Monday, August 15, 2011
Sharpton to Discuss CH Riots at Hampton Synagogue
Rev. Al Sharpton will be among the panelists at a forum on black-Jewish relations 20 years after Crown Heights Sunday night at the Hampton Synagogue.
The controversial National Action Network activist will discuss the topic with Bob Kaplan of the Jewish Community Relations Council, City Councilwoman Letitia James of Crown Heights and the Westhampton congregation’s rabbi, Marc Schneier, who is founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
The program falls just two days after the 20th anniversary of the start of three days of violence against Jews in the chasidic community that followed the death of a black child, Gavin Cato, who was struck by a car in the Lubavitcher rebbe’s motorcade. Yankel Rosenbaum, a scholar visiting the neighborhood from Australia, was murdered by a mob in the first hours of the riot.
Many residents of Crown Heights as well as leaders of major Jewish organizations fault Rev. Sharpton, who entered the neighborhood after the murder, for further agitating the situation with marches and fiery rhetoric rather than calling for the restoration of calm.
As a result, most Jewish organizations have refused to have any official contact with Sharpton, calling on him to apologize for his behavior during that events and four years later when street protests against a Harlem Jewish merchant culminated in a shooting and arson spree that left eight people dead.
Sharpton, however, has accepted opportunities to discuss his role, such as a 2001 debate with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and several interviews with The Jewish Week.
One politically conservative member of the Hampton Synagogue, Jeff Wiesenfeld, said he did not oppose the appearance, but if he attended would try to ask at least one pointed question of Sharpton.
“There are two loose ends he has to address,” said Wiesenfeld, a trustee of the City University of New York who last May started an imbroglio when he tried to block John Jay College from bestowing an honorary degree on Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner because of Kushner’s criticism of Israel.
Wiesenfeld said he wants to ask about Rev. Sharpton’s defamation of former Dutchess County prosecutor Steven Pagones related to the 1989 Tawana Brawley rape accusation, and his use of the term “diamond merchants” during Cato’s funeral, widely taken by Jews as an inflammatory reference that deepened the sociological divide that fueled the riots.
“I’ll be eager to press him on those questions,” said Wiesenfeld, though he said his need to return home to Great Neck to prepare for work the next day may preclude his attendance. Wiesenfeld is a manager at Bernstein Global Wealth Management.
The panel will be moderated by Hampton Synagogue congregant Joel Cohen, an attorney at the law firm Stroock, Stroock and Lavan.
Asked what kind of reception, he expected for Sharpton, Rabbi Schneier said Monday, “No clue, seriously. I can’t predict this one. I know there is curiosity, intrigue, excitement and dissention.”
He noted that the Orthodox congregation — which has made national headlines with its attempt to build an eruv allowing Sabbath observers to carry on Saturday within a set area — has hosted controversial conservative cable commentator Glenn Beck last weekend, and in mid-July Imam Faisal Rauf, cleric of the planned Manhattan Islamic community center that critics call the Ground Zero Mosque.
“As a rabbi I am not here to impose, but rather expose,” he said, referring to the thought-provoking forums.
Political figures such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the only Republican Jew in Congress, has also visited, and GOP presidential contender John Huntsman will appear at the Hampton Synagogue later this summer.
Asked his own opinion of Rev. Sharpton, Rabbi Schneier said that many in the Jewish community do not recognize that the activist has severely moderated his tone in the decades since the events in Crown Heights.
“They freeze on where he was 20 years ago,” he said. “People do evolve and grow. These are the topics that are going to be discussed. It’s going to be a watershed event.”