Crown Heights politics took another decided turn for the horrible last week, as Jewish Community Council/Vaad HaKahal chairman Moshe Rubashkin and Netzigim chairman—according to some—Yisroel Best were arrested following a violent incident Monday night.
The violence, which occurred at a N’tzigim meeting Mr. Rubashkin had convened in his home, took place against the backdrop of ongoing contention and strife that has plagued the Rubashkin administration from the outset. Rooted in the controversy involving the Beis Din (sad to say, it must now be clarified that the controversy referred to is the original one, not the more recent controversy involving elections), the continuing struggle heated up after the N’tzigim’s annual election in September, when that body’s Executive Board, then chaired by Reuven Lipkind, was ousted by a slate critical of Mr. Rubashkin’s policies. The winning slate was chaired by Mr. Best. Subsequently, in April, Mr. Rubashkin called a meeting of N’tzigim in his home, at which the Vaad chairman’s supporters purported to hold a special election to replace the Best administration with a new Executive Committee—favorable to Mr. Rubashkin—chaired by Yankel Wice. Since that time, the Best slate and the Wice slate have each claimed to be the sole legitimate Executive Committee of the N’tzigim.
Predictably, the lawsuit against Mr. Rubashkin recently filed in civil court was supported by the Best faction and condemned by the Wice faction. As a tactic in fighting the lawsuit, Mr. Rubashkin called another N’tzigim meeting Monday night for the purpose of impeaching Vaad HaKahal member Leibish Nash, the plaintiff. It was during that meeting, which both Mr. Rubashkin and Mr. Best simultaneously attempted to chair, that the fight erupted.
When the meeting began, only the Wice faction was present, although Mr. Wice himself arrived later. Wice faction Vice Chairman Benny Raskin, who would ordinarily have conducted the meeting in Mr. Wice’s absence, did not object when Mr. Rubashkin himself, claiming the right to do so as the person who had called the session, began acting as chair. One Natzig, who arrived shortly after the meeting began, said he observed the Best group lingering outside Mr. Rubashkin’s home as he entered, apparently, he said, preparing themselves for a coordinated appearance.
As Mr. Rubashkin introduced Rabbi Mordechai Gurary of Chevra Shas, who was to open the meeting with a D’var Torah, the Best group entered all together. According to eyewitness accounts, Mr. Best took a place at the table opposite Mr. Rubashkin, banged on the table as though calling the meeting to order, and announced that the meeting was about to begin. Mr. Rubashkin asked him to wait his turn and that everyone would be permitted to speak, but that Rabbi Gurary was delivering his D’var Torah then.
According to Mr. Best, he asked to see the attendance list in order to determine whether all those present were legitimate N’tzigim—a matter which is in dispute with respect to a number of purported N’tzigim. Wice faction Recording Secretary Alexander Weisz had already called the roll, but his notes were not turned over to Mr. Best, who then announced that he would therefore call the roll himself. He began doing so, reading from a list of those his faction recognizes as legitimate N’tzigim.
Witnesses report that, from the time the Best group entered, shouting and arguments had broken out throughout the room. As Mr. Best attempted to call the roll, however, a heated shouting match ensued between Mr. Rubashkin, who repeatedly insisted he be quiet and wait his turn, and Mr. Best, who repeatedly responded that he was the chairman and would continue calling the roll. Finally, Mr. Rubashkin reached across the table, grabbed the paper from which Mr. Best was reading—which had lain in front of Mr. Best upon the table—crumpled it up, and put it into his pocket.
Rabbi Gurary continued to speak, although, when he commented that mesirah (turning a fellow Jew over to the secular authorities—in this context a clear reference to the ongoing civil case against Mr. Rubashkin) is a terrible thing, he was shouted down by the Best faction, which relies on a rabbinic ruling that the court case is not mesirah because Mr. Rubashkin had refused to respond to prior summonses to Beis Din. During the rabbi’s remarks, Mr. Rubashkin moved about the room, ending up on the other side of the table and standing to the immediate left of the seated Mr. Best. Mr. Best believes that Mr. Rubashkin took up that position immediately after snatching the membership list.
At that point, Mr. Best says, he was informed by the person who had compiled the membership list, and who said it contained information that he needed, that the list was in Mr. Rubashkin’s pocket, and he was urged to retrieve it. In an attempt to do so, Mr. Best put his hand into Mr. Rubashkin’s right pants pocket.
“I saw Mr. Best’s hand coming out of Moshe Rubashkin’s pocket,” said a witness. “Best’s fist was closed around what looked like money and a small piece of paper that seemed like a receipt of some kind. It wasn’t the list. Rubashkin’s hand was around Best’s fist, trying to open it and retrieve the contents. A brawl ensued.”
In particular, Mr. Rubashkin responded by shouting and striking Mr. Best in the face, breaking his eyeglasses in two.
To this point, the account is not seriously contested by anyone. What is in dispute, however, is this: Mr. Rubashkin claims that when Mr. Best thrust his hand into Mr. Rubashkin’s pants pocket, Mr. Best struck Mr. Rubashkin in a sensitive area of his anatomy. Mr. Best denies this.
Mr. Rubashkin characterizes the blows as his attempt to push Mr. Best away from him, and says he only struck Mr. Best one time—although Mr. Rubashkin concedes he may have “pushed” Mr. Best a few more times “on the shoulder.”
“I was taken by surprise and physically violated,” the Vaad HaKahal chairman said. “Anyone who feels another person’s hand suddenly thrust into their pants pocket would punch the guy out. All I did was to grab his glasses and yell, ‘Are you crazy? You’re using hands?’”
