By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Some racism is politically incorrect. And other forms are “supposedly” fine. Let’s do an experiment. If you are in a classroom and have a smartboard, play it there.
Imagine it is the early 1900s. Harlem is an area for wealthy whites, such as New York Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck and other politicians. It was viewed by many in New York City as a sort of country retreat. At the town board meeting, a woman gets up to speak:
“My name is Michelle ________. I’ve lived here in Harlem for almost 20 years. And thank you for the opportunity to appeal to you tonight. I’ve already mailed some of you. So I am here tonight to appeal to the board, asking for an amendment to the existing use code, which would prohibit black houses of worship in residential zones. I’m not talking about existing houses of worship; those would be grandfathered in, but new ones. And this is the reason why. Last week I was made aware that a property in Harlem, 9 Marlborough Court, had a large cross on their front lawn. It looks to me when I walked by, it’s almost eight feet tall.
“Many of the surrounding neighbors assumed it was maybe a Christmas decoration left up too long. However, I know all too well, that is not the case. The large cross is a standard symbol in black churches. It designates a building or structure, or in this case, a single-family residence being used as a small black church or prayer house. I am very familiar with that, since I grew up in ____ where many, many homes were turned into black churches and have crosses on their exterior property, including one on the block I grew up on. This is very emotional for anyone who lived through the transformation of my hometown.”
Let’s take a break now. Let’s now watch this little video—it is 8 minutes and 26 seconds long. Stop at 1:53: YouTube.com/watch?v=82Q_0dTkXGk&t=2s
“Many of those people live in Harlem now. It started in the mid-1880s and was pretty complete by the early 1900s—only around 20 years. And that area was much larger than this village. It began exactly this way, black preachers and their families purchased homes, creating black churches, small black churches. Congregants then looked to buy property nearby, and residents would get written offers for their unlisted homes in their mailbox, which happened to my own parents many times over the years. Due to the increased demand, real estate values soared, so many residents ready to relocate or downsize accepted these offers and really, who could blame them?
“Soon enough, seats on the school board were won by black men. The schools declined. Rather they just began being used for gatherings. In recent years, school buildings, including my old elementary school, were used for gatherings. In some of the towns, the populations have become almost exclusively black. They moved into the areas, not necessarily to take over, but because they have to be able to walk to black churches.”
Let’s now continue to watch the video—begin at 1:53 into the video and stop at 3:26.
You get the idea. This is racism, but it is completely okay, because it is only religious Jewish people who are being discriminated against.
For those interested in the rest of the analogy, continue…
“As you might imagine, existing residents of those areas are less than pleased when neighboring homes used as small black churches started to grow in congregants, resulting in large crowds. Eventually, both black and white residents, along with municipalities ended up in court. They’re fighting zoning laws, right to assemble and worship, noise and crowd ordinances, the list goes on. Cases have actually even gone up to the Supreme Court. When I called the building department about the large cross on that property, they told me they had already received calls and complaints. I would imagine you all may have received mail and calls as well. It’s clear we residents will have issues with homes turning into houses of worship, especially once it’s understood that those properties will be exempt from paying property taxes. Since the town will not likely take a cut in tax revenue, I can only imagine taxes would be redistributed and increased for those current residents, that is not with the exemption.
“It’s not isolated to Harlem; this has happened in Maryland, California, et cetera. This may sound extreme, many people have said, ‘You sound crazy.’ I get it. You may think it could never happen here, but trust me, none of us who were living in my hometown thought it would happen there either. When I decided to move to Harlem and raise my family here, I heard the refrain from so many people. ‘Don’t worry, the cathedral’s there, the seat of the diocese is here.’ Well, the diocese building was sold, there is now a large cross, at least eight feet high on the front lawn of a home a few blocks from mine and I’m worried. Our school district was stellar—championship sports teams, national merit scholars, contest finalists, and a very strong program, we called life skills, which is just like the core program at other high schools.
“We had an extremely involved alumni, parent groups, huge home parades, our downtown or town as we called it, was filled with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, dance studios, music schools. Our retail shopping was like an Americana mall. We had many professional offices, mechanics, plumbing, electrical companies. We had multiple churches of all denominations. We had a strong K through 8 Catholic school, just like St. Agnes. We had families who lived there for generations. Everyone knew everyone, just like the generational families elsewhere. Not being able to raise my family in the town I grew up in was heartbreaking. And the idea that they won’t be able to do that is even worse.
“Please understand this has nothing to do with racism. This is about community and the residents and business owners that make up our village. You have all been elected to serve the residents of our village. I am asking you to amend the code, so a black church cannot be on every residential street, like they are in some other places. Please believe me and other transplants, who know it can happen, because we watched it. You have a fiduciary responsibility as well. Use this as a cautionary tale of a community that literally does not exist anymore.
“And take proactive measures, strengthen our code now to avoid litigation and lawsuits. I know you lobbied in Albany to protect residential zones. Please do the same for Harlem. Keep our residential areas as they are, grandfather the clauses for the existing houses of worship, for protecting the single and multifamily residences for remaining as they were meant to be used, not as houses of worship. There would be significant litigation risk if the village delays amending the code until after multiple prayer houses or black churches are established. Please work with your attorneys to amend the code immediately. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Michelle. I’ve gotten, and I guess, I don’t know about the rest of the trustees, many e-mails from concerned people. And I spoke to the administrator and I immediately, as I answered a lot of those, spoke to our village attorney. He’ll be back next week, he’s going to prepare the board, notify the board, and enlighten us of the actual law we have on the books for Harlem, and possibly what we can do to amend it. So the board will be very concerned.”
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com. Read more of Rabbi Hoffman’s articles at 5TJT.com.