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The Day After in Jersey City

On-site report from a city shattered by hate


Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab

Last week's deadly attack targeted one of Orthodox Jewry’s newest communities, the 100 or so families living across the Hudson River in Jersey City.

The two Jewish casualties of an attack that shocked the nation were Mrs. Leah Mindel Ferencz Hy”d, 33, who helped her husband run JC Kosher Supermarket, the only kosher grocery in the area, and her cousin, Moshe Hersh Deitsch Hy”d, 24, who was in town for the day. Another victim, Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, was an employee at the store and lived nearby. A day after the Tuesday shootout, thousands of people crowded Rodney Street in Williamsburg to pay their final respects to the two Jewish victims. Many wondered aloud about the viability of Jersey City’s Jewish community, made up mostly of Satmar families who moved across the river in search of affordable housing.

One man standing off to the side, a childhood friend of Moishe Duvid Ferencz, Leah Mindel’s husband, recalled his visit to Jersey City several weeks earlier. When he walked into JC Kosher he was surprised to see his old friend Moishe Duvid behind the counter. They excitedly reminisced about old times.

“I was thinking,” the man said, “he moved to Jersey City to be able to set himself up with a house and a family. He thought he would be able to have a decent living standard. And he ended up with no grocery, no wife, and no family. It’s so painful to see.”

At the family’s insistence, the main levayah for Mrs. Ferencz took place in Jersey City — they wanted to show that they are in the community to stay. But it detoured first to Williamsburg so the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, could escort the aron. The next levayah, of Moshe Hersh Deitsch, was scheduled for an hour later. It was a bitterly cold night but dozens of small groups braved the temperatures to escort the victims and heatedly discuss the gruesome events of the day before.

“Everyone here knew Moshe Hersh,” one person told me. “He was always around and loved doing chesed.”

The conversation gradually veered into the Jersey City kehillah’s future.

“These people took the last $100,000 they had to be able to buy a house,” the friend of Ferencz said. “It’s impossible to see them moving away from there… but they just don’t have the support to rebuild. My feeling is that it’s not going to continue. This story went too deep into everyone’s heart.”

“I don’t know,” another man responded. “When I was there, I saw how a person just built five brand-new houses for his children. They were all planning on moving in.”

Jersey City residents were quick to refute any rumors of the community’s pending demise. In a span of just four years, they have built up a community with four shuls, a mikveh, and a full-service yeshivah.

“Absolutely not,” responded Chaim Fried, a member of the Jersey City Hatzolah, when asked if he felt the attack would stunt the community’s growth. “If this would have been done by someone from the neighborhood — maybe. But the killers belonged to a hate group outside Jersey City. I don’t think it will scare people off.”

Three people in the process of moving have already given word that they have no intention of aborting their plans, Fried said, quoting a local real estate broker. And the man who built houses for his five children said that they all indicated they are moving in regardless of the attack. In addition, each house has space for a tenant, meaning that five additional families will be coming.

Even Mr. Ferencz, who lost his wife and livelihood, said he had no plans to move away.

“Until now I had plans,” he noted with a bitter smile. “The Ribbono shel Olam showed me that that is not the right plan. So I have no plans now.”

“Ah mentch tracht un der Eibishter lacht, [man plans and G-d laughs]” echoed his father-in-law, Reb Binyomin Greenfeld.

The Greenville neighborhood where the Jersey City kehillah is located is about a 20-minute drive from Manhattan. A scrappy area with its share of homeless men, youth gangs, and uninhabited homes, one of its main streets is Martin Luther King Drive, a long boulevard dotted with mom-and-pop shops.

The main employer in the kehillah is Yoel Katz, a Satmar chassid who owns a medical supply company. Many of the frum men and women in Jersey City work for Katz, who also serves as the kehillah’s patron. Chaim Fried, the Hatzolah member, works at B&H in Manhattan; his current commute is just ten minutes longer than when he lived in Williamsburg.

“Parnassah is not something that people should be worried about when thinking of coming here,” Fried said.

