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Mothers Reshuffle the Race Card in Crown Heights

It’s two days after a jury found Lemrick Nelson guilty of violating Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum’s civil rights, believing prosecutor’s claims that Nelson fatally stabbed Rosenbaum during the 1991 Crown Heights riots. The verdict has been received quietly, a far cry from the rioting and looting that made Crown Heights a symbol of New York’s racial divisions. Today, a group of black and Jewish mothers and their guests from the Anti-Defamation League make their way through the streets of Crown Heights, stopping at a kosher pizzeria to reflect on the past five-and-a-half years.

“There was a feeling of hopelessness,” says Henna White, recalling the days after the riots. “People didn’t know where to turn.”

A Hasidic mother of four, White works for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office as a liaison to the borough’s large Orthodox community. Immediately after the riots, she brought her mediating skills to her own neighborhood and formed Mothers to Mothers. She gathered the group, which made its first public statements at the ADL gathering this winter, as a way for Lubavitch and African- American women in Crown Heights to learn about each other and overcome the riot’s legacy of racism and anti-Semitism.

“I came from South Africa in the height of apartheid, and part of the reason I left . . . [was] because of apartheid,” says White. “I came here and I came to the same thing, and it wasn’t too much longer until the riots happened. So I feel maybe that [is why] this is the area I’ve become most involved with— communities getting along.”

For five years, 30 women have met once a month in the offices of the Brooklyn District Attorney, working out their differences and realizing they have more in common than they thought. As women devoted to their homes and families, they came to believe that they could remove themselves from the bitterness on the streets.

“We see things a little bit differently than men see it. What drives women is your family, your home. Sometimes what drives men is politics,” said Ann Lancaster, a founding member from the African-American community. “I think women just are more direct.”

White says the women opened up to each other almost immediately, and she was impressed by how quickly they realized they shared common goals. But still there was the challenge of understanding each other’s cultures and traditions. Lancaster recalls a picnic and other child-oriented activities that the group had planned. When Lubavitch boys and girls were restricted in their social contact with members of the opposite sex, Lancaster had to go back to her community and explain it to the children.

“Children sometimes feel, ‘If you don’t play with me it’s because of this,'” she said, pointing to her skin. Once they found out about Orthodoxy’s restrictions on contact between males and females, she says, “they were very surprised.”

The women say that moments like these—when they take what they’ve learned from their meetings back to their communities— is where Mothers to Mothers is most effective, and where they as women have the most influence: in the power to shape their children’s values. White says that now that the group has created a strong sense of identity, it is ready to embark on public projects such as cooking together for homeless shelters and, with the help of the ADL, developing outreach programs in the schools.

“You’re going to teach your children what you yourself have just learned; you’re going to teach your neighbors what you yourself have just learned, and it makes for a better community,” said Lancaster.