Montclair Rabbi Calls Out NJ Association of Black Educators President For Publicly Criticizing Hasidic Jews at 4th Ward Meeting

Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah censured remarks made by the president of New Jersey Association of Black Educators James Harris (Harris is also the Education Committee chair for the Montclair NAACP), who criticized Hasidic Jews at a community forum held by Fourth Ward Councilwoman Dr. Renee Baskerville in Montclair Monday night.

The goal of Baskerville’s forum was to welcome the new decade with “a more just, respectful, secure, sustainable, prosperous, peaceful environment: a place where everyone can become independent and be mutually dependent; a place where everyone can be at their best, on their own, and a vital part of the whole.”

Harris thanked the mayor, the council, and members of the Board of Education for the invitation to speak. After speaking about his early years and experiences growing up in Montclair, Harris brought up Lakewood, New Jersey and stated that it was the Orthodox Center of the U.S.

Harris recalled how he had learned that the biggest Baptist church in Lakewood was sold and how the town had increased in population but that there were “very few black folks left.”

“Lakewood now has over a hundred thousand people, little old Lakewood,” Harris continued. “But what is kind of amazing to me as the president of the New Jersey association of black educators, and by the way I’m speaking tonight as the president of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators, is that they, the Jewish community controls the Board of Education and the city council and they spend huge amounts of money sending their kids to the yeshivas and they got the budget for the black and Latino students who are left in the public schools.”

Harris then discussed how he observed something similar in Jersey City.

“Jersey City laid off over 250 teachers made a request for $15 million so that they could provide a thorough and efficient education and only got 5 million last week. So I go to Jersey City, you’re walking down the street with the NAACP and I’m seeing these folks with the long black suits, the curly locks.”

Harris said he was told the men were “trying to buy the properties of the people who live in the neighborhood.”

Harris said there was “fear of being replaced by these strangers who really weren’t friendly. The Hasidics are generally not too interactive with anybody other than themselves. So some stress started to develop because people remember Brooklyn and Lakewood. Are we going to be displaced by these people who are not all that friendly and the public schools in Jersey City have not done a good job in talking about what’s really going on in the community. So I was pleased last week after the unfortunate murder that the president of the NAACP, the secretary of the NAACP was with [Jersey City Mayor Steven] Fulop, the attorney general and the governor in Jersey City saying we really have to get together and increase our relationships.”

“Now it just so happens that section of Jersey City has murders every single week. I will guarantee that before Sunday there will be some shootings along the Martin Luther King Boulevard,” Harris added. “Is there a situation where some lives are more important than other lives? Because I didn’t see the governor and Fulop hanging up in there on a weekly basis when these other shootings went down, so I think we have to have an honest conversation. Not only are all lives important, but the response to murder has to be just as intense.”

Other speakers followed Harris, but no one challenged his remarks until Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah took the podium.

“I want to speak first from the heart. My heart is very heavy for having sat here tonight and heard some of the words that were said specifically by the first speaker,” Rabbi Greenstein said. “If anyone would take those words and take the word Hasidic out, and put in Blacks, this whole place would be in an uproar. This whole place would be disgusted, outrage, offended. To generalize and to paint with that kind of broad brush a situation that is so much more painful and complicated is a sin. And I’m going to say Jews are not the problem. Hasidics are not the problem. They’re not your problem. They’re not the problem. There are many problems. There are bad people out there. They’re the problem. There are insensitive people. They are the problem. Crazy people are the problem.”

“To start making the discussion, focus on Jews are buying or Hasidics are not very nice when they go and they talk to other people is just plain sinful. And I really am ashamed that there was applause here and that there was not a single word to stand up except for me because after all, I’m a Jew, so I have to stand up and defend myself. We’re all supposed to be defending each other. Every single person here is an ally. Nobody showed up to this meeting against the agenda of this meeting. So why does the conversation have to be hijacked, into a way of talking that is superficial, that’s full of half truths and complete lies and all of that kind of really unhelpful stuff.”

