Hanukkah, and I was just like, “Please, no. Tell me this is not true. Not again.”
Unfortunately, hate crimes have now become a daily occurrence. And I will say this: We will not become immune to it and we will not sit still until we really, really tackle this issue and root out all hate, all blind hate in this country.
We have a serious, serious issue in this country, as it relates to anti-Semitism and hate. We could either choose to address it head on, come together and find ways to work together to address it, or we could try to come up with all different excuses: “Well, that’s a singular event.” “Well, that was an instance where someone had some mental health issues.” “Well, that’s the right, that’s the left.”
Here are the facts: anti-Semitism is a problem in this country, and it’s stemming from the right, and from the left — I should say from the far right, and from the far left. And it is so frustrating to me, when I hear my friends blaming the other political party, whichever other party it is.
I want to go back later to what you said about the far left and the far right. But first, tell me: Was it not like this when you were growing up here in Brooklyn? Is this the first time in your life that you’ve experienced this?
Never, never, never! A neighbor of mine told me the other week that he no longer wants his son to go out Friday night after the Sabbath meal for a special weekly meal with the Rebbe that we call a Tish. Obviously, the Sabbath is a time when people don’t have cell phones and people are not driving. And my neighbor told me that he does not want his teenage son going to Friday night Tish anymore, because he cannot fall asleep until his son is back home — in Borough Park in 2019! I have never heard of something like that before.
When did you first start noticing an uptick in hateful incidents?
So it’s been going on for quite some months. I know the national press corps is starting to catch up on it now, but the truth is, locally we have been seeing these assaults, the attacks, the hate crime attacks actually for months now. Anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City were up by 24% last year.
What was the first incident in this neighborhood, or from someone in this neighborhood?
Every couple of days there is another incident. Just two blocks away from my office, at the TD Bank [in October 2018], there was someone that was beaten on the corner of 13th Avenue and 45th Street. I wouldn’t say that was the first incident either.
Do you have any sense of a pattern or motive?
Hate, hate. That’s what it comes down to.
“All I hear is about people caring about our well-being when it comes to education. Where’s the outcry? Where’s the response when people can’t walk the street safely?”
Before we went on the record, you mentioned that you’ve been disappointed in the way the media depicts the Hasidic community.
Absolutely. If you open up the New York City tabloids, the image that is being portrayed of the Hasidic community is very, very, very disturbing. A couple of years ago, there was a Hasidic landlord that was brutally murdered by two thugs. In the days after, the New York Post runs a front page story with a picture of this innocent victim, who was beaten to death and burned afterward, with the quote, “Who didn’t want him dead?” The reasoning for it was because he was a slumlord. I see it on a daily basis.
We’re being labeled uneducated. Did you see the response to the measles outbreak last year? It was the rabbinical leadership that was on the front lines, working hand in hand with government, that responded to that measles outbreak and ensured that everyone vaccinates. Is it perhaps true that we have 1% anti-vaxxers? Yes, just like every community has 1% anti-vaxxers. [HuffPost could not find data to back up this claim, though reports indicate that anti-vaccine sentiment is a minority view in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, just as it is in the broader U.S.]
Are you saying there wasn’t a specific problem with vaccinations in this community relative to other communities?
What I’m saying is, the idea that this was because of a radical religious position is not true. The mayor of the city of New York to his credit said at the time, we don’t have a religious issue; we have an anti-vaxxer issue.
I heard a huge outcry when it came to the measles outbreak. People told me, “Well, one day someone may die.” I told them at the time, “I hope you’re wrong. We’re doing the best we can on the ground.”
But here’s what I will say: People are dying now. Where’s the outcry?
How do you feel about the government’s response so far?
I’m not saying that they’re not trying. They’re trying. But obviously what we’re doing is not enough, and collectively, we all need to do more. We have a serious, serious problem on our hands. And there’s so many components to it. There is no one thing that if you do this, there will be no more hate the next day. Obviously that’s not the case. But we need to have concrete next steps on what we are doing.
The mayor is trying. He committed to giving us additional cops. He rolled out something the other day regarding adding anti-Semitism education to the [public schools] curriculum.
