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Eli Cohen

Oral history interview conducted by Matthew Birkhold

May 26, 2017

Call number: 2016.027.1.14

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BIRKHOLD: OK. So I am Matthew Birkhold, and we are here on May 26th, in -- in -- in Brooklyn, New York, with -- with Rabbi Eli Cohen for Brooklyn Historical Society's Voices of Crown Heights Oral History Project. And so Rabbi Cohen, I know you were born in -- in Manchester, England, in -- in 1955. Can you tell me how you came to Crown Heights, and if you recall your first memories, what -- what -- what they were, of Crown Heights?

COHEN: Yeah, I first came to Crown Heights to participate in the-- give me one second.


COHEN: Do this again. Hello?

[Interview interrupted.]

COHEN: The question was how'd I come about -- come to Crown Heights and my earliest memories?


COHEN: So -- OK. So I came to Crown Heights actually to study in a rabbinical college in Morristown, New Jersey, that is affiliated with the Chasidic movement here in Crown Heights. But before I went out to the yeshiva, I spent the first 1:00month, which was the holiday month of -- like, September, October, which in Hebrew is called Tishrei. That's the month of the New Year and Yom Kippur and the Sukkot holiday -- in the Crown Heights community. And I remember -- it first struck me as being a very vibrant community, very alive.


COHEN: The -- in contrast to maybe the Judaism that I had -- was used to as a kid was much more stilted, if you like. It was more formalized, and here it was very dynamic and very alive. It was a very historic time in -- in the -- in the terms of the Jewish community because it was -- the Yom Kippur War broke out then on Yom Kippur of that year. So when -- so one could sense a tremendous urgency and intense involvement of the Rebbe, the leader of the movement, in the 2:00events that were going on. He had been calling that whole summer for additional prayers to protect the -- the Jewish people. The first few days of the war were very difficult for Israel. They were overrun on a number of sides, particularly the Sinai and the Golan Heights, where the Syrians and the Egyptians overcame Israeli positions and were really threatening the center of the country. And whereas a lot of the Jewish world was very concerned and fearful, the Rebbe said, "Everything has to be with rejoicing," that we have to celebrate, and through celebration we're going to defeat the enemy. And there was a miraculous turnaround that took -- took -- took place then within a couple of days, and the Israelis beat back the Syrians on the Golan Heights, they surrounded the Egyptians in the Sinai Desert, and the -- and it went on into the Sukkot holiday. So we saw -- saw a lot of things that I'd never seen before in terms 3:00of the engagement of the Rebbe and all those events that were going on, the vibrancy of the community -- he said that the, you know, celebration should be the -- the streets should be filled with celebration, and there were literally people doing cart-- somersaults in the middle of the street in response to his -- to his instructions. It was a very -- there was a lot of very new things I'd never seen before.


COHEN: And -- centered around the Rebbe and the -- the Chasidic movement.

BIRKHOLD: OK. And this celebration took place right here on Kingston Avenue, or was it throughout the--

COHEN: Kingston Avenue, Eastern Parkway; I mean, Eastern Parkway and Kingston is the center, the -- the -- the main Lubavitch synagogue. But it spilled out into the entire community, was a -- and -- yeah, like Crown and Montgomery Street over here on Kingston was, like, the center of the actual population center. So people didn't live up so much on Union and President yet, so it was more down this -- this area, that was where you would have seen it. And people made little gatherings in their homes, and then there were big gatherings, and a 4:00lot of adult beverages were consumed.

BIRKHOLD: [laughter] Thank you. So here you -- you -- you come to this country to study. And you come at this very significant historical moment, and you see these celebrations, and you contrasted that with -- with -- with the Judaism of -- of -- of your childhood. Did the celebrations here in -- in Crown Heights and what you experienced that weekend, did it have a -- did it transform your commitment, or -- or your understanding of -- of -- of Judaism in any -- in any profound ways?

COHEN: Well, I -- I think probably -- I had originally come just for a year's study, and I think probably by the end of that month I knew that I was going to stay much longer than a year, that's for sure. And here we are, what, 44 years later. So I guess that had some effect. It -- it was, like, you know, a shift in focus for me, sure, but, you know, I -- I was -- I was already very committed 5:00to the -- to the whole movement and the concepts, it was just exactly how that would play out in my life that sort of changed, I think.

BIRKHOLD: OK. OK. And where did you live when you -- when -- when you studied?

COHEN: So I would co-- well, we did -- they had a dormitory in the yeshiva. It was about a -- an hour's drive --


COHEN: -- to Morristown. So we would -- we would -- lived in the dormitory. But during the month of -- that holiday month before I went out to the yeshiva, I was staying with a family on Eastern Parkway, four or five doors away from the main center. They were very hospitable.


COHEN: I met over there the -- their -- actually, the couple were cousins, so it was their shared grandparents who would come and spend a lot of time, and then there was the other set of grandparents, who came every so often.


COHEN: And it was -- well, the parents, the parents and the grandparents. So the grandparents would come and the -- the parents, and the brothers and sisters -- it was a large extended family -- and somehow they had room to give me this little bedroom in the corner for that whole month, and I really got to meet a 6:00lot of people. And I have, you know, enduring relationships with that family till today, because of that. So that's certainly true.


COHEN: Then later in the yeshiva I would come in just for the weekends every two or three weeks. So then I ca-- I started staying with a different family. And there was a young couple with a child, and they opened up their home, and they would let me stay there for, you know, Friday night, Saturday night, whenever we came in from Morristown.


COHEN: And it was -- there was -- there's some good memories from those times, for sure.

BIRKHOLD: OK. And do you -- do you recall what years?

COHEN: So that -- so the Morristown years, I was there from September of '73 until -- till the end of the school year in '75.


COHEN: And then after the summer and the -- we -- I guess it was in the summer 7:00camp upstate, as a counselor, that summer -- and then after the summer, I came here to the central yeshiva at 770 Eastern Parkway --


COHEN: -- and so that was -- and I was in the yeshiva there, and dormed in, like, different locations around -- right around here, from -- from '75 until my wedding, until '81.


COHEN: So it was, like, another six years of -- of -- of study.


