New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal was headed to Washington, DC, when he heard about the unfolding attack in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood. Police Detective Joseph Seals was fatally shot in the Bay View Cemetery. Then, Grewal listened on police radio as two shooters attacked a kosher market nearby, where they engaged in a gun battle with police before being killed.
On the radio, Grewal heard “the pings of the gunshots” hitting an armored police vehicle. At the scene, he saw the shell-shocked faces of SWAT team members. And afterward, sitting with the widow of one of the victims, Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, an immigrant from Ecuador who worked for the Jewish market owners, Grewal listened to her questions: “How could somebody hate the Jewish people? The Jewish people gave my husband a job. How could they do this? How do people have room in their hearts for this much hate?”
“These are profound experiences,” Grewal said.
The Jersey City shooting on December 10th, 2019 was the culmination of the deadliest year on record for hate crimes in the United States -- and the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents ever, according to the Anti-Defamation League. And so it was a profound moment not just for Jersey City residents and law enforcement officials who descended on the scene, but the larger Jewish community.
Evan Bernstein is a Jewish leader who now runs Community Security Service, which helps Jews protect their synagogues from attacks. The day after the shooting, he stood in the Greenville Shul -- the synagogue that shared the wall of the kosher market -- and said the Mourner’s Kaddish alongside New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. “I’m seeing bullet holes and shell casings and things I just never imagined seeing in a synagogue in my lifetime,” Bernstein said.
The shooting was particularly painful for Jews because it came amid a spike in attacks on Orthodox Jews on the streets of Brooklyn -- and just days before a machete attack at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, NY. Rabbi Josef Neumann, one of the five victims in that hate crime, died of his injuries three months later.
“There's the ripple effect on this that’s going to be generational,” Bernstein said. “It wasn't just this one moment and then it was over. It was something that affected...the victims’ families, the community itself. And I mourn for that.”
In New Jersey, the shooting galvanized support for anti-hate efforts that were already underway. Last month, the state launched an online portal, NJ BIAS, to report bias crimes and acts of discrimination, and an Attorney General task force released 27 recommendations for tackling hate in schools.
“If you look from the windows of that grocery store, it’s right across the street from a Catholic school, and one block down is a bodega. And it's on a street named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Grewal said. “That's America. And so what we showed in the wake of that, while these terrorists wanted to divide us, we all came together.”
Authorities said the shooters in both the Jersey City and Monsey attacks were influenced, at least in part, by the anti-Semitic Black Hebrew Israelite movement. And so in the days and weeks afterward in Jersey City, Jewish and Black leaders came together for a toy and food drive, and a Kwanzaa/Hanukkah dinner.
Pamela Johnson, a Black resident of Jersey City who runs the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition, helped to organize those events. “And that was a joint effort to make sure that we're bridging any gaps between the Jewish and Black community, because we have to live among each other,” she said. “And we do want to have a relationship and we want to be able to make sure that you respect one another.”
Listen to reporter Matt Katz's radio story on WNYC:
The Orthodox Jewish community in Greenville moved into the mostly Black neighborhood in greater numbers in recent years. “When folks move into our community who we don't know, there may be a little tension because we just don't know them and we're not friends,” Johnson said. “But we were certainly not enemies...That was an isolated incident.”
The more systemic concern for Johnson is gun violence in a city that’s recorded 13 homicides so far this year, according to the most recent numbers. She said the high-profile nature of last year’s terrorist incident obscures the gun violence that people in her city live with regularly. Just last week a mother of four was shot and killed on the sidewalk two doors down from the former site of the kosher market.
“Yeah, you didn't hear about it, did you?” Johnson asked.
Johnson mourns for the Jews who died in the store -- 33-year-old Mindy Ferencz, who owned the market with her husband, and a customer, 24-year-old Moshe Deutsch, who studied at a Yeshiva. But the fact that the killing of an innocent mother on a sidewalk didn’t get the same attention from national media and state officials bothers her all the same.
“There's no one trying to figure out how they can take care of her four children or provide for her family going in the future,” she said. “We stepped up to make sure they receive grief counseling, to make sure that we can provide any financial assistance by spreading the word of the need for these poor children to have a great life in the future. But that's how it always is.”
Johnson didn’t attend any of the events marking the one-year anniversary of the kosher market shooting on Thursday. Instead, she said she’ll be visiting with the family of the slain mother, Aieshia McFadden, to mourn the city’s latest victim of gun violence.
Matt Katz reports on air at WNYC about immigration, refugees, hate, and national security. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattkatz00.