How has Jersey City changed?

How has Jersey City changed?

As B’nai Jacob remembers the massacre victims, the rabbi and mayor look ahead

In late May, Steve Fulop, left, talked to Black Lives Matter protestors in Jersey City’s Berry Lane Park. (Jennifer Brown/City of Jersey City)
In late May, Steve Fulop, left, talked to Black Lives Matter protestors in Jersey City’s Berry Lane Park. (Jennifer Brown/City of Jersey City)

It was just a year ago that two murderers, apparently driven by anti-Semitism as well as a complex and putrid compound of generalized alienation, specific hatred of police, and mental illness, murdered four victims in Jersey City.

The victims were, first, 39-year-old Detective Joseph Seals, the father of five children and for 15 years a member of the Jersey City police force, who was shot in Bay View cemetery; then Leah Minda Ferencz, 33, the mother of three children; her cousin, Moshe Deutsch, 24; and Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, 49, the father of a daughter, and an immigrant who had come to the United States from Ecuador just a few years before he was killed. All of those three were slaughtered — not to be too melodramatic but they seemed to have been riddled with bullets — in the JC Kosher Market, which Ms. Ferencz owned, where Mr. Rodriguez worked, and where Mr. Deutsch, a rabbinical student, was shopping.

So much has happened in the United States since December 10, 2019 — a pandemic with almost 270,000 domestic deaths, much economic uncertainty, a highly contentious presidential election, a president who lost the vote but refuses to concede — that the Jersey City massacre has receded from most people’s awareness, particularly among those people who do not live in Jersey City.

But it’s different in Jersey City. And although it is clear that the progress is not worth its cost, there has been some progress made, some hope in sight, as a result of the murders.

On the evening of Thursday, December 10, Rabbi Bronwen Mullin and her shul, Congregation B’nai Jacob — which is in Greenville, the Jersey City neighborhood that was home as well to the supermarket where three of the murders happened— will host a remembrance.

“The anniversary falls squarely on the first night of Chanukah,” Rabbi Mullin said. “We want to create a very community-focused memorial about the four people who were killed. We will have representatives for each of the families and the community say a few words about each, and then light a memorial candle.

“The memorial candle will be used as a shamash” for the shul’s Chanukiah.

The community is complicated. The Jewish community itself is divided along familiar lines — B’nai Jacob is unaffiliated, and Rabbi Bronwen was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. Farther away from the shooting, Temple Beth-El is Reform. There are some Orthodox and chasidic shtiebels in Jersey City as well. Ms. Ferencz and Mr. Deutsch were Satmar chasidim; there is a Lubavitch presence in town as well. Because Lubavitcher chasidim tend to be more outward facing — more comfortable dealing with the outside world, including that world’s politicians and journalists — they became the public face of the community.

Mayor Steve Fulop

There have been strains between Greenville’s existing Black community and the Satmar chasidim who have been moving in. The environment between those two groups was tense when the shooting happened.

Since then, representatives of the various groups have tried to reach out and at least listen to each other.

The December 10 memorial, like most other planned events this plague year, will be mainly online. “I will be in person, but we have capped the number of people in the sanctuary at 20 total,” Rabbi Mullen said. “It has a capacity of 250.”

Speakers are likely to include Williams Machazek, who was Mr. Rodriguez’s pastor and leads Iglesia Nueva Vida in Newark, and either the chief of the Jersey City police, where Mr. Seals worked, or the department’s chaplain. Chesky Deutsch, representing the chasidic communities, will remember Ms. Ferencz and Mr. Deutsch.

That’s the first half of the program. The second half will look forward; “representatives of Greenville will talk about the collaboration between communities,” Rabbi Mullin said. The city’s mayor, Steve Fulop — the grandson of Holocaust survivors — will introduce the other speakers, local activists and organizers who are doing the work of knitting the community together (or at least tentatively basting them, waiting for the closer work still to come).

Those speakers will include Pam Johnson of Jersey City’s Anti-Violence Coalition and Angela McKnight, a member of the New Jersey State Assembly representing parts of Hudson County, including Jersey City. The state’s attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, and its junior senator, Democrat Cory Booker, might be there as well.

Rabbi Mullin has learned and grown as she’s worked with Ms. Johnson after the shooting; she recently was named to the coalition’s board. “Pam and I started collaborating,” Rabbi Mullin said. “It is a big deal for us” — the B’nai Jacob community — she continued. That’s because members of the board each are given a role. “One of those roles is for a clergy person, and this is the first time they ever had a Jewish clergy member fill that role. It is a great honor for me. Being on that board is humbling. It is one of the highlights of my rabbinic life.”