COHEN: And -- then during that time, you know, I was involved in a lot of the activities that were going on, the -- a lot of the outreach work that was going on, the -- we have the mitzvah tanks, which are these, like -- originally it was step vans. Later we got more sophisticated; became mobile homes. But we would, like, set up on a corner with posters and with a -- we'd take a bench out of the synagogue and put it in the back, and then we would -- would -- you know, five or six guys would come -- would -- would go out to different locations in Manhattan and other places, and we would engage Jews and talk to them about 8:00their -- their heritage and encourage them to do different observances.


COHEN: And so that started -- they called it the "tanks against assimilation." So we were the mitzvah tanks. [laughter] We -- we -- and -- so I was involved in organizing that for a while, as well as participating --


COHEN: -- and, you know -- so that started in '75, and then -- and then later we bought our own mobile homes, and we would go out, you know, more often. So that was a part of it too. And -- and different other youth programs and other activities, in addition to my studies, that -- that -- that I was engaged in.


COHEN: As were all -- you know, all my friends at that time.

BIRKHOLD: Now, you said that the -- that the -- the mitzvah tanks, 1975 --

COHEN: Mm-hmm.

BIRKHOLD: -- and you said your work with them began then. Did they also begin in nine-- I get the sense that you were --

COHEN: They--

BIRKHOLD: -- the leading organizers.

COHEN: No, no, no.



COHEN: No. They began about -- they began, I think, in seventy-fi-- maybe even in '74, when we were in Morristown, I think maybe we had a mitzvah tank there that -- and there were some of the older students there that organized it then. The older students here were the ones who organized it then. I took over the management of it around -- a couple years later, maybe '76 or '77, and kept it going through that period, and that -- that was -- so my involvement came a little bit after the beginning.


COHEN: Yeah.

BIRKHOLD: OK. Can you descr-- were the youth programs you were involved in, were those -- were those rooted in Crown Heights? Were they city-wide? Were they--?

COHEN: Well, so, we had a -- it was called the "Wednesday Hour" Release Time. So we would go out to Canarsie or Queens, different areas where there were Jewish children in public school. And there was an arrangement with the schools that they were -- the kids were allowed to go out for one hour on Wednesdays to have some religious study. So we couldn't teach them in the school, but we 10:00would take them to a nearby synagogue. Each public school had some kind of nearby synagogue in -- in the Jewish neighborhoods that we could take them to. We'd walk them over there. We would, you know, sit and teach them the basics for an hour, and then the parents would come and pick them up. So that was -- so I -- I did -- most of my involvement with that was in the Canarsie area. So that was one thing we did. Then on Fridays we would go out to -- to the -- into the city. And then there was also other outreach activities that were -- we would go visit office buildings and go from floor to floor and find the Jewish people there and, you know, share -- also the same idea, sharing the teachings with them and so on. And -- and then there were the big parades, you know, the -- the -- the -- we just had one now, Lag B'Omer, which is the -- it's a day of celebration in the Jewish calendar, usually comes in May somewhere. And if it's on a Sunday, there's a big, big parade, and thousands and thousands of people. The Parkway's closed. It's wall-to-wall people. So there were some big parades 11:00also in -- maybe '76 and -- I don't remember exactly the years, but a few of those years that it worked out that it was a Sunday, and we had a big parade. And so I was involved also with those. And the other things too. They have a -- an organization called Tzivos Hashem, which is the Army of God, which is for the young children to get involved in, you know, doing different activities to earn points and go up in rank. It's a whole system that they have. So, you know, we were involved in the beginnings of that too. Different campaigns that the Rebbe initiated. It was -- he would always be starting something new to get, you know, new enthusiasm, a new -- a new drive for something. And if he spoke at ten o'clock at night and said, "This is what needs to be done," we had the flyers printed and ready to go by 8:00 a.m. the next morning. So it -- it was -- [laughter] you know, it was very intense.

BIRKHOLD: That -- that's a -- it's a high level of organization.


COHEN: Oh yeah. We knew exactly which printers were still open in the middle of the night, and we could be -- in those days you could drive from here to Chambers Street in Manhattan in probably 15 minutes if you -- in the middle of the night, when no one was around, and -- and go to the all-night printer and get it back in time. [laughter]

BIRKHOLD: And -- and then can you -- can you describe the process? Once you have the -- once you have the flyers or the -- or the materials printed, what was the process like from -- from -- from there, in the neighborhood?

COHEN: Well, so it was basically all outreach. I mean, most of the Jews who lived in Crown Heights, at least until very recently, were connected somehow with the Lubavitch movement.


COHEN: So if we wanted to reach another Jew who's not from the Lubavitch, we had to go outside somewhere. So if we went to nearby communities, we would walk down on the holidays to -- to speak in synagogues and other communities, sometimes on the Sabbath. We would -- so it was all reaching out of the neighborhood.



COHEN: Now more recently, of course, we've had an influx of different people coming into the neighborhood who -- Jews who, you know, with different adherences and so on. That's a new, very new phenomenon over the last few years. And, you know, I was shocked. I saw a -- a girl going into the subway who had -- from her face I could see that she was Jewish. And I said to her -- on Rosh Hashanah, on the New Year -- and I said to her, "Can I blow the shofar for you?" She said, "I'm going to synagogue!" and she's jumping into the subway. So you would have never seen that a couple of years ago. That's a new development.

BIRKHOLD: Yeah, I can imagine. I can imagine. I lo-- I hope to get to that in a few minutes.


BIRKHOLD: So -- so -- so -- so you -- you finished studying in -- in -- at -- at yeshiva in -- in '78?

COHEN: No, '81.

BIRKHOLD: Eighty-one. OK.

COHEN: Right. That was -- I got married, but I continued with the studying into '82 also. So even -- our studies continue usually for a year after marriage.


COHEN: So my wife and I, we had a small apartment over here on Empire Boulevard, and we -- and I was studying fulltime in -- it's called the kolel, 14:00which is advanced studies.


COHEN: Kolel sits right behind the synagogue in Eastern Parkway.


COHEN: And so I was there until the middle of '82, and then I took a position first with the yeshiva, organizing one of their programs. That was something that -- and then later -- we have this concept called -- of -- called shlichus. "Shlichus" means that you go out. It's like young couples going to communities all over the world. There are about 3000, maybe even 4000 by now, young couples who began, here, their studies in the neighborhood, and -- or they continue their studies and finish their studies in the neighborhood, and then they are now in leadership positions in Jewish communities all over the world.


