A citywide mainstream media headline that shook Queens was first reported in the Queens Jewish Link’s WhatsApp groups. This past Wednesday afternoon, shortly after 3:30 p.m., a pedestrian noticed despicable graffiti scrawled on public-facing signage alongside the entranceway to the Rego Park Jewish Center at 97-30 Queens Boulevard. Outraged, the individual found confidence in calling Avi Cyperstein, Chaverim of Queens’ co-founder and a City Council candidate in the district of the hate crime. Cyperstein wasted no time in jumping into action, first alerting Queens Borough Safety Patrol-Shmira of the incident and arriving on-scene shortly thereafter.
Cyperstein found a dismayed building super, Robin, at the foot of the facility. “We have never had any such incident occur,” she explained. The pair found a freshly painted swastika on one side of the stairs and gang insignia on the other. Cyperstein also contacted the New York Police Department, who swiftly responded by photographing the markings and reviewing CCTV surveillance footage showing the assailant in action shortly before 11 a.m. that morning. Afterwards, together with Shaya Lloyd, a Shmira coordinator, Cyperstein removed the anti-Semitic symbol plastered on the building.
“The neighborhood has been scarred by hate before, and this pattern must end immediately. Nobody should have to experience or witness vile anti-Semitic marks anywhere in the world, especially not in the most diverse borough of New York City – Queens,” said Cyperstein.
The Rego Park area is home to a sizeable Orthodox Jewish community, including many elderly Jews who suffered the atrocities of the Holocaust. It was December of 2019 when another swastika was found in a nearby Forest Hills schoolyard, and this past July one appeared etched into the hood of a car.
By Thursday, the political world had taken notice of various news articles and reacted. Congresswoman Grace Meng, Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, and Council Member Karen Koslowitz released a joint statement saying, “There is absolutely no room for this kind of hatred in our community. We have consulted with the NYPD, and are confident that the perpetrator behind this cowardly offense will be found, and will face justice.”
The officials expressed appreciation to Commanding Officer Joseph E. Cappelmann of the 112th Precinct and his team, along with the Hate Crime Task Force, for their prompt investigation and swift action to address this incident. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo weighed in, “I am disgusted by the swastika and other anti-Semitic graffiti that were found outside of the Rego Park Jewish Center in Queens – a place where many members of the Jewish community come to feel safe and at home. This hateful act is the work of a coward who only seeks to instill fear in our communities, and it will not be tolerated.” He used his powers to direct the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force to assist with the investigation and ensure that the person responsible is held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. The 112th Precinct reported to Shmira that there had been communications between the two task forces.
Late Sunday evening, February 21, the 112th Precinct posted a grainy image of the individual wanted by the Hate Crime Task Force regarding a “criminal mischief.” The police requested those with information in the bias attack to contact the NYPD’s Crime Stoppers at 800-577-TIPS, online at nypdcrimestoppers.com, or on Twitter @NYPDTips.
Disgusted by a recent uptick in hate crimes against the Asian community and now with this incident under investigation, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards called his first major press conference on the steps of Borough Hall Monday to denounce hate against any religion or group and to promote unity in face of adversity.
“A virus that has been in our midst long before COVID-19 came to town – that virus is called hate... This plague of prejudice is running much too rampant, just like it’s been for generations,” Richards stated.
“No matter what you look like, where you come from, who you love, how you identify, or who you pray to – you belong, and Queens belongs to you,” the Borough President told those before him. “Queens welcomes individuals of all racial backgrounds, ages, faiths, and gender identities. If you do not share our values or our shared future, you can gladly leave.”
Richards spoke from the podium surrounded by over two dozen fellow elected officials, community leaders, and religious leaders, and NYPD anti-hate task force members, and denounced the rise in hate crimes throughout the borough. Two recent anti-Asian attacks were reported, one on the ninth of this month, when a male followed and berated an Asian woman. A week later, a man was seen slamming an elderly Asian woman to the ground, resulting in a nasty head wound. Those in attendance heard from City Council Member Peter Koo, who reported on his own attack last April when he was hit on the back of his head in his apartment building. Koo said he did not believe his misfortune was an act of hate, but the new revelations have made him think twice. An Asian Hate Crime Task Force was established in August to combat crimes against the Asian community. “Hate is not tolerated. Violence is not tolerated,” stated Deputy Inspector Stewart Loo, the task force’s commanding officer.
Rabbi Romiel Daniel, who stands at the helm of the Jewish Center, is the only rabbi of Indian decent to lead an Ashkenazi congregation. He detailed the incident and spoke of the surge in hate crimes that have plagued the borough. Daniel pointed to the prejudiced style that has become commonplace in recent years. “The Rego Park Jewish Center has been around for more than 81 years and has never had this kind of problem.” The rabbi called the assailant “misguided” and mentioned that other bystanders seemed to not have seen the incident unfolding. Daniel then mentioned that the 25-point Plan of Nazi Germany used the swastika just before World War II but added that this is a sign that has been corrupted. It is the old Indian swastika, which symbolizes stability, spirituality, and holiness, and later became a pro-Arian sign and took on a racist edge. “This is not acceptable in this borough or any borough of New York.” The rabbi then mentioned that his older congregants worry about entering the synagogue, fearing that they may be attacked from behind. “Do we have to turn our heads before we enter?” he questioned. The rabbi told the Queens Jewish Link, “In Queens we do not need individuals who come to incite violence. We need to be together as a family. We are part of a family and in unity there is strength. We are all children of G-d.”
Rabbi Michael S. Miller, the executive director and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) called the acts “utterly repugnant” and went on to quote the famed Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “By hate’s nature it goes beyond any one group. Hate knows no frontiers, neither racial nor ethnic.” Miller continued: “Hate is like a virus, or like cancer with no vaccine to halt its ravaging. If left unchecked, it will continue to destroy and result in the unspeakable.” The JCRC, in partnership with the UJA, launched a community security initiative and placed a regional director in Queens. Miller called on civic and community leaders to do more. “Children are not born as haters. If they can be taught to hate, we need to be there first to educate, model, to accept, to love.” Miller pledged to “tear down silos and robustly engage in more partnering, coalition building, and cultural connecting in the world’s borough” in an effort to show the rest of the world how to learn, work, and live together despite our differences.
In a stunning reveal, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz announced that her office has 30 alleged hate crimes under investigation, all from just this past year. “I want to be clear that any violence against any person is condemned in the County of Queens, but when it is motivated by hate, when it’s motivated by where folks come from, when it’s motivated by the language that you speak… When it occurs to one of us, it happens to all of us.” Katz offered the support of her own hotline for victims and witnesses to a crime: 718-286-7010.
Others in attendance included Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, CEO of Chazaq, Project Lead’s Rabbi Avrohom Hecht, Michael Nussbaum of the QJCC, Assembly Member David Weprin, Council Members James Gennaro and Barry Grodenchik, Community Liaison Simon Sebag for the office of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Council candidates David Aronov and Avi Cyperstein, among others. The Borough President noted that Assembly Member Daniel Rosenthal was set to speak but could not attend. In his stead, Assembly Member Catalina Cruz of District 39 denounced the hate on behalf of her colleagues.
By Shabsie Saphirstein