Meeting Meant to Unify Crown Heights Held on Saturday, Alienating Jews

By Sonja Sharp on February 21, 2013 10:12am | Updated on February 21, 2013 12:44pm

CROWN HEIGHTS — It was supposed to unite Franklin Avenue's factions, but a meeting planned as a way to bring the community together has locked out one of the neighborhood's most significant populations because it occurs on a Saturday — or the Jewish Sabbath.

As tensions continue to simmer between old-timers and newcomers in Crown Heights' rapidly gentrifying Franklin Avenue corridor, community activists are pinning their hopes for detente on next month's Crow Hill Community Association Town Hall meeting.

"We wanted to be able to reach out to the biggest possible group," said Crow Hill Community Association activist Susan Boyle of the March 23 event, which bills itself as bringing together landlords and renters, children and seniors, cyclists and drivers, old residents and new.

"It's critical for the success of this meeting to have everybody have their voices heard," she said.

Everybody, that is, except for Franklin Avenue's  Jewish population, whose members say they're being unfairly excluded because the meeting is being held between noon and 3 p.m. on a Saturday.

"They say they want all voices to be heard, but in order to achieve that, everybody needs to be there or at least have the opportunity to be there. They can’t do that when it’s on [the Jewish Sabbath]," said Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum of Congregation Kol Israel, a large and growing Orthodox synagogue near the intersection of St. Johns Place and Franklin Avenue in the heart of the Crow Hill corridor.

"It’s disappointing that in a community that’s evolving, that has so many diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, that they wouldn’t consider making it all-inclusive."

Kirschenbaum and his flock are no strangers to the association. The Crown Heights native is a familiar face on Franklin Avenue, a booster for many local businesses and an avid supporter of previous association events.

"When it’s come to the Franklin Avenue Kids' Day, we contribute and we participate," Kirschenbaum said. "We have wonderful relations with all of our neighbors here and there’s mutual respect among everyone in this very diverse neighborhood."

 Franklin Avenue's fast-growing Jewish community says it's been excluded from landmark Crow Hill meeting.
Franklin Avenue's fast-growing Jewish community says it's been excluded from landmark Crow Hill meeting.
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Mike Perry

Not everyone can say the same. The recent controversy over a DOT bike corral installed outside Little Zelda Cafe between Sterling Place and Park Place brought mutual suspicions between older residents and neighborhood newcomers into the open.

"We are really divided, really divided," said landlord Constance Nugent-Miller. "It was very evident to me with the installation of the bike corral."

Other longtime residents agreed.

"I don't like what happened with the bike corral across the street because we were right here and we were never told," said Pastor Cynthia Green of Franklin Avenue's Gospel Tabernacle Church.

"I hate to feel like a stranger where I've made my home for the past 25 years. I don't like opening the doors and feeling like 'Do I belong here?'"

The town hall meeting was supposed to change all that, giving disparate groups the chance to iron out their differences and knit the torn community back together. 

But already, the seams are starting to show.

"To exclude us, whether intentional or unintentional — they have to reconsider," Kirschenbaum said. "The synagogue has doubled and tripled with parents and children. I think they’d be interested. We are a significant population in the neighborhood."

Boyle, who helped plan the March event, said she and others regretted that their Jewish neighbors wouldn't be able to attend, but that other concerns ultimately outweighed their input.

"It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of situation," Boyle said.

Boyle said the association had reached out to Kirschenbaum about the meeting, but the rabbi said he never got so much as a phone call.

"Obviously you cannot accommodate everybody, but this way you’re divorcing a complete segment of the population," Kirschenbaum said. "I for one would like to be there."

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