COHEN: So -- and that really -- pretty much every capable person who graduated 15:00our yeshi-- graduated our yeshivas in the '70s and the '80s would go on shlichus; would go out on this -- start sometime in the Chabad outpost or join an outpost or go and teach in an -- in an -- in an institution somewhere. And it could be -- you know, it could be Texas, it could be Detroit, Minnesota, West Coast, and then it could be England, France, Spain -- though that was very isolated, the one in Spain, at the beginning of those years. South America, South Africa, Australia, somebody went to New Zealand for a few years. You know. And now they have it in Bangkok and in --


COHEN: -- in many, many, many communities. All over India there are young fellows that started here that went there and there. You know. Pretty -- 16:00pretty primitive conditions that they're living in. And then in the '80s, also, with the -- the Soviet Union opened up, and then they -- there are hundreds and hundreds of outposts in the different communities, in Russia and Ukraine and all the smaller former Soviet countries. So there's a -- a lot of activity going on that's all centered from here.

BIRKHOLD: Right. And where did you go?

COHEN: So I went to San Francisco --


COHEN: -- in -- with my wife -- in -- in 1983. We went to join an existing Chabad center. And we were there about three years, and then at that point the h-- the organizational things didn't sort of make sense for us to continue. The other rabbi was very involved, and -- so we came back here.


COHEN: And then I took up a few months later running the Chabad at New York University.



COHEN: And so I started that right at the end of '85, like December of '85 was my first event. And -- and I continued running that program until 2003, till the end of the school year in 2003. And then I gave it over to a younger rabbi who I -- had been part of my organization, but there were some changes that, it made -- it made sense that he should take it over and I should step to the side. So -- and for the -- you know, and it has actually been a tremendous -- it was a good decision. I mean, because the -- the -- the -- the growth of the -- of the organization since I handed it over to this young man has just been phenomenal, and they have a great program and a lot going on. And I took it through one stage of its development, but he was definitely the right one to take it through the next stage. So it was a good -- a good decision.

BIRKHOLD: That's nice. Can you -- can you talk to some of the challenges that -- that you encountered with the -- with -- with your work at NYU?


COHEN: So working at NYU's very fulfilling. I mean, I -- it -- I wasn't a great fundraiser, so it wasn't -- I -- we didn't have the budget to rent a large apartment for our family that was continually growing. So we would take a smaller apartment that -- that was just a weekend apartment. So we were living here in Crown Heights. The whole week I would commute in, but for the Sabbath I would stay over with my wife and family in the different apartments that we rented, whatever was available. We had friends in real estate who were able to give us, you know, something at a decent price. Or if we didn't have, we'd -- someone -- a couple times we paid full price. Whatever it is, we managed. But the -- and in fact the -- one of the realtors that we engaged, who helped us find one of the apartments that we used, liked the story so much that -- she had a friend in the -- in the New York Times who was, like, editing the real estate section. So they did a front-page article in the real estate section: "Friday 19:00the Rabbi Stays on Bleecker Street." [laughter] And there was a picture of me and, at that time, I think six of my seven kids that -- and we were setting up the Sabba-- Sabbath table, you know, with the cover for the breads and the wine and everything. And they -- and that picture was -- was -- it wasn't front page of the newspaper, but it was front page of the real estate section. It was a nice little article about -- about what we were doing there. And -- I mean, we had a -- you know, we had a very good -- good program. At least a lot of students, we -- I was there through the period when NYU sort of transformed itself from a commuter school to a -- to a dorm school. So when you have dorm students, there's much more need. There's much more need for having, you know, a -- a religious base away from home. Even if they weren't that far away from home, they were from Long Island or they were from Westchester. But there were a lot of kids from further away also, and some of our closest relationships were with those children that were, you know, from Kansas City or different places, 20:00Missouri, that had come to study in the big city. And, you know, they sort of were a little disjointed from their community. But we had -- we had a -- a very strong program, and we enjoyed it very much. And it was a little grueling because, you know, I would go out early in the morning for services, and then we would have the -- we would often have to stay late for social programs in the evening, so we might have -- I might have gone from 7:00 till 9:00 at night, you know, plus the commute, or 7:30 -- maybe leaving here at 7:00 but coming back at 10:00 or after 10:00. So that was -- was not--


COHEN: Long. And -- and -- and -- and taxing, but -- but very enjoyable.

BIRKHOLD: Right. Do you -- did you notice any kind of significant changes in Crown Heights that -- that -- that occurred while -- during your time on the West Coast? Had the neighborhood--

COHEN: No, the -- that wasn't a time of big changes. The changes came much 21:00later. I -- you know, always, always, always in the -- in the -- in the late '70s, the '80s, crime was the -- the big concern, you know. And the -- this dates back even before I came here, in terms of, you know, the flight of all the -- the Whites all left to the suburbs.


COHEN: And the only ones who stayed were the Chasidic Jews. So -- and the Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson, he taught that you don't abandon a community. There are older people here who can't leave. There are institutions that have been built, and we need to strengthen the community. So he started this concept of neighborhood preservation. In fact, this organization began in response to that, in, like, '69, which was around the time that, you know, there was -- when there was a big upheaval here in Crown Heights. And that's before I was here, obviously. So then -- but crime was the big -- was the -- the -- the big 22:00challenge. Because, you know, if you couldn't walk safely out on the streets, then it takes a lot of guts to stay in a neighborhood where -- where the streets are not safe. And, you know, little -- what was his name -- Avram Goldman was stabbed at the -- and killed -- at the -- at the -- at the payphone on Troy and Montgomery, and Rabbi Okunov was shot for no reason walking down the street in the morning. David Okunov, who's a, you know, was a man in his sixties who left behind a whole family. And so on and so forth. I mean, everyone remembered those -- those are the -- were the most feared ones, but, you know, the whole city was in upheaval. You know. There were signs on the cars that said, "Everything's stolen already," and there was the car alarms going off and ignored day and night. And, you know, the -- the -- the '80s were tough times in New York City. And seven-- and -- and late '70s -- especially here in Crown 23:00Heights, as, you know, the whole of Brooklyn was pretty much a high-crime area. And then there was -- then the change came in the Giuliani years, and later with Bloomberg, where there was this aggressive push to reduce crime and to make the neighborhood livable -- neighborhoods, the whole city -- and we benefited from that, for sure. Our community wasn't passive about it. I mean, there was -- there were the neighborhood patrols, and there were different things that were done, and, you know, always there was a lot of advocacy beginning -- all the way from the beginning, from the Beame administration, and maybe even Lindsay, I think, who met with the Rebbe, and the Rebbe said, you know, "We're going to -- we want to keep the neighborhood strong, but you have to help us, and you -- and the -- the city needs to give the resources." And there -- to a certain extent that was heard, and so often we felt abandoned and -- and -- and not cared for.