As a white person, Rabbi Mullin had much to discover, she said. “I have been learning so much about the complexity of violence, and what leads to it. There are so many related issues — police brutality, systemic racism. These all are issues that are common knowledge in the Black community, but I have been learning it just now.

Rabbi Bronwen Mullin

“Having credible messengers on the street” — that is, Jews who can see below the surface of an encounter and know what’s driving it — “is extremely important, particularly because it is so rare,” she said. “There are so many white people who have a savior complex when it comes to race. It is even worse when you are in a helping profession — when you are a social worker. Or a rabbi.

“As rabbis, we do have messiah complexes. One of the things that has been most important to me, in being on the board of this organization, is that I have expertise in a lot of things, but not in this.

“The most important thing that I can do is truly listen, learn, and then pass on the teaching.

“Pam has spoken so many times in our community,” Rabbi Mullin continued. “I have endless respect for what she does. I quote her all the time. People know that she is my rabbi”

The coalition “was just awarded a quarter-million grant with Jersey City Medical Center to do both violence prevention and trauma response to gun violence in Jersey City,” she added.

Rabbi Mullin is straightforward about the challenges facing Greenville. “There is a lot of tension because of the Satmar influx into Jersey City,” she said. The incoming community wants to buy real estate. The problem is that people already live there and don’t want to move. Would-be buyers have become unnervingly aggressive, and local people are generalizing that into anti-Semitism. That situation predates the massacre. “It is a huge problem,” Rabbi Mullin said. “One of the really important things about being on the board of this organization — and I am so crazy lucky to be able to be on it! — is to have a real relationship not only with Pam but also with the president of the board, Lilia Diaz.

“In being able to build real relationships with them, I think that I have been able in some ways to serve as a model for the ways in which Jewish communities and communities of color not only can collaborate, but can be in real relationships with each other, and work toward a common goal.

A police officer stands in front of the crime scene near JC Kosher Supermarket in Jersey City, the site of the deadly shooting, on December 11, 2019. (Laura E. Adkins/JTA)

“The goal is that the neighborhood should thrive — and that it should thrive on its own merit. It should thrive not because it is being gentrified by people coming from outside, but because it is a historically Black and Jewish neighborhood.”

“It’s been quite a year for Jersey City,” its mayor, Steve Fulop, deadpanned. “Between the pandemic and school funding cuts from Trenton and a budget gap for the public schools, it’s been particularly challenging.”

Like Rabbi Mullin, he sees some good that has come out of Greenville’s trauma. “The shooting brought the community closer together,” he said. “We worked hard in the days and weeks and months afterward to bridge the divides that existed but weren’t publicly acknowledged.

“I thought it was important, in the hours right after it happened, when most people wanted to say nothing except ‘Let’s investigate further,’ to say that this was a hate crime.”

That’s what Mr. Fulop did; he was the first person to acknowledge the anti-Semitism behind the crime, and it took most other public officials a long time to catch up to him.

“I thought that it was important to be vocal,” he continued. “It was important because other elected officials were doing the community a disservice. We have to fight hatred. The facts were clear.” Investigators later surfaced indisputable evidence of the killers’ blatant anti-Semitism.

“I was right,” Mr. Fulop said.

In the aftermath of the attack, “we immediately set up a place for the community to get their groceries,” he continued. “We partnered with New York City nonprofits at our community center so we could have a makeshift place where people could get eggs and milk, and whatever they needed for Shabbes.

“It was important for us to send a message to that specific Jewish community that we need them and want them. We also found volunteers and contractors who expedited as much as possible to open the store again.”

The mayor also reached out to the Black community. “We did a lot of outreach to the African American community because it’s important that they not perceive the city as scapegoating them for the violence,” Mr. Fulop said. “We did outreach to faith-based leaders to make sure that they knew that these two shooters were not part of the community, and that the city was doing everything possible to make sure that the public didn’t perceive that there was anti-Semitic sentiment in the broader African American community.”

Jersey City officials also worked to bring together more faith leaders, from across the Jewish spectrum as well as outside it, “for more dialogue, more communication, more inclusiveness,” Mr. Fulop said.

Covid has altered if not ended some of these plans. “Of course we don’t know what happens next,” Mr. Fulop said. “But we did a lot of outreach, and as a result we see there are now better relations, more communication, and more access than before. We’ll see how that continues whenever we get back to normal.”

On the one hand, there’s still a lot of work to do to bring distrustful people together. On the other hand, “I do have some hope,” Mr. Fulop said.

Who: Rabbi Bronwen Mullin

What: Leads a commemorative program and Chanukah candle-lighting

Where: From Congregation B’nai Jacob in Jersey City; it’ll be streamed online.

When: On Thursday, December 10, at 6:30 p.m.

Why: To remember the victims of the massacre last year, and to look forward.

How: Email for a link.

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