“Let’s recognize that tarring groups of people with that kind of superficial, stereotypical language is what has created all of the terrible injustice that everyone in this room knows so well. We shouldn’t tolerate people with supposed credentials to tell us how to think. I think that that was really, really unfortunate and I just felt obligated to say something,” Rabbi Greenstein said.

Dr. Baskerville followed Rabbi Greenstein’s remarks by first thanking him for speaking.

“That is what we are here for tonight. We’re here so that we can have truthful conversations,” Dr. Baskerville said. “I’m here to moderate the discussion. I try very hard not to admonish someone for expressing their opinion, but that’s what we’re here for. So if you hear things, you have questions, put your hand up. If you find something offensive, put your hand up, come on over to the mic. If we don’t have these discussions and if we don’t come forward and say I’m offended, then maybe other people in the room won’t even understand that there’s been an offense. And I’m not going to try to pass judgment on what was meant by anybody’s comments, but that’s what we’re here for tonight.

Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti also discussed the recent incidents of swastikas seen on desks at Montclair High School as well as the destruction of an ice Menorah that was built on Church Street.

Chief Conforti said information regarding the destruction of Church Street ice menorah suggests that it was not a bias incident.

Destruction of ice menorah on Church Street

“We believe it was a 10-12 year old kid, walking down the street unsupervised who knocked it over. I don’t think there was any intention or any, anything behind it other than, just a ridiculous thing to do that the kids do,” Conforti added.

Chief Conforti said the swastika incidents at the high school are still being treated as an open investigation, but “we have an idea of who might have drawn the swastikas.”

Conforti added that overall crime is down in Montclair and that last year it was at an all-time low. He also wanted to reassure the community that bias crime incidents are not on the rise in Montclair.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Traditional antisemitic stereotypes by James Harris and others in the community who rose afterward to try and explain away or defend his comments. Baskerville and the Mayor should have risen immediately to refute those statements. They didn’t.

    It’s the usual historical blame game of making Jews responsible for all ills. Following on the heels of the Monsey Hanukah attack by an African American, so perhaps also some kind of defensive Harris reflex?

    From his takeaways…gentrification in Montclair today is not just market profit seeking by everyone — including African Americans selling out their properties for profit so they can retire. Instead it’s Jewish developers swooping in to intentionally push out poorer blacks. Harris’s message: unfriendly Hassidic Jewish developers are now controlling us. And we need to do something about it.

    Some people did applaud Harris’s talk. The Rabbi was right…switch the words Hassid and Jews to “blacks”…the room would have gone wild. Instead nothing..some cringing faces at best while Harris spoke.

    Sadly we’ve come full circle from Jews being very prominent white supporters during the 1960’s civil rights period, to Jesse Jackson’s hymietown, Minister Louis Farrakhan’s overt hate making Jews esponsible for all southern slavery even..and now this locally.

    Same old same old antisemitism. Jews are behind everything wrong.

  2. I think we need to follow the facts in a benign manner. My family’s experiences.

    Relatives live in Toms River and are subject to what is happening in the area. A very complex situation, my cousin is forced out of his neighborhood by people who are moving in, declaring their homes, sanctuaries, tax exempt and cornering the real estate market so that those, unlike their own group, no longer feel welcomed in areas of Toms River and Lakewood. He is forced to move his home and business. Rather than to assume hatred and bias, the facts need to be stated. In my opinion, racial hatred is not the issue. What is happening in neighborhoods occupied by the same type of people, separates us from one another.

    I moved out of Glen Ridge 55 years ago to Montclair to feel more comfortable in a mixed community. Still, we had racially divided neighborhoods. I know what I do about it. The question is, what will you do about it?

  3. Trisha: It’s possible to criticize policy, strategy, and call out truth without using bigoted, stereotypical, or ignorant labels and language. Not to mention victim blaming.

  4. Trisha — Tom’s River and Lakewood have nothing to do with Montclair. Regardless, America is a free market economy. “Communities” today are created by people purchasing and selling properties and homes. There’s no “redlining” going on here.