BIRKHOLD: Can you talk a little bit about the formation and practice of the 24:00neighborhood patrols during -- during that period?

COHEN: Well, the streets were much rougher then. You know. But the -- the neighborhood patrols, you know, they're unarmed, people driving around in cars or -- or just watching from the wind-- from the front windows and responding, calling the police. But, see, now, today, if we -- if our neighborhood patrol calls the police and says, "Look, we -- I -- I saw this deliveryman just being held up on -- on the -- President Street." That's a story that happened, like, three -- three months ago, right? The cops were there in a minute or two to make the arrest, to resp-- you know, they were responsive. In those days you would call and call and call and nobody would come. So, you know, there were a couple of times that were challenging times when different things happened that were -- where maybe the patrol overstepped the line or so on, or maybe they didn't, but, you know, it was later portrayed like that. So I don't remember 25:00the specific incidents -- except one, was the -- the -- there was a young boy who attacked an older man on -- on Kingston Avenue. I don't think he did anything very serious to him, but the -- the -- the boys chased after this kid, and the kid was very badly beaten. And then the first two Jewish-looking people that showed up on the scene afterwards, some witnesses pointed to them and said, "That's them." So these guys were arrested, and then there was a long, long, long trial that took place. And the whole community was involved because they knew that these were not the -- the perpetrators that were arrested, but also because the tactic of the defense was that they did not allow the two accused to sit at the witness stand, because their point was that they were never picked out and nobody ever identified them as being the -- the perpetrators. So every day 20 young Chasidim would file into the courtroom, and only the judge knew 26:00which the two were of those 20 who were the -- the actual perpetrators -- were the actual accused, rather. And that went on for a long, long time. It was a very -- in the end they were acquitted because the point was made that no one had ever identified them. So the -- there were a couple of difficult incidents. But -- and -- actually it made for some difficult interactions also, because--

BIRKHOLD: Interactions with who?

COHEN: Between the different racial groups in the neighborhood. Because, you know, the -- the perception was that if you were, let's say, not Chasidic, you were under suspicion. That was the way that -- not the -- from the outside looking in, right? From the inside looking out, it was like, well, you know, 27:00they -- there are no -- no members of the community that are beating up each other. This is, you know, beating or attacking or robbing or whatever -- breaking in -- whatever the different crimes were. So the -- so the backdrop of crime definitely fueled a lot of tension that spilled over into other racial interactions that I think that -- that were -- that were -- were difficult. So it's easier now because crime is not a factor, so once you take that -- it's not -- I won't say it's not a factor, but it's -- it's -- it's certainly not the factor it was then. And even to the extent that we do have crimes that take place now, but the -- the -- it's not a us-against-them mentality. It's more like, you know, the -- it's a shared problem, and -- and it doesn't matter what color you are, you're -- you're happy to see that crime is reduced. You're happy to see that somebody's watching and helping with the police. The -- one of the crime patrols was integrated into the police department a little bit, so 28:00it's like a -- semi-recognized, which means they have more responsibility also to interact better with -- you know, to -- to follow the rules and -- and so on. So all of that together, I think, improved the situation a lot. And -- and also today when you call, the police respond right away. So that also helps, you know, so that you're not left to deal with the situation on your own. You -- you -- you have the -- the professionals coming.


COHEN: Also I think -- you know, years ago the police department was not so welcoming of civilians trying to, quote, "do their work." They didn't like that. You know, it was like an intrusion on their territory. So there were -- there were difficult relationships between our Chasidic community and the police too. And -- that -- that's pretty much -- you know, the police department for a number of years has been working on understanding the communities they police and trying to work more closely with them and so on. So that also has changed from -- from then to now.


BIRKHOLD: OK. You talked a minute ago -- you mentioned briefly that one of the community patrols was integrated into the police department.

COHEN: Right.

BIRKHOLD: Can you -- can you talk a little bit about that process or how it occurred and -- and the terms upon which it -- it occurred?

COHEN: I'm not sure. I wasn't actually involved here then at that time. It's called COP, which is Community Observation Patrol, something like that. They were given a couple of official marked cars, city-owned cars. They were -- it's not exclusively a Chasidic patrol or -- there are a few non-Jewish members also that are involved in this -- in -- in the joint patrol, and -- particularly on Friday night, there's a couple of volunteers, one Caribbean fellow and an African American that drive around often on Friday night when the Jews can't drive. So, you know, it's, sort of, a nice cooperation. And they are -- the -- 30:00but by be given -- being given official recognition and maybe a little bit of training and some guidelines, so it reduces the -- you know, the potential for any kind of abuse or misconduct that would not be -- that -- that would be damaging to -- to community relations.

BIRKHOLD: OK. And kind of sticking with the same period, can you -- can you talk about what Kingston Avenue looked like in the late '70s and early '80s when -- when -- when crime was so high and -- and --

COHEN: Right.

BIRKHOLD: -- so much of the city was -- was bombed out. What did -- what -- what did Kingston Avenue look like?

COHEN: Well, Kingston Avenue was vibrant, like today. I mean, you know, the -- there were probably less restaurants [laughter] and more, kind of, mom-and-pop stores that -- but, you know, even today Kingston Avenue is one of sort of the last main streets in the city. You know, there's -- there's no box stores here. 31:00There's no -- you don't have CVS or Rite Aid or Duane Reade or -- you know, it's -- there -- there is Apple Drugs and -- and -- what's the other one called? There are three, like, locally owned pharmacies that serve the neighborhood and there's a traditional butcher store and there's traditional fish stores, two of them, fruit stores. I mean, neighborhoods don't have those anymore, that much. So -- and then of course Judaica stores and -- and so on. So it's pre-- in many ways it's the same as it was then. In some ways it's improved. But it was -- but it was always vibrant. It was -- maybe there were -- there were probably more gates on the stores than there are now. They used to have those iron gates that you couldn't see through at night. And then even when the -- when -- there was a big blackout I think in the '70s, and they actually came with tru-- with -- in many neighborhoods they actually came with vehicles and chained the -- put 32:00a ch-- had -- hooked a chain on the gate to pull it off so they could get inside and rob the store. But in the -- on Kingston, there were -- there was a much more sense of communal involvement, so people actually, you know, sat at either end of the avenue with headlights up and down the street to light up the area in the -- in the dark of the blackout so that, you know, there wouldn't be any looting or robbing. So the -- I don't think it was really affected even then. But there -- it -- but there were -- you know, there was always the concern of break-ins. There was always the concern of -- of crime. And from that point, too, it looked differently. The iron gates is the one that comes to mind, that was a -- a big difference. And then of course, you know, you would -- there was never a day that you wouldn't walk down the street and see a pool of broken glass by somebody's car and, you know, the radio was gone, or the CB radio they used to have in those days. So -- so it's -- from that point of view it's -- 33:00it's different. But --


COHEN: -- there's a lot more the same than is different.