Locally, we’ve been asking for additional police presence. The governor just agreed to send reinforcements as well. Obviously the NYPD is the best in the business and we know that. But we’re in a time of crisis and when it’s a time of crisis, it’s all hands on deck.
We’re talking about people being able to walk the streets safely — whether you’re Jewish, whether you’re Muslim, no matter what religion you’re in.
A couple of months ago, I took two Holocaust survivors to FDR High School in my district. The students were very diverse — a real mix. In the Q&A, you saw they engaged — tears in their eyes. We need to teach our young adults about this. They need to hear these stories.
You spoke highly of the mayor, but neither you nor any of the other Orthodox Jews in city and state government attended his press conference at Grand Army Plaza the day after the Monsey attack. Why?
It was a Sunday afternoon on Hanukkah. We all had events in district. It was pulled together late. We’ve been in touch with NYPD. We’ve been in touch with the mayor.
So this was not a deliberate decision?
No. We’ve stood with the mayor in the past on other announcements that he made on this subject. It’s unfair to say that we all got in a room and strategized.
There are some studies that suggest that when there are communities that harbor ignorance and hate toward their neighbors, fostering positive human interaction can be helpful. Your community, for very understandable reasons that are deeply embedded in the faith, is insular. Is it possible that there is a lack of understanding of who you are? Could increased inter-communal dialogue help?
You look at the Kensington side of my district — Jews and Muslims live side by side. There’s no crime.
I agree on the grand scale: We need to come together, Jews and [other] minorities. We have good relations with our neighboring leaders. It’s happening. The leadership is talking.
The amount of calls I have gotten from my colleagues — whether it be from progressive colleagues, from those representing minority neighborhoods, or from minority members ... I don’t think that it is accurate to say that the leadership of the different communities are not getting along.
There’s a growing, small group of people within communities that are full of hate. And whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. The fact that someone has mental health issues — it’s not an excuse.
You said you’ve received calls from progressive colleagues. Are you satisfied with their response?
I would say particularly progressives that do vocally fight for minority groups and populations, I think they need to be louder here as well. As a progressive, you should be really disturbed at what’s happening right now.
What does it mean for something to be considered “far left” anti-Semitism? If a person, let’s say in the Monsey attack had, on the one hand, some mental illness problems, but also appears to have been inspired by the Black Hebrew Israelite cult — is that “far left”?
That’s for the pundits to decide. What I’m saying is, it’s not unique to one particular group of people. I’ve never heard of some of these groups before. It doesn’t really matter what group they’re associated with or what the name of the group that they’re associated with is. It’s hate and we have to tackle it.
“We’re an insular community. But what’s also true is we get along with our neighbors.”
Why have you introduced a bill that would create an exception to New York’s new cash bail restrictions for cases of alleged hate crimes?
What I’m saying is: Hate crime perpetrators are filled with hate and are basically irrational and uncompromisable and quite frankly, unfortunately at times, unstoppable. So having said that, I’ve said, let’s create a separate category of perpetrators to give judges discretion to set cash bail. A lot of these hate crimes unfortunately are being carried out by repeat offenders.
I have to specify: all blind hate, not just anti-Semitism.
What do you want the world — whether it’s in neighboring Sunset Park, Brooklyn, or Sun Valley, Idaho — to know about your community that you feel they really don’t know?
Contrary to what you think, this is a beautiful, vibrant community.
In one of your questions you said we’re an insular community. But what’s also true is we get along with our neighbors. We live side by side with our neighbors ― the amount of chesed, good deed organizations that we have out there! How beautiful was it that after the Jersey City shooting there was a toy drive — Orthodox Jews coming together with African Americans, giving away toys for the Christmas holidays. The amount of good — there literally isn’t a need out there that we don’t have a community-based organization providing a service.
The press gives us a bad rap. It’s unfortunate, but I ask people to look through it and to understand who we are as a community.
Finally, you represent your community’s views, but you have a reputation for being willing to work with people with whom you disagree. What have you learned from that experience?
If we just all come together and sit around a table and have a conversation, we will realize that we have a lot more in common. A lot more unites us than divides us.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.