At the Ferencz shivah house on Bidwell Avenue the entire block was closed off to traffic, with officers waving through anyone who appeared to be there for the shivah.

The Ferenczes — he from Williamsburg, she from Kiryas Joel — were married about a dozen years ago and settled in his neighborhood. Leah Mindel Greenfeld had lost her mother as a young girl. Moishe Duvid came from a family who are all “very talented, very lebedige people,” according to a family friend. Four years ago, days before Pesach, the couple moved into the then-fledgling Jersey City community as the 15th frum family.

“We moved here because we needed a house that we could afford,” Moishe Duvid said at the shivah. Then he explained how the move brought out his wife’s giving nature. “Her heart opened up over here,” he said, gesturing around the house. “She had an open house for anyone who wanted to come in. When a young woman here lost her father suddenly, she took in the children to sleep over for the night. When there was a simchah and someone had a new baby, she would make sure that the children had someone to take care of them.”

“There were also a few tzedakah parties over here,” added a local resident sitting near me.

“She had a house like Avraham Avinu, everyone was welcome here,” added another man.

Mr. Ferencz had a well-paying job in the nearby town of Old Bridge when the family moved into Jersey City. But after a year he realized the growing community needed a full-time grocery so he gave up his steady job and jumped into a new career.

It was a unique grocery for the hardscrabble area, combining the basics of a mom-and-pop shop with the convenience of a restaurant. It has a take-out and a sit-in section with a salad bar, choice of sandwiches and soup, as well as challos before Shabbos. And it’s all condensed into a narrow storefront that barely leaves customer enough room to turn around.

The arrangement was not easy for his wife, Moishe Duvid said, but she never showed any discontent and was a fully supportive partner. “She would cook all the food every night, not going to sleep until she knew everything was taken care of,” Moishe Duvid said. “She would come into the store every once in a while, asking me if I need her to take over.”

It was during such a time that the shooting, which is being called a domestic terror attack, took place.

Shortly after noon on Tuesday, Leah Mindel came to the store to relieve Moshe as he went to daven Minchah at the shul next door. She manned the counter as Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, the Ecuadorian immigrant who was their sole employee, stocked the shelves. Rodriguez had gone that morning to the Ecuadorian embassy to drop off papers for his sister but made it to work on time, a half hour before, by taking an Uber instead of the train.

A group of three men were sitting in the eat-in area: Moshe Hersh Deitsch, an unmarried cousin of Mrs. Ferencz — her father and his maternal grandmother are siblings — his cousin Chaim Deitsch, and local resident Chaim Lax.

A few blocks away, Detective Joseph Seals was patrolling near the cemetery when he noticed a U-Haul truck that looked similar to the one spotted at a murder scene in Bayonne earlier in the week. A livery driver had been found dead in a car trunk, but police did not trace a motive. Seals, who had gone to the cemetery in civilian clothes to meet a source, walked over to the truck and began to question the passengers — David Anderson, 47, and Francine Graham, 50. He was greeted with a fatal blast of gunfire. The killers then drove the truck slowly down Martin Luther King Drive, passing several groceries along the way, investigators would later note, before coming to a halt in front of the JC Kosher Supermarket.

Anderson emerged from the truck first, wielding a long semiautomatic gun that he immediately began firing as he was walking toward the store. There were four or five homeless men in front of the liquor store two buildings away. They fled the gunfire but Anderson ignored them and barged into the small grocery. All indications are that Leah Mindel Ferencz, a mother of one son and two daughters, and Moshe Hersh Deitsch were killed immediately.

Lax ducked under the salad bar adjacent to the door, going unnoticed by Anderson. But as Graham made her entrance, she saw him and raised her gun. Lax pushed her aside and ran out the front door. Surveillance video from a nearby store shows Graham shooting at Lax as he made his escape.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez had opened the back door and pushed Chaim Deitsch out. But before he too could flee he was shot by Anderson. On Friday, I was plainly able to see Deitsch’s route to safety from the back of the shul. The gray metal door he went through opens into a little-used backyard overgrown with weeds. He jumped over several fences, each of which is at least seven feet high.