BIRKHOLD: Right. OK. The -- the -- the headlights at -- at the -- on the sides of Kingston Avenue fascinates me. Was -- do you -- do you have any idea if -- was that a project of the community patrols or was that self-organized?

COHEN: I think it was pretty spontaneous. I mean, it was -- you know, nobody expected a blackout. Probably a -- you know, a lot of the families -- in those days even more than today a lot of the families would go up to -- like, rented bungalows that you could rent upstate for -- for a month or so. So a lot of the families would go out of town to have -- for the kids to have a place to run around. And it was much -- the summers were emptier than they are now in terms of -- the population doesn't go away as -- not in such a large percent. There are still many who go upstate, but it's not such a large percent of the community. There's a lot of families that aren't able to do that or that want to do that or can do it because of work commitments and so on. So the summers 34:00used to be very quiet here. But whoever was around and this happened, you could -- it -- it's pretty spontaneous. The community organizes quickly and responds quickly. And that was true then and I think now too.

BIRKHOLD: OK. Thank you. You said you -- you -- you left NYU in -- in 2003.

COHEN: Right.

BIRKHOLD: What did you do after that?

COHEN: So I was involved at that time with the administration of some of our schools, the religious schools in the neighborhood, parochial schools, that were going through somewhat of a crisis that had began a while before, but I realized at some point that I -- that I needed to get involved to take -- to help bring the schools out of the -- the -- out of that problem. So I went in there for a couple of years, working with the board of directors, to reorganize that school system. And also for a short time within that period I also did some writing. 35:00I was compiling some work on -- on prayer and the Chasidic understanding of prayer -- which I never actually published in the end, but still a collection that I have that maybe I'll -- one day I will get to it. I have to figure out the format of how to -- how it needs to be presented and what's the -- it was -- it was an interesting project, because I didn't -- when I started really doing the research, I found something very different than what I expected. So that was -- it's sort of -- it's -- it's waiting for -- for some kind of formulation. So I did that for a while. And then, in '09 there came an opportunity. There was a group of people organizing to -- we have a -- a communal election for the directors of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. And there was a group of people organizing that I worked with them, and then when they were elected, they said, would I take the position as executive director? That was exactly Memorial Day weekend of 2009. So this -- we're at the eight-year anniversary of 36:00that today. [laughter]

BIRKHOLD: Congratulations.

COHEN: Thank you. [laughter]

BIRKHOLD: I want to talk more about that. But first, you said "communal election." Who -- who's eligible to vote in a communal election?

COHEN: So the members of the synagogue. So the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council is the cou-- is the secular council of -- about 60 today, but then it was about maybe 35 or 40 -- Jewish congregations that meet regularly in Crown Heights. So to be a member of the congregation you have to -- there's certain guidelines of how often you meet and so on. And then the members get to vote. So it's a popular election of the members of these congregations.

BIRKHOLD: OK. Thank you. And -- and -- and then tell me, had you been involved in the Jewish Community Council before -- before the election?

COHEN: Not real-- Only the run-up to the election, but not before that. So I -- I was involved communally a lot, in different things that went on in the neighborhood over the years, but not in this aspect of it.




BIRKHOLD: Can you talk about -- about the -- about that transition a little bit?

COHEN: I don't know what much there is to say. I mean, you know, the -- the -- there was a -- it's very much like the electoral process in any other community, you know? There's a -- camps, and there are positions, and there are papers written up, and articles, and flyer-ing and -- and some acrimony sometimes and some good stuff. And then eventually the people get to express their opinion, and all the polls are wrong. You know, that's the way that it goes, right?

BIRKHOLD: Yes. [laughter] So were you drafted to run, or you did -- or did you make [inaudible]?

COHEN: No, I didn't run; I didn't run in the election. I was working with the -- the people who eventually were elected to the board. So they had a slate, and I was supporting that and working with them, and then after they were elected they asked me to then come on as -- as executive director. So they 38:00hired me. They -- I -- I -- I wasn't elected.

BIRKHOLD: OK. OK. So then can you tell me about the programs of the Jewish Community Council?

COHEN: So even though we're called the Jewish Community Council, but we're actually -- we serve the entire neighborhood. And we have whole gallons of social service programming that we do, which is access to government benefits, Office of Victim Services, helping people access compensation and other assistance for crime victims -- which of course was a very big thing 20 years ago -- and it still is considerable, and, you know, a lot of people. Even beyond the neighborhood we do a lot of work with several surrounding precincts, not just the -- the ones that are actually in Crown Heights, getting referrals of crime victims who need help, everything from paying for a funeral for a loved one who was killed, to getting reimbursement for missed time at work for a person who was injured, to a little bit of property reimbursement for children 39:00and for seniors, but that's not -- regular adults don't get -- for innocent victims of crime. And it's a state program, and -- and the work is funded by the state, and they access the -- whatever the federal monies are that are available for crime victims. So that's -- so we -- we do that program. We've been doing it for a long time. Neighborhood preservation program, working a little bit with housing and -- and different civic activities to maintain the strength of the neighborhood, so that really ties in directly. And that's something the city -- sorry, the State of New York has been funding for quite a long time. And it's -- I guess we were from the pioneers, but now it's very common, and all the communities have these neighborhood preservation programs or rural preservation programs that -- throughout the whole of New York State -- that are doing similar kinds of work.

BIRKHOLD: Can you tell me a little bit more about the -- the neighborhood preservation work you -- you all are doing?

