Talking to Neighbors: Anti-Semitism in Midwood – Everybody’s Nervous

Talking to Neighbors: Anti-Semitism in Midwood – Everybody’s Nervous

MIDWOOD — Last year saw another spike in reported hate crimes, much of it perpetrated against our Jewish neighbors. So we went out to talk to our neighbors, both Jewish and not, about anti-Semitism, hate, what’s being done and could be done.

According to NYPD reports, in 2019, anti-Semetic hate crimes skyrocketed in the city,  increasing by a shocking 26% since 2018. There were over 234 reported anti-Semitic crimes in 2019, accounting for 55% of total reported hate crimes for the year. In light of that, the mayor announced the NYPD will increase their presence in neighborhoods with Jewish Communities, like Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Boro Park.

The East Midwood Jewish Center. Rachel Baron/Bklyner

Here’s Midwood.

Bryan Swirsky is a Jewish man and self-proclaimed “spiritual anarchist” who has lived in Midwood since 2005. He’s never been the victim of any anti-Semitic acts, and, in spite of the recent spate of hate crimes against the Jewish community, he wears his identity proudly.

“I’m defiantly Jewish,” Swirsky said. “I really don’t care if people hate on Jewish people, because someone’s gonna hate on them. It’s just one big cycle of negativity. So I just really don’t care.”

When we asked if he had personally seen any anti-Semitic crime inflicted on other people, Swirsky said that he had not.

“No one has come here and started anything. And if they did – you would have heard about it already. And god forbid it should happen. Because, given how vulnerable the community is, and how insular the community is, we’re all targets.”

He has, however, sensed a more general change since Trump was elected.

“What I’m just noticing, nationally, is that there is a general malaise that seems to be settling in, where the wrong people get to say the wrong things,” he said. “I wouldn’t say they get rewarded for it, but they’re certainly not reprimanded as fast as they should be.”

When we asked Swirsky whether he’d noticed an increased police presence in the area, Swirsky began to respond but did not finish his thought. He told Bklyner in a text message after our conversation that “there has been an absolute increase [of police officers] in front of many Jewish institutions, including [the East Midwood Jewish Center]. [I] Have not seen anything in the last few weeks but when [the stabbing in Monsey, NY] took place, Cuomo offered police assistance to those that needed it.”

The Center’s former rabbi, Rabbi Alvin Kass, is the chief chaplain of the NYPD, Swirsky said, so the Center receives excellent police service.

Swirsky also mentioned that the neighborhood was “rather tense for a few weeks” after the Monsey incident.

“Look, everybody’s nervous,” he said. “Everybody, everywhere, should be nervous. You have neo-Nazis that are basically in government right now, and nobody’s saying anything about it.”

“I love my neighborhood,” Swirsky said. “I love all my neighbors. I don’t care what color, what religion. I don’t care where you come from in the world. You call yourself an American? Fine. You’re hardworking? You don’t hurt other people? Great!”

The Baal Shem Tov Library. Courtesy of Rachel Lindy Ba
The Baal Shem Tov Library. Rachel Baron/Bklyner.

Ryan, a young, non-Jewish man who has lived in Midwood for four years, has never noticed any kind of anti-Semitism in the neighborhood. He has, however, noticed police stationed in front of Baal Shem Tov, a Jewish lending library on Avenue J, nearly 24/7 in the last couple of weeks.  

Moshe Wigder, a young Hasidic man living in New Jersey, works at Baal Shem Tov. He was reticent to answer our questions because he does not live in the neighborhood, but he said he hasn’t personally noticed any acts of anti-Semitism in the neighborhood in the five to six years he’s worked at the library.

In spite of Ryan’s statement that he had seen police in front of the library almost 24/7 in the last couple of weeks, Wigder does not recall seeing any. He did, however, hear from someone else in the neighborhood that there are often cop cars in front of the library around the Jewish Sabbath, on Friday and Saturday.

Rajesh Motwani is a man of South Asian descent who does not live in Midwood, but is a franchisee for a Midwood 7-11 on Avenue J. He says the store attracts a lot of Jewish customers, but he’s never noticed any anti-Semitic acts taking place in the store, nor has he heard about any such incidents in the neighborhood.

He does, however, remember once going to a bank in the neighborhood, and hearing someone say “Oh, you’re the guys who killed Jesus!” to a Jewish family.

Rajesh Motwani’s 7-11 on Avenue J in Midwood. Rachel Baron/Bklyner.

Juliet, a middle-aged Black woman who has lived in Midwood for over 30 years, has never noticed any acts of anti-Semitism in the neighborhood. She said that she has mainly noticed police near the local synagogues, particularly around the Jewish high holidays.

Shoshanah is a middle-aged orthodox Jewish woman who lives in Midwood.

Shoshanah hasn’t noticed any overt anti-Semitism in the neighborhood. “People make comments, here and there,” she said. “Like, ‘you Jews!’” It hasn’t been one particular type of person, she said.

When asked if she feels safe in her own neighborhood, she said, “Not anymore. Definitely not. Even when I walk down [Avenue J] I’m always very, very careful.”

She tries not to walk around alone at night. If she has to, though, she’ll look around, and, if she sees that a street is empty, she’ll avoid it. She’s even careful during the day, something she never had to worry about in the past.

None of this has affected how she presents herself, “I’m proud, and I’ll show it, and that’s it.”

Like many of the others, she’s seen an increased police presence in front of the synagogues, though not on her street.

None of it, however, makes her feel any safer. “I’m sorry,” she said. “No.”

The J Grill Station where Midwood resident Eli works. Rachel Baron/Bklyner.

Eli is a 25-year-old orthodox Jewish man who works at a burger joint, J Grill Station, on Avenue J in Midwood. When asked if he feels safe in his own neighborhood, he said, “yes and no.” He’s never personally witnessed any anti-Semitism, but he’s “heard it’s spreading.”

Midwood is a safe neighborhood to be visibly Jewish, Eli believes. “It’s as safe as it gets. Nothing could be safer than this.”