“When you’re running for your life,” noted a chassidishe man standing in the shul’s backyard and smoking a cigarette, “you’re on adrenaline.”

Deitsch was then taken in by a non-Jewish neighbor. It was only then that he realized he had been shot in the stomach; his tzitzis were red with blood. He went to the hospital, where doctors told him that one bullet had missed a major artery by a few inches. He was released, but then later checked himself into Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, where they released him as well. He will return in a few months to determine if the bullet has moved closer to a sensitive area and requires removal. Rodriguez, 49, was not so lucky. The husband and father of a daughter was killed by the gunfire.

As the fearsome gun battle waged on for hours, members in the shul next door anxiously awaited updates. Upstairs in the cheder, which housed the boys’ older division, 40 talmidim and their rebbeim remained in terrified silence as they listened to sounds no child should ever hear.

The menahel, Rav Ezriel Yida Roth, calmed the children, pulling them away from the window. He gave out wafers and recited Tehillim with the children for about four hours until police announced it was safe to emerge.

The shootout was a battle of wits between police and the heavily armed Graham and Anderson, the latter an army veteran with a violent criminal history. An estimated 300 bullets were shot by both sides, said Mendy Carlebach, a Chesed Shel Emes volunteer who was on the scene. The local police, untrained in tactical fighting, were replaced by crack teams from the state police and the New York Police Department. The battle raged the entire afternoon, with police not opening the area to confirm the victims’ identity until late at night. In the shul, the only one who appeared to retain his presence of mind was Mrs. Ferencz’s husband, Moishe Duvid, who spent those tense hours encouraging people to daven and not to worry. “I was a total wreck but Moishe Duvid was staying strong,” one shul member said in admiration. “He was still hoping that things would work out.”

At about seven o’clock, detectives arrived and took him to the police station to notify him of his wife’s murder. Later on, Chai Lifeline sent over a team of several dozen volunteers to speak to the community and its children.

As the media descended on the area to cover the story, the community sprang into action to accommodate the influx of newsmen who needed information and a chaperone. Chezky Deitsch and Chaim Fried, both members of the local Hatzolah, led the effort.

Back in Williamsburg, Moshe Hersh’s friends in yeshivah were learning when word began trickling in of the attack. Someone heard that Moshe Hersh had gone to Jersey City and friends tried to call him and text him. Hours into the gun battle, Moshe Hersh’s father was telling people that he had no idea where his son was.

When Moshe Hersh’s brother called to confirm the tragic news at about 9 o’clock Tuesday night, a stunned silence filled the beis medrash. “We were frozen with shock,” a bochur recalled.

The what, where, when, and how have been answered. The final journalistic “W” question, the why, has likely been taken to the bloody grave with Anderson and Graham, the two killers.

Police say the couple had links to the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group defined as a “black supremacist” organization by the Anti-Defamation League. The Black Hebrews believe that they are the real Jews and that Jews are imposters. They say that Moshe Rabbeinu and Adam HaRishon were black and that over the generations their Jewish faith was “usurped” by the Jews.

While it’s not clear how closely affiliated the gunmen were with the group, neighbors interviewed by the New York Post recalled how Anderson would preach about the Bible, twisting the words to suit his hateful message. A manifesto left in his truck and social media posts in years past were filled with anti-police and anti-Semitic sentiment.

Police believe the two were acting alone, though they seized a white van in Orange County, New Jersey, on Shabbos and arrested a pawnshop owner in Monmouth County after his number was found in Anderson’s pocket. Several illegal assault rifles were found in his home.

For many people, the most eye-catching moment of the day’s drama came as the two gunmen were walking into the store. A widely-circulated video shows a young child holding a white box as he fumbles with a door; then, as the shooting begins, the child runs away unscathed.

I met the child on Friday afternoon, when his menahel, Rav Ezriel Yida Roth, brought the class over to the shivah house. Shmiel Nachman Reiss, who appeared to be about 11 years old, had been sent by his menahel to the school office around the corner to bring a box of chocolates for the class as a reward for extra learning during recess.