COHEN: Yeah. So we -- we have developed some low-income housing over the years 40:00as an organization. We assist people who are threatened with eviction or other issues relating to housing. We assist people with some repairs to their home, if it's -- you know, if they're low-income people that can't afford it otherwise. We participate in the governor's air conditioning program which, you know, if somebody has a health issue that affects their breathing, and the doctor says they need an air conditioner in order to be -- be safe, the state pays for the air conditioner. But we do the work of getting them to fill the forms and get the work done and get the air conditioner installed. Emergency heat to -- if someone can't pay the fuel bill, we can connect them to that service. Regular heat, which is a -- a benefit that low-income people can have a little assistance to -- with their fuel bills, that's -- also comes from the city. Accessing food stamps and Medicaid. We have a health insurance navigator 41:00for the, you know, the New York State Health Exchange in our office. Quite a w--wide range of programming. We have a little bit of youth programming. We had for many years a drug prevention program that was not funded the last couple of years, but hopefully we'll -- but we had a little bit in the -- in the youth area also. And -- so those are services that we provide to -- and we also do weatherization program, which means that we go into homes and buildings and make them more energy-efficient to save money and save fossil fu-- the use of fossil fuels and so on. So that's -- that's work that we do. We provide a safety net. We do a lot with families, families that are going through crisis. If it's illness in the family, if it's divorce in the family, if it's domestic abuse, if it's -- whatever the issues are that come up -- child welfare issues. So we 42:00work with the families and the authorities to get to the right solution for the family and to make sure that they're -- they're cared for. And -- and then we do advocacy, for the Jewish community, specifically, but in the context of we're living in a neighborhood that's -- that is very diverse. And it's so important that we should work with our neighboring -- the neighboring ethnic groups that are here to have a harmonious community. So we -- after -- you know, the -- the riots were here in '91 and after -- at that time it was a -- you know, you would read -- every article about Crown Heights would say "racially tense Crown Heights" or-- and there was, like, a narrative. And I think over the years we've changed the narrative. And now it's -- when people talk about Crown Heights, they talk about the miracle of how far they've come and how everyone's working together, and -- and there are a lot of people involved in that. The police department definitely changed its whole approach. The -- and some of our 43:00neighborhood from the beginning, like Reverend Norman from the First Baptist Church, who passed away last year, he was very active in this and -- and others too. And we formed this group called Project CARE, where we would meet regularly, and then we would have different events and responses to different issues that came up in the community so that we shouldn't go back to the situation of a '91 and every-- all the stuff that went on over there.

BIRKHOLD: OK. That -- that's -- that's an enormous array of programs. [laughter] How -- how do folks get access to the programming?

COHEN: Well, they were -- for -- they can just walk in. They can call us. We do a lot of outreach. You know, we go to the community board meetings and tell people that we're here and we want your business and, you know, we want to help you. We have -- there's a large network of seniors who've used our services and know about us, and we've sort of developed a relationship with them, you know, some of the older couples that live in the neighborhood and singles that -- that 44:00really -- they -- you know, they're sort of getting older and they need more -- more help as they get older, and we're -- and so we are their resource. And -- and we work with our local elected officials, so their offices will refer people to us. Many, many ways that people get to find out about us and -- and -- and use our services. And once they -- once we help them one time, they know to come back for [laughter] --

BIRKHOLD: And so does --

COHEN: -- the future.

BIRKHOLD: -- does your outreach cover both of the community boards that cover Crown Heights, or--

COHEN: Yeah, Eight and Nine, right?


COHEN: Yeah. So we were traditionally more in Nine, but the last couple of years we've been a lot -- a lot more in Eight. Sort of -- Eight is more -- begun to identify itself as Crown Heights more. It was interesting, because in -- I don't remember the year, but it -- probably in the '70s, when they created the community districts, the original plan was that north and south of Eastern Parkway would be one district. And I don't know what the boundaries were going 45:00to be -- maybe Atlantic to Empire -- and we went and lobbied very, very, very hard that this should -- that all -- that all of the Chasidic area, which was then south, all south of Eastern Parkway, that that should be the district. So it should be from Eastern Parkway and south but not north. So we -- to us Crown Heights meant south of Eastern Parkway. Today they talk about Crown Heights, and they're definitely extending many blocks north of Eastern Parkway too. So -- and so now we have Community Board Eight and Community Board Nine. So Nine is south of Eastern Parkway, Eight is north of Eastern Parkway, but it's all together, has become more identified as one community more than it was.

BIRKHOLD: OK. And can you talk about the process of -- of -- of lobbying for Community Board Nine?

COHEN: So I -- it was a long time ago, but there were literally -- we went down to what was called then the Board of Estimate, which was a body that was -- I think it was the mayor and the -- each of the borough presidents and then maybe 46:00there were a couple more, maybe the mayor had two votes. I don't remember exactly. But there was -- the comptroller -- I don't know -- there was -- there was a certain number of top city officials who sat on the Board of Estimate, and they made, like, the major decisions as far as the city was concerned. And I don't remember the details of that, but it doesn't exist anymore, that I know. And there was a full day of hearings, and it was during the Chanukah holiday. And every single member of the community went down there and sat in that Board of Estimate -- who could. I mean, maybe there were people at work and others, but everyone who could was there all day. And there was this, like, very jovial atmosphere. It was a big hall, and they even lit the Chanukah candles outside one -- during one of the breaks. And maybe they sang with it and everything, and it was -- like, it was a really big occasion. And people sat a whole day and really made their voice heard that this was -- you know, that we didn't want the community to be diluted or divided in a way that would reduce our -- our 47:00impact. So it was -- I wasn't directly involved, but I went down there. I was part of the -- you know, of the -- there must have been a -- I don't remember when -- it was the late '70s, early '80s. And there's always been a strong municipal involvement of the community. And it used to be that maybe we were a little more active at it than others, but lately I see that all communities realize that this is the way that you get attention from city government. So I -- I think that, you know, may-- maybe we get less -- a little bit less attention now because other communities are doing the same thing that we're doing. But at that time maybe we were more unique in -- in having that level of -- of activi-- activism and advocacy.

BIRKHOLD: OK. Building on that, can you talk a bit more about the formation of 48:00-- of -- of Project CARE? And you talked about, you know, after the summer of 1991, you -- you -- you talked about working across the -- the racial groups that -- that -- that make up Crown Heights. Can you talk a little bit more about what that work looked like --

COHEN: Right.

BIRKHOLD: -- and how it related to Project CARE as well as the Jewish Community Council?

[Interview interrupted.]