    And Hasidic Jews are not rushing into Montclair to intentionally wipe out our fourth ward concentration of African Americans. Nor are the many Italian Catholic real estate investors and building owners who are raising prices, or others who see profit potential from buying and selling today — given Montclair’s now high demand influx.

    Long time African American families who sell out their homes now, either to retire..or because the taxes are too high, are not victims of a racist cult Hasidic conspiracy. The rental price hikes are market forces at play which sometimes create unintended consequences. But no one is guaranteed to live anywhere even if your family has been here since the 1900’s. As unfortunate as that is when markets create change and shifts impacting local communities. It happens.

    Local government is not to blame for being unable to stop it. The Township does not own buildings and can’t prevent people from making transactions. Nor are individual developers and sellers themselves the cause. If not them…others would step right in. That’s because market supply and demand is largely responsible for gentrification. Zoning laws have not changed drastically here. Just demand his risen. And with it prices.

    Sure, we can implement rent stabilization and that might smooth out the rental market somewhat if it’s really gone wild from speculation and unreasonable price hikes. But let’s get real. It’s not as if there isn’t alternative, lower cost housing say within 5 miles of this township. Even one town over. Just not here enough now due to high demand. If prices go too high, the apartments won’t rent or will eventually find their level.

    Yes, there is disruption and change in the interim. But who says anyone has a right to stay when prices go too high. And impose price controls on owners to prevent that? We are not a socialist country. 5th Avenue in New York City is a nice place to live too. Not many can afford it. So they live in Queens.

    Regardless, Jews and Hasids are not behind some kind of takeover conspiracy being alluded to. And for James Harris to insinuate that and bring Israel in somehow into his talk — was just more antisemitic blame game. Which he’s now clearly guilty of as shown.

  5. There are many complex issues here. Nonetheless, blaming wider market real estate moves and resulting social impacts on the ethnicity of some individual investors — demonized then using antisemitic stereotypes — has no place in Montclair.

  6. I’m confused…if the focus of Ms. Baskerville’s focus was as stated in this article, what do Mr. Harris’ titles as President of the N.J. Association of Black Educators and Education Committee Chair of the Montclair NAACP have to do with anything other than to draw attention to himself? As a lifelong resident of Montclair, I’m not sure what the happenings of Lakewood or Jersey City have to do with what’s happening here in our culturally diverse town. Let’s stick to the issues that affect us, and let us not create divisiveness where there is none.

  7. Boy, the Superintendent of Montclair Public School who said it didn’t matter if teachers were racist didn’t get this much attention. ?

  8. Among other ignorances, Harris doesn’t seem to understand the difference between hate crime and ordinary crime:

    “Now it just so happens that section of Jersey City has murders every single week. I will guarantee that before Sunday there will be some shootings along the Martin Luther King Boulevard,” Harris added. “Is there a situation where some lives are more important than other lives? Because I didn’t see the governor and Fulop hanging up in there on a weekly basis when these other shootings went down, so I think we have to have an honest conversation. Not only are all lives important, but the response to murder has to be just as intense.”

  9. Shocking. Hassidic Jews showing up with money, (not guns or machetes or baseball bats), offering to buy properties in POS neighborhoods and people taking them up on it and actually moving out. The Horror. I know that I’m personally traumatized anytime someone dares to offer to purchase something from me. Let’s justify shooting them in their grocery stores. Let’s rationalize slaughtering them in their houses of worship. And let’s try to be apologists for their murderers and delude ourselves that we’re good, moral people and that this is what America has now become.

  10. Trisha. I grew up in Brooklyn in an Italian Catholic neighborhood in the 70’s and personally witnessed neighborhoods dramatically change within a shockingly short time span. East Flatbush, Canarsie, Park Slope, Flatbush, Bedford Avenue, etc turned from white to black as soon as a single black family dared to buy a single home on a single street. People felt uncomfortable and unwelcome and unsafe in their own communities and hysterically sold for ever decreasing prices. As I grew up I began to realize that “white flight” revealed a problem, intolerance and shortcoming in us, not in our new neighbors. Now the tables have turned, and people who don’t look like you are moving in. How will you handle it? Who will you reveal yourself to be?

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