However, Mr. Best says he was struck four times: the first time in the forehead; then in the face, breaking his glasses; then in the left jaw, which Mr. Best said remained “kind of swollen” two days later; and finally, in the lower nose/upper mouth area, resulting, said Mr. Best, in a chipped tooth. At that point, those nearby were able to restrain Mr. Rubashkin and pull him away.
In the wake of the incident, police were called twice. Mr. Rubashkin says that although at first, a member of the Best faction urged that police not be called and the episode treated as a private matter, he then observed one of those present leave the room after a whispered conference with another Best supporter. Believing the person was about to call 911, Mr. Rubashkin dialed the 71st precinct directly and asked Sergeant Bobby Troise of Community Affairs to come to the scene. Immediately after Sergeant Troise arrived, uniformed officers did in fact respond to the 911 call. As it turned out, however, by that time both factions had agreed not to involve the police, and the officers, finding everything quiet, immediately left.
Despite the altercation, the meeting proceeded, although not without the usual screaming and arguing that frequently characterize N’tzigim meetings. In this case, the shouting went on unabated as arguments erupted over the fight; over who was properly authorized to call and chair the meeting; over who was or wasn’t really a Natzig; and over several other topics. Mr. Best, who remained at the meeting, continued his attempts to act as chair, while Benny Raskin, the Wice faction Vice Chairman, tried to carry out the stated purpose of the session by taking a vote on impeaching Mr. Nash.
Mr. Raskin made his way around the table, asking each Natzig whether he voted in favor of impeachment or against, and collecting signatures to confirm their votes. At least some Best faction n’tzigim, who took the position that the entire meeting was illegal, stated that since they had been asked, they were answering the question; but that they did not intend their response as a recognition of the legitimacy of the vote.
Another scuffle broke out when at least one Natzig became convinced that Mr. Best, who was approaching Mr. Raskin, was about to lunge at the latter and try to snatch the signatures from him. The Natzig therefore leapt up and extended his arms in a blocking gesture to keep Mr. Best away, and was joined by two or three others. Mr. Raskin managed to extricate himself from the fray and retired to Mr. Rubashkin’s kitchen to count the votes.
Mr. Best later stated, “I don’t remember Benny Raskin having a piece of paper. It was kind of an emotional night. I can’t confirm or deny [the allegation that Mr. Best intended to grab for the signatures], but I don’t think I would have done that.”
As Mr. Raskin sat ensconced in the kitchen and seemingly everyone else shouted uncontrollably, Mr. Best noticed Mr. Rubashkin standing alone. He approached him and proposed that the two of them try to work things out between themselves. Mr. Rubashkin opened a folding chair and sat down, and the two began talking. However, by that time, n’tzigim had begun leaving and someone called out that a minyan would be formed for maariv, at which point Mr. Best went to the amud and led the prayers. The meeting thus came to an end.
(In the days following, conflicting results of the impeachment vote were released. Mr. Rubashkin’s opponents, who do not recognize the legitimacy of the meeting in any event, claimed that after disregarding the votes of people they say are not authorized n’tzigim, 21 shuls were represented. Of these, they say, 11 voted to impeach and 10 voted against impeachment. Since the bylaws require a 2/3 majority for impeachment, the motion failed, according to this faction. However, Mr. Raskin certified on Wednesday that, by the Wice faction’s reckoning of which purported n’tzigim are legitimate, twenty five shuls were represented, with 17 in favor of impeachment, 3 against, and five abstentions. Thus, according to Mr. Raskin’s tally, the vote did pass by the required 2/3 majority.
The bylaws stipulate that after an impeachment vote, the matter must be brought before the Beis Din of Crown Heights. It is therefore unclear, even if Mr. Raskin’s count is the correct one, whether it will have any practical effect other than to add to the long list of disputed matters in Crown Heights, since the status of the Beis Din is itself in dispute.)
The day after the meeting, according to Mr. Rubashkin, he viewed (for the first time, he said) their website, which is virulently opposed to his policies. The site described the prior night’s events as a vicious and unprovoked attack by Mr. Rubashkin on Mr. Best; described Mr. Best’s injuries in the most serious way possible; and repeatedly asserted that Mr. Rubashkin was “headed to jail” as soon as Mr. Best formally filed charges. Mr. Rubashkin said he understood from the website that his opponents planned to have him arrested, and he said he needed to protect himself against what he viewed as unjustified charges. For that reason, the Vaad HaKahal chairman claimed, he called police first and filed a report that Mr. Best had struck him in the manner described above. Indeed, one hour after Mr. Rubashkin’s report, Mr. Best did file charges of his own.
Mr. Best said he or his supporters had consulted several Rabbonim about whether it was appropriate to file charges against Mr. Rubashkin. He said that the first rov asked declined to rule on the issue on the ground that he would be unable to be objective, since Mr. Rubashkin had wronged that rov in several ways. Another rov responded in a similar way, stating that Mr. Rubashkin had refused to recognize a summons to a Din Torah which that rov had issued. A third rov could not be reached at first. Finally, the question was put by one of Mr. Best’s supporters to a rov who had previously ruled that Mr. Rubashkin was not obligated to recognize the other rov’s summons. The question was phrased without disclosing the identities of the parties, and the rov reportedly ruled that it was definitely proper to file charges. Subsequently, in the same conversation, the rov asked for the identity of the person, and upon learning that it was Mr. Rubashkin, he reportedly said that Mr. Rubashkin should be called to a Din Torah instead. After that phