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Crown Heights Festival Marking 25th Anniversary of Riots Evokes controversy

The Crown Heights riots in 1991 was a searing experience for both Jewish and black residents of the neighborhood. They were brought on when a car in the entourage of the Lubavitchers' spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, jumped a curb and killed a black child Gavin Cato by accident. Three hours later, blacks rioted, shouting, “Get the Jew!”, and fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, an Australian Jewish scholar who was in New York doing research. A three day racial clash spiraled into what a 1993 report termed “the most extensive racial unrest in New York City in over 20 years.” Nearly 200 people were injured.

Now various Jewish and black groups want to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Crown Heights riot with a commemoration ceremony — to be followed by games, rides and “fun for all ages.”

The day’s events will begin at 11 AM with a two hour commemorative ceremony at the Jewish Children’s Museum, followed by a neighborhood festival at Brower Park featuring live music and entertainment, kosher and non-kosher food, games, rides and arts and crafts. 
The official flyer for the festival describes the event as an opportunity to “meet your neighbors,” on the “25th Anniversary of the Events of August 20, 1991.” 

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a black former police officer, feels the atmosphere in Crown Heights has changed since the riot. “We should not spend our lives doing solemn ceremonies over and over again and not recognizing things that we should celebrate,” he said.
Event organizer Richard Green of Project CARE, one of the organizers, said that the two hour commemorative ceremony will be a somber and reflective gathering that would give leaders from both communities an opportunity to publicly share their feelings. 

“It's insensitive,” said Rosenbaum's brother, Norman. “It's a trivialization of a very, very serious period of time, of a series of incidents culminating in my brother's murder.”

“You can't have a fun festival commemorating a tragic event,” and there are other days to celebrate unity, says Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, who serves on a community board in Crown Heights. “My father was attacked by a group coming from that demonstration. They hurled cinder blocks, bottles and bricks shouting ‘get the Jew.’“

His disapproval dismays one of the organizers, Devorah Halberstam, a director of the Jewish Children’s Museum, who stresses her empathy for the Rosenbaums. Her 16-year-old son, Ari, was killed on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994 in a shooting aimed at a vanload of Jewish students.

She explains that the festival is an opportunity to bring people together and intentionally incorporates an element of fun to entice children. 

“We worked on this for a year,” noted Mrs. Halberstam.  “A lot of work went into it…we want all the kids and families to come. My total intention in this was to do right by Yankel and Gavin Cato” and show their families the community remembered and cared about them, and have put in years of efforts to create more cohesion in Brooklyn's Crown Heights.

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