“I wanted to put in the number to unlock the door,” said Shmiel Nachman, whose thin face is framed by long peyos. “I then heard a shot. I look around and saw everyone running. It was interesting to me because the homeless people who usually sleep on the street were running away. I look the other way and I see a man standing there with a long gun shooting into the grocery. I then ran away.”

“Put on your hood,” Rav Roth advised Shmiel, wearing the kutchma hat that became famous in the footage of him leading his charges to safety in the aftermath of the shooting. “Let them see how you looked.”

Shmiel Nachman turned up his hood, covering his yarmulke and payos. “This is the hood that saved your life,” an observer said.

“When did you go to sleep that night?” someone asked.

“When I went to sleep?” Shmiel Nachman responded with a wink. “Or when I fell asleep?”

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop believes that the real target of the shooters was the cheder, with its 40 children. Their truck had been loaded with hundreds of bullets, at least five semiautomatic guns, and several pipe bombs.

For some reason, likely because of a beat cop’s immediate engagement with the gunmen, they never had a chance to get to the school two doors away.

Back upstairs, Rav Ezriel Yida was sitting in his classroom when the children burst out, “Rebbe, they’re shooting!” It took a moment for him to register what they were saying. He ordered everyone to lie down. He did a head count and grew alarmed when Shmiel Nachman was missing.

“It took me 20 minutes to figure out where he was,” Rav Ezriel Yida said, then looked at Shmiel Nachman directly. “You know how many phone calls we made to find out where you were?”

Eventually they learned that Chaim Lax, who had been in the store and managed to escape, had grabbed Shmiel Nachman and taken him to safety. The menahel spent the next four hours calming the children and saying Tehillim with them until police said they could safely exit the building. The next day they made a seudas hodaah in the beis medrash, acknowledging the miracle that had saved Shmiel Nachman even as they mourned their losses.

“Let the children see,” said Rav Ezriel Yida, a son of Rav Chatzkel Roth, a preeminent rav and posek in Boro Park, “that the Torah protects.”

But Shmiel Nachman had one more concern he had to bring up to his menahel.

“Lax,” he said, turning to Rav Ezriel Yida, “said that we have to divide the chocolate with him. It’s still in his freezer.”

“You should preserve that chocolate in acrylic,” one overwhelmed listener said. “Nisei nissim.”

“If the killer would have seen his peyos,” one person said, shaking his head as he left the end of the sentence hanging. “Rachmana litzlan.”

Chaim Lax came to the shivah later on but didn’t want to talk. He had given enough interviews, he said. He still appeared ashen from the ordeal. “I can just tell you that yesterday – the day after — was worse than the day before.”

I had been told that Moishe Duvid Ferencz has a strong character and watching him in person confirmed that. He clearly understood that the shivah was a public scene and was straightforward and open with all the many and varied visitors, offering chizuk and sharing his strong faith.

Those visitors included neighbors from the area, an officer who arrived bedecked with stars on his chest and sashes across his shoulders, and a group of college students from New York University who wanted to know how they could help.

“Does anybody know how I feel? No,” Moishe Duvid told the half dozen students seated across from him. “The only thing I can say is that you have to live with the Ribbono shel Olam, no matter if you’re doing good or you’re doing bad. When you’re doing good you know how you are. And when you’re doing bad, you say, ‘Ribbono shel Olam, you know I want to be good.’ If you live with that, you could push yourself through a lot of hardships.”

A clip of Moishe Duvid’s hesped has gone viral, particularly when he exclaimed that “Devorela was asking, ‘I want to go to Mommy!’ My dear Devorela, we don’t understand, and we don’t want to understand.”

At the shivah, the same bedrock faith was a constant. “If the kiddush Hashem goes further, then I accomplished what I wanted,” he told me, sitting next to his father and brothers-in-law. “Hashem should help me continue providing the chizuk that people need. People come here to strengthen me so I’m just passing it along to the next person.”

Moishe Duvid had a straightforward answer when asked to describe his wife.