COHEN: I wasn't involved directly at that time. So Chanina Sperlin, who I work with very closely; he was, you know, much more active on the part of the council. He was a board member at the time. And it was really -- from what I understand, there were partnerships that developed and -- and there were a number of key people -- Robert Matthews, from -- who was a member of Community Board Eight, Reverend Norman we mentioned. And they really -- and -- and 49:00Richard Green, Crown Heights Youth Collective, was someone who was working together with the Jewish community from the beginning trying to bridge those gaps and bring people together. And they -- it coalesced into, like, a group of really close partners, so that by the 10-year -- Chanina likes to tell this story -- I think that maybe the 5-year anniversary, he said -- I think so. Maybe 10, but I think 5 -- he tells the story of how they went onto some local news station and someone asked, "Well, could this happen again? Could the '91 happen again? What's--" And he said, "I don't think so." "Why not?" "Well, what's the difference between then and now is now we all have each other's beeper numbers." So that dates it a little bit, right? But the -- the -- because there was lines of contact that were set up, if something happened, people could respond and -- and call. So there was an incident a couple years 50:00ago when some person, it seems who was pretty mentally disturbed, pulled up in front of the main synagogue, went inside, started stabbing a student who was sitting there, and eventually the police came. He first put his knife down, then he picked it up again and charged the cops, and they shot him. Now, potentially that could have been an incident as, you know, in some ways like what happened in '91, you know. But community affairs, the police department was on it right away, all the different communal organizations. By the time people woke up and found out about it in the morning, they already had the clip -- the -- the video clip of the actual incident up online so people could see that it was -- was a justified shooting. There was a mobilized response that got ahead of the news and got ahead of the -- the public reaction. So that 51:00whereas in '91 the word went out and there were a lot of false rumors that were unsubstantiated or misunderstood in terms of what happened there, but that didn't happen in 2016 or 2015, whenever that incident took place. So -- and -- so that's a part of it. And then when other kinds of incidents happen where there was a need to condemn an attack that took place or a slur that was made or graffiti that was done and -- and you saw neighbors from all over the community coming together and standing on the corner and saying, "This is not Crown Heights. We don't tolerate that." So where -- there's a -- there's a sense of, you know, community saying, "This is who we are and this is how we define ourselves." So I think the combination of those two things, the -- the friendships, the connections, the communications, the -- the willingness to stand together and -- and -- and make a statement, all of those things together I think have created a different climate that would, hopefully, never take us 52:00back to -- [laughter] to '91.


COHEN: And again -- and, also, the backdrop of, you know, it being a much calmer city, a much calmer neighborhood. The -- the tensions that crime brings are not here the same now as they were then. So that all -- I mean, that too. So all of that together. Lack of -- you know, the -- the fact that the police are reaching out in so many different communities and it's not -- there's not that frustration that they can get heard and we can't. And both -- on both sides. Both, you know, groups would say that, you know, how can we -- you know, so-and-so gets attention, but we don't get attention, or -- and so on. So it's -- all of that together I think has made for a different climate.

BIRKHOLD: OK. Can you describe how -- you know, you -- you -- you -- earlier you alluded to -- to -- to tension between the Chasidic community here in Crown 53:00Heights and the police. Can you talk about how that relationship has changed over the years?

COHEN: Well, you know, there were certain -- I guess your stereotype of your Irish or, you know, Irish policeman who -- coming in from the suburbs, policing a neighborhood that he's not really attached to. And -- not to say anything bad of the Irish, it's just a stereotype. But -- or Italian, you know. And there was a certain profile of who a cop was and how he saw himself and how, you know, what -- how he viewed his role as an authority figure in the community. And there's been a very determined effort by successive police commissioners and police leadership -- I think really they started off with CPR, was the -- I don't remember what it was, but something -- "respect" was the last one of the three, but -- so that's for -- I -- I don't remember what it stood for. But 54:00something, something, and something -- the last one was "respect." So the -- teaching cops to respect and -- and -- and -- and -- and -- and value the neighborhood and the people that they deal with. And they've done that in a -- in a really good way. I think the fact that you've seen, you know, a national climate where not every police department is loved by its community, but I think New York is better than most and getting better still, and I -- and the -- and I don't think it happened by mistake. I don't think it happened because of, you know, something in the air or the water. It happened because, I think, there was a concerted effort by police leadership to -- to manage their people and to manage the way that their people look at themselves and so on. And -- and root out the bad and -- because, you know, every big organization has some people who just are not -- shouldn't be where they are. So I think that's a part of it. 55:00And then reaching out to the community. I think the -- the reduction in crime has also given the opportunity to the police department to -- and with a lot of -- not willingly at first, but once they did it, and they -- and I think Commissioner O'Neill has done it willingly -- of being able to look at itself and say, "OK, we don't need some of those methods that we needed when we were responding to 10 times as much crime. We have still -- you know, basically almost as many people, and the number of respo-- incidents we're responding to is so much less, so we can spend more time going out into the community and interacting with the community and tending to the community." So it wasn't that those tactics maybe were bad for the time when they were initiated, because you wanted a proactive police force that was engaging and -- but now we have to step back a little bit and say, "OK, we got it now where we want it, now we just need to manage it a little bit," and -- and then they target -- much more targeted and much more focused on where -- where they need to be giving their attention. 56:00And they're doing a lot of very creative things that, you know, are -- because it's very hard to bring crime down from the numbers you're at now. So that means you have to work even harder, and they -- and they find ways to do it. If it's, like, visiting domestic violence homes to -- and -- and -- and, you know, engaging the people to -- before an incident happens to find out where things are, or the youth officers working with the kids, and if it's building the relation-- having, you know, the same officers in each sector of the precinct so they get to know the people and the players and they can sort of identify problems and deal with them before they become major incidents. So they're doing good work and I think that the -- that the whole community is benefiting from that. And I -- and I think our -- certainly our community has always been willing and wanted to partner with the police department, and I think that's true in other neighborhoods too. But I see it firsthand in, you know, in what we do. And -- so it's a different climate. And -- and I think hopefully it'll 57:00just keep on getting better.

BIRKHOLD: OK. So just two more questions. What do you think of when you think about Crown Heights today?

