Brooklyn born Yehudah Webster has studied in the University of Haifa, the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Jewish movement and Columbia University. He directs a tutoring service called B’nai Mitzvah Campaign and lives in Crown Heights. He shared the following on his Facebook page on Thursday:
I had one of the most racist and terrifying moments of my life Monday morning on the corner of my block in Crown Heights (Kingston and Eastern Parkway).
Whenever I officiate bar Mitzvah ceremonies, I rent Torah Scrolls and so often have a Torah in my apartment over the weekend, waiting to be returned on Monday. This past weekend I had a ceremony, and as per usual had to return the Torah scroll.
As I walked to my Lyft outside my apartment, a chasidic man aggressively demanded to know where I was going with the Torah, implying without a doubt that I had no business having it. Indignantly I told him to “leave me alone.” I continued my short walk to the corner to meet my Lyft, and another man approached demanding I “explain myself.”
Next thing I know a pickup truck rolled up with a dude also pestering me. I defensively made them to know I owe them no explanations and their continued demands and harassment was racist. At this point I hopped in my Lyft, thinking to myself it’s over — we’ll just drive off and this nightmare would end. Before we could leave, a Chasidic driver swerved their car in front of my Lyft, preventing us from driving away.
Chasidic undercover security seemingly materialized, yelling into their walkie talkies, “the Torah is in the backseat,” and a mob of 20-30 or so Chasidic Jews quickly surrounded the Lyft. People were filming and taking pictures, cars were honking, Lyft driver, Cynthia was protesting, I’m arguing with the chasidic security — it was complete pandemonium.
Trapped and frankly terrified I frantically called my housemate Hannah Roodman to come to the corner and vouch for me. Hannah bravely jumped right into the fray, but it was clear sides had already been taken and heels were only being dug deeper into the ground. Nothing she or I said, not my explanation that I was returning the Torah to J Levine Judaica, not Hannah’s passionate assertion that I’m a Jewish educator working to bring Torah to Jews that don’t have, would convince the mob, the chasidic security, that I had legitimate reason to have the Torah — that I wasn’t indeed stealing it as they clearly believed.
I never thought I would say this, but the NYPD saved the day. Two officers showed up, and though the situation could’ve easily continued with anti-black bias and racism, the officers immediately dismissed the claim that I “needed” to explain myself. They made the cars blocking my Lyft move out of the way, and let us go.
This was not a peaceful resolution. The chasidic Jews were clearly furious the NYPD let me go, many pictures and videos were taken of both me and my Lyft driver, and I would by lying if I didn’t say I’m a bit concerned for my safety.
That said, I will not let the forces of racism win and further divide community. I share this post not to call out my chasidic Jewish siblings, but to invite honest conversations of reflection and change.
I encourage anyone reading this to lean into the hard relationships and share this experience with others. Let’s leverage this painful moment as an opportunity for change, and not let it rest as a painful reality of our communities.
On Tuesday I humbly reached out to one of the chasidic Jews that demanded “I explain myself,” inviting him to “join me and other Jewish voices, including chasidic leaders, in a public dialogue about the dynamics that played out Monday morning as I carried the Torah.” His name ironically is also Yehudah. He unfortunately has not yet replied to my invitation. I hope he does, and I earnestly invite dialogue with anyone from the community.
I’m here, and I’m ready. I’m curious and I’m patient. B’shalom, in peace.