“She was a true Eishes Chayil,” he said, “taking care of the children was her most important priority. She was always busy with the children. After that came me — I was the second closest to her. The children were the apple of her eye — this is the case for every mother, but with her it was to an extraordinary level.

“She was the life support of the kehillah,” he added. “I told people in the kehillah, now you’ve been taken off life support and must breathe on your own.”

Facing the most trying moment of his life, Moishe Duvid says he has a message for people.

“When you go home and see that you have a wife,” he said, “look at her with respect. Hashem created a husband and wife with different natures. Respect that, no matter what happens. Don’t wait for a tragedy for you to miss her.”

Across the river in Williamsburg, the Deitsch family was mourning their son, Moshe Hersh.

Moshe Hersh’s father Shulem, two people told me — both using the same phrase — “lives and breathes mitzvos and maasim tovim.” A legendary Williamsburg askan, he owns the ADD Plumbing Company and is known as an address for all in need.

His son Moshe Hersh, it seemed, walked in his footsteps. He was an active volunteer for Chai Lifeline and would visit hospitals every Friday on behalf of the Chasodim organization.

But to the talmidim of the Williamsburg yeshivah he helped found for older bochurim, Moshe Hersh was the lifeblood of the yeshivah.

When the Satmar yeshivah for older bochurim closed its Queens location about three years ago, Moshe Hersh, then 21 years old, was devastated that so many bochurim would not have a place to learn, so he sought to reestablish it in Williamsburg. He approached Rabbi Chaim Yidel Levinger, who suggested a talmid chacham he was close with, the Mihelde Rav, should lead it. The yeshivah, now in its third year, has 150 bochurim.

Shortly before Moshe Hersh’s levayah got underway, a short man with a distinguished appearance and wearing rabbinical garb arrived. A chair was quickly procured, and he sat down about five feet away from me. “This is Moshe Hersh Deitsch’s rosh yeshivah, the Mihelde Rav, Rav Avrohom Amram Meisels,” one of the people I was talking to whispered.

“Moshe Hersh founded the yeshivah,” the Rosh Yeshivah declared emphatically, turning around in his chair to me and repeating it for emphasis. “He had a good heart, and he felt bad for the older bochurim who didn’t have a place. He went to Rav Levinger, and together they established the yeshivah.

“He was beloved by everyone,” the Rav continued. “He comes from a family of kano'im who won’t give in on the smallest minhag. He had the same kana’us, but he did it in such a sweet way. He would ask in an offhanded way, ‘why don’t we do it this way?’ I saw this so many times, how he would do it with pleasantness and seichel.”

“I heard from a nice number of bochurim,” a bochur standing nearby said, “that whenever a new zeman started and new bochurim came into yeshivah, Moshe Hersh would be the one who made sure that everyone felt comfortable.”

“Just last week,” chimed in a third bochur, “he prepared a sheva brachos for a chassan. He served the entire evening. He loved doing chesed. It was his life.”

“It’s a great loss for the yeshivah,” another bochur said sadly.

“For everyone!” added the Rosh Yeshivah forcefully. “The murderer didn’t mean to kill him, he meant to kill every Yid. He hated all Yidden.”

The Rosh Yeshivah’s son, who is a maggid shiur there, explained that the yeshivah is more informal than a typical one and allows the leeway that older bochurim require. There are several shiurim and bochurim may sit in any one they choose.

“He loved to learn,” the maggid shiur said. “He knew very well how to learn. He greeted everyone with a smile and was willing to do anything for anyone. There are no words,” he added. “The loss is huge.”

“I don’t know of a single person who can say a bad word against him,” added a bochur. “It was impossible to be in a fight with him.”

One revelation I had during my conversations with Jersey City residents was that reports cited by the press of “tension” between the Jewish and predominantly black community were overblown. Yes, there is a gang problem and gunshots are frequently heard, residents concede. But the two communities get along.

“Every single person here owns a dog,” Moishe Duvid said. “But they always make sure to hold them tightly when a Yid passes by,” knowing that Jews are unused to and may have a fear of dogs. “They have a respect for Yidden.”