COHEN: Home. [laughter] No, I could never live anywhere else but Crown Heights. It's -- it's very -- it's -- it's -- it's a part of me. I'm living here, what, 44 years, apart from that little gap in San Francisco. And it's very vibrant. It's a very cohesive neighborhood, where there's, you know, a lot of -- a lot of friendships, a lot of close friendships, a lots -- a lot of just acquaintances that you walk into in the street and the synagogue and on-- You know, I go out on Friday night and I walk down the street and I see Geoffrey Davis sitting in his car and Shirley Patterson around the corner opposite my house. You know, 58:00people who are engaged civically that -- that are just our neighbors and a part of the -- of the -- of the fabric. So, I mean, there's a lot of -- it -- it is a very, very good place to live, and I'm -- when -- I mean, we -- I just unfortunately opened -- there's a community blog. I o-- I opened it this morning. I saw that a young man who was developmentally disabled passed away, and -- you know, and I -- I know the family personally. And I know that my reaction is the reaction of hundreds of people. And there are not many communities where, you know, the passing of a -- a family member will hurt -- will be felt by hundreds. But it's just, you know, the -- they're part of the fabric of the community, the -- so it's -- that's -- it's a -- it's -- it's being part of a neighborhood where, you know, there -- maybe there are 8 or 10 59:00engagements a week that you feel you have to go to. That's what it's like. Most people go to one or two a month, you know, if -- if that. It's just a different kind of community. It's a very -- it's a very -- it's a very good community and a very powerful community.

BIRKHOLD: Have your -- have your children stayed in Crown Heights?

COHEN: I ha-- well, a couple of them went out on the -- as emissaries out to other communities, so I have one in Texas -- they -- they went to join the staff of a Chabad house over there. I have another daughter in Hamilton, upstate New York -- in -- sorry, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, upstate. But they come back regularly, you know. Here the -- they're all coming back in a weekend or two. I have one -- one of my married children lives in Jerusalem, so he's coming for a visit now back to a family from his wife's side of the family. They're coming here for a -- an engagement. Even though his wife's from Australia. But her grandfather is here, so they -- the family's still connected. And they're people I knew before my, you know, my son married their 60:00daughter. And the -- but I -- but I have one -- there's one couple, one son, married with children, living here, who's pretty settled, I think. And then I have another daughter who's living here -- at -- at this time. I don't know if she'll -- you know, if she and her husband have plans to go elsewhere later, but right now. And then we'll see. I have many -- many more still to go to have to make the decision one way or the other. [laughter]

BIRKHOLD: All right. Do you have any thoughts on what Crown Heights might be like 10 years from now?

COHEN: Well, you know, with the Jewish people, we believe in redemption, and the world will come to a new state. And we don't know when that's happening. We expect it to happen at any moment. So 10 years out is, like, a long time, you know? On the other hand, the re-- the previous rebbe, the one who brought the movement to Crown Heights before the -- before Rabbi Schneerson, the -- the 61:00one who we consider the leader today, so his father-in-law, he said that you have to believe Mashiach is coming now, but you have to plan for the -- for the future anyway. So build schools and build institutions and -- and so I think it'll continue to get stronger. I -- you know, it -- the challenges now are different challenges, the challenges of the kids not being able to afford to rent and buy locally because of the -- you know, the housing is so expensive. But all these things go in cycles. So we'll -- we'll -- I don't know where the next bubble ends and where the next -- but -- so I hope it'll continue to grow. I mean, I see a lot of young people trying to buy homes and settle in the community. And some of the aging families will, you know, move into small apartments and sell the -- sell the -- their homes to their children and so on. I've seen that happen a couple of times. So I think the community is -- is pretty stable. It's here for the long haul. I said, except for, you know, 62:00redemption coming at any moment. But it will continue to grow to there, maybe beyond.

BIRKHOLD: OK. Do you see the ge-- do you see the geographic boundaries of -- of -- of the Chasidic -- of the Chasidic population in Crown Heights expanding?

COHEN: Absolutely. And then one of the factors is the expense of the housing near the center. So if you can't afford a house on Crown Street near Kingston Avenue, you might be able to afford something down in the east nineties, by Remsen Avenue, in East Flatbush, or the other side of Downstate, the medical center, there's some housing there that's -- doesn't have such great subway access, but the prices are cheaper. So a number of families are buying in that area. A lot of families are looking -- you can't look northwest because that's gentrified already, like around Franklin, but you can look a little bit northeast, towards, you know, I don't know, Prospect Place and -- and Albany or 63:00Troy, and the areas that are still resisting the gentrification so far. So the -- definitely, people that want to stay near the neighborhood and stay near their synagogues and their friends and their schools will find a way, but it's getting a little harder.

BIRKHOLD: OK. Do you have anything else you want to add?

COHEN: No, you've been thorough. [laughter]

BIRKHOLD: Thank you very much, then. I -- I -- I greatly appreciate your time, and I've learned a great deal.

COHEN: All right. Thank you.

BIRKHOLD: So yeah, if nothing else, we -- we can stop there. Thank you very much.

COHEN: Sounds good.

BIRKHOLD: All right.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Eli Cohen

Rabbi Eli Cohen was born in Manchester, England in 1955. He moved to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1973 to study Lubavitch Hasidim in Morristown, New Jersey. He organized Mitzvah tanks, the roaming vehicles promoting and teaching the orthodox religion, in the mid-1970s. The rabbi became director of Chabad at New York University in 1985 before becoming Executive Director of Crown Heights Jewish Community Council in 2003.

In this interview, Rabbi Cohen talks about moving to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn at the onset of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the sense of celebration that existed in Crown Heights throughout the war. He describes relationships between the New York Police Department and the Hasidic community at different points over his forty year history in the neighborhood and reflects on crime in Crown Heights, and the relationship between Jewish and Black communities within that context. He briefly reflects on the blackout of 1977, the summer of 1991, crime, and Kingston Avenue's appearance over decades. He describes the Hasidic community as politically involved and narrates the emergence of Community Board Nine in South Crown Heights. Interview conducted by Matthew Birkhold.

This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the BHS series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.


Cohen, Eli, Oral history interview conducted by Matthew Birkhold, May 26, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.14; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Cohen, Eli, Rabbi
  • Community Board No. 9 (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)


  • African Americans
  • Community development
  • Community organizing
  • Crime
  • Electric power failures
  • Hasidim
  • Jewish neighborhoods
  • Police-community relations
  • Race relations


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
  • Eastern Parkway (New York, N.Y.)


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Finding Aid

Voices of Crown Heights oral histories