February 27, 2020

Jewish Community on Edge After Jersey City Supermarket Attack

Members of the Jewish community gather around the JC Kosher Supermarket on Dec. 11, 2019 in Jersey City. Six people, including a Jersey City police officer and three civilians were killed in a deadly, hours-long gun battle between two armed suspects and police on Tuesday in a standoff and shootout in a Jewish market that appears to have been targeted, according to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

The week after the anti-Semitic attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J., has brought more information but little comfort to the Jewish community in what New York authorities are now calling “an act of domestic terrorism.”

The perpetrators fired hundreds of bullets inside the JC Kosher Supermarket in a siege that lasted more than two hours and left three civilians dead. Store proprietor Leah Mindel Ferencz was 33 and a mother of three. Her husband had stepped out of the store moments earlier to pray at a nearby synagogue. The body of 24-year-old rabbinical student Moshe Deutsch was riddled with bullet holes. Store employee Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, 49, had a daughter. He was shot and killed after holding the store’s back door open for Deutsch’s cousin, who managed to escape.

Det. Joseph Seals, 39, was killed by the perpetrators in a nearby cemetery where he had previously gone to meet a confidential informant. A fundraising campaign by the Jewish community raised more than $50,000 for his family in less than 24 hours.

A fundraising effort to support the Ferencz family aimed even higher, and six hours before it closed, the Charidy campaign had raised more than $1.2 million of its $1.5 million goal.

Simon Goldberger, a 24-year-old Satmar Chasid from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was in his car outside the supermarket on Dec. 10 when two black-clad assailants burst out of a U-Haul rental van and ran into the store. Goldberger crouched beneath his steering wheel and called 911. He gave the police his license plate and model of car and asked them to rescue him. He waited for more than 20 minutes, during which he heard rounds of ammunition being shot from the long rifles. 

“I didn’t know if I was going to be alive the next minute,” Goldberger told the Journal.  

A black police truck pulled up and was positioned between Goldberger’s car and the supermarket so he could safely run to the police vehicle. Police then drove him a couple of blocks away and dropped him off.

The perpetrators were identified as David Anderson, 47, and Francine Graham, 50, members of the black nationalist extremist sect Black Hebrew Israelites. They lived in the van, which authorities later discovered was filled with arms and had been armored on the inside with bulletproof material.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the attack “an act of terror,” and while Jersey City officials initially said it was not aimed at the Jewish community, video shows the assailants jumping out of the van across the street, guns pointed toward the supermarket. 

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is Jewish, said on Dec. 11, “It was a targeted attack on the Jewish kosher deli.” The New Jersey attorney general did not officially deem it a terror attack until Dec. 12. Fulop later told reporters he believed the original targets were the 50 schoolchildren studying in the yeshiva next door.

Fulop met Dec. 11 with leaders of the Charedi community from Jersey City and Brooklyn. Afterward, he tweeted: “I just finished a long meeting with leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community here in Jersey City. I explained in detail all of the information we have [made] public. The bottom line is that we are thankful this community is part of JC and we will heal together.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) paid a shivah visit to the Deutschs’ home in Brooklyn and said, “The anti-Semitism is greater than I’ve ever seen in my life.” Devorah Halberstam, the mother of 16-year-old Ari Halberstam, who was murdered in 1994 by a terrorist as he and others traveled to visit the then-ailing Lubavitcher rebbe in a Manhattan hospital, also attended the shivah.

Chasidic Jews from Brooklyn began moving to the Greenville neighborhood of Jersey City about two years ago in search of more affordable housing. There are now about 100 Chasidic families living there. While their community has its own local synagogues and school, other Jersey City Jews also have been upset by the attack.

“Everyone is pretty shaken up,” said Rabbi Bronwen Mullin, spiritual leader of Jersey City’s Congregation B’nai Jacob, situated a few blocks from where the attack took place. On the evening of Dec. 10, she held a virtual community vigil online, “because we couldn’t ask people to leave their homes” just a few hours after the midday shooting.

A larger community healing gathering was held Dec. 11 at Temple Beth El, the local Reform temple where Fulop is a member.

With what is sure to be a larger visible police presence around Jersey City, Mullin said her congregants fear that it will ratchet up already existing tensions between the local black and Jewish communities. 

“Whenever there’s heavy policing of an area with a large black community and a large number of Orthodox Jews, it seems like the assumption is that they’re there to protect the Jews,” she said. “This just aggravates tensions between these two communities that are already on thin ice.”

The attack also is having ramifications beyond New Jersey. A booth for a visible security guard was erected outside the Bais Ruchel girls school in Williamsburg on Dec. 11. Security also is being beefed up at Jewish schools in the area. And now kosher shoppers are wondering if they need to worry about being targeted when they go to buy food.

A Jewish mother in Brooklyn, who declined to give her name, told the Journal, “I don’t even know what to say to my kids now about the new horrifying reality. We may as well be back in the old country with targets on our backs.” 

This story has been updated since orgional publication. 

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a freelance journalist in New York City.