“We live very well with the non-Jews,” said Rav Ezriel Yida Roth. “They always greet us. When they see me as the menahel they wave to me. They’re happy when I greet them.”

“I’ve lived here for four years already and I’ve never had a fight,” says another resident. “If this story would have happened with a local resident it would have been a different story. But these killers live 25 minutes away from here.”

Nearly every resident was approached in the days since the attack by African American residents expressing their sadness and outrage, with some donating money to support the victims’ families.

“This is sad. It’s sad,” said Flash Gordon, an African American standing outside the shul on Friday and pointing to the grocery, a cigarette in hand. “You know, we have these little gangs but it was nothing like this. Unbelievable. The only time you see something like this is in the movies.”

Gordon said he spoke to the mayor and the council president to have community get together to “have a healing.”

When I arrived at the shul on Friday afternoon, it seemed hard to believe that this once held all of kehillah’s functions. The shul is the size of an average large room. The old door, with the modest protection of a combination lock, was leaning against a wall in the hallway, its frame still pocked with bullet holes. Police had come the day after the attack and torn it out, replacing it with a metal padlocked door.

Upstairs, the cheder appeared to have been evacuated in a hurry. Most furniture had been removed and transferred to a new place where the students will be learning for now. A bunch of fake dollar bills lay on a table, apparently rewards for children to “spend” on prizes.

But the shul is moving. The kehillah had purchased a large warehouse several blocks away and had been using it for the Yamim Noraim and Shabbosos. Chaim Fried took me over there as workers were installing sheetrock for the wall. The whirring sound of a carpenter’s wood cutting machine filled the room. Dozens of boxes of food lay strewn around the cavernous room, the generosity of donors across the country. There were challos, drinks, salads, cookies and dips. And these were only the leftovers.

Across the street was a community center where the Manhattan-based Met Council dropped off over 150,000 pounds of food the day before. Elsewhere, Toys4U of Boro Park donated cases full of toys for the bereft children. GoFundMe campaigns had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for each of the victims. In the Ferencz shivah house, a pair of envelopes, care of a group from Cherry Hill, lay on the table addressed to Rodriguez’s wife, who lives in Harrison, a 20-minute drive away. A private donor sponsored four weeks of security for the kehillah’s buildings.

In the new shul, they were preparing for a Shabbos kiddush, to be held in honor of the birth of a first child to a local resident who had been married for eight years. A last-minute plan had the Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg, Rav Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, coming for a Melaveh Malkah to strengthen the kehillah.

The community was also planning Moishe Duvid’s future, Fried said.

“We’re trying to open a new grocery for Mr. Ferencz in a new place, a couple of blocks down,” he explained, “so that when he gets up from the shivah there will be a new grocery ready for him, paid for by donors. Full inventory. Ready to roll.”

Chaim Fried said that he didn’t believe a single family would be spending Shabbos away. Jersey City is their home, and they’re here to stay.

“Before I moved here I was counting how many people live here because I was skeptical,” Fried said. “But after I moved in I didn’t care. I’m very happy here, my wife is happy. I have a house — look at this, I have two floors, a big dining room, a kitchen, a playroom for my kids, four bedrooms, a driveway, a backyard, a front porch, a back porch. I have a tenant. Number two is I have a community here. Now, with this tragedy, you can see how we’re one community. When I lived in Williamsburg I had maybe five friends I talked to because I knew them from yeshivah. Now, I go to shul, everyone is one big family.”

 

"The facts will speak for themselves"
Q & A with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop

For the first nine hours after the shooting attack began in Jersey City last Tuesday, there was no indication that the perpetrators were targeting Jews. All evidence pointed to a police chase gone wrong, with the suspects running into the first place they could find. Why would they target a grocery store, went the thinking.

The bombshell dropped the next day, in the form of a tweet by the city’s mayor, Steven Fulop. “Based on our initial investigation (which is ongoing),” the mayor posted, “we now believe the active shooters targeted the location they attacked.”

The tweet was a game changer. The state’s attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, immediately reined in the mayor, issuing a statement that further information will be issued by his office. In an interview with Mishpacha, Fulop hints at his frustration with authorities for not stating explicitly that the shootings were anti-Semitic in nature.

Fulop, the first Jewish mayor of Jersey City, is a grandchild of Romanian Holocaust survivors. A Democrat in his second term, Orthodox residents say he has been responsive to their concerns and is frequently seen in their neighborhood. Just days after the attack, I had the opportunity to sit down with the mayor.

Three days after the attack, you said the evidence will make it “increasingly clear” that the shooters’ real target was the yeshivah next door to the grocery store, where there are 40 students. How do you know that?

Well, look, I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a definitive answer because the two perpetrators are dead. But I think that a reasonable person would come to that conclusion. Either because the video showed that [the killer] went toward the other door [of the yeshivah] first or because we know that he brought a lot of ammunition — more than needed for the intention of killing three people. And we also know that the yeshivah was a known destination. It was the only yeshivah like that. And we know that the perpetrators had familiarity with Jersey City. That’s a fact.

We also know that the police were there within seconds. Had they not arrived within seconds [the shooters] would likely have gotten into the other building. I think that’s a fairly settled conclusion. And I think that as time goes by that will be more and more apparent.

According to what you are saying, the presence of a beat cop in the area was the difference between life and death for 40 kids. Are beat cops common in Jersey City?

Yes, for sure. We added some walk-in posts to some selected areas in order to increase visibility. [The Jewish neighborhood] was one of the posts that we selected. There are two police officers in that area 24 hours a day. That ended up being a very fortunate circumstance because they were on the scene immediately.

The biggest mystery here is, why Jersey City?

I think that when all the facts come out it will be clear that the perpetrators had a familiarity with Jersey City. I think that’s partially why.

Why were the governor and attorney general so hesitant to say initially that the Jews were the target of this crime?

I can’t speak for the attorney general or [the governor]. I can just tell you that during the incident we didn’t view it as a bias attack, but as an attack on residents, and our intention was to make sure that people were safe. As time went on and we learned in the next 12 hours that it seemed to be a bias crime, I felt that it was important to be upfront with people.

You were not at the press conference the next day with the governor and attorney general. Was there some reason for that?

I had just left an event with the attorney general. We were at the funeral together. And I just had a public event with him [today]. We have a good relationship. He’s a terrific attorney general.

Can you clarify: The attorney general said that Jews were a target of the killers but the attack wasn’t anti-Semitic. How does that work?

Let’s not parse words. It is anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews. At the end of the day, let’s not parse words or split hairs. It is what it is. They targeted Jews out of hate and that’s called anti-Semitism.

How large is the Orthodox population in your city?

The Orthodox Jewish population is about a hundred families. The shuls are literally bursting at the seams.

Do they feel safe?

Yes. We think we are a very multicultural city with a lot of different communities and I think everybody feels that what happened on Tuesday doesn’t represent the overall sentiment in this city.

If I can ask you a personal question: Until a few years ago there was a congressman from California who was a Holocaust survivor, his name was Tom Lantos. Then came the children of survivors who went into public office, and now we have grandchildren. You’re a grandson of Holocaust survivors. How do you feel going into City Hall every day, knowing that your grandparents were targeted because of their faith?

Oh, I don’t think of it that way. I just think that Jersey City is a good example of what’s possible in this country.

Anybody can do anything in this country. My family speaks to that. It’s an immigrant family and here we are. I’m in a multicultural, diverse city and have had the opportunity to be mayor for two terms.

Have you been at the shivah house?

I was at the funeral. I wasn’t at the shivah house but I will get there.

I was with the community yesterday and the day before. I’m with the community every day.

When you took office, you said you wanted to use Jersey City’s position next to New York to become a financial capital. How is that going?

We’re the economic engine for the state of New Jersey. We’re growing faster than any other city in the region. We have more units under construction than almost any city in the region. We’re building more affordable housing. We’re a progressive city. We’re building parks and open spaces. I mean, the city is not perfect — no city is perfect — but we’re generally moving in the right direction, no question about that.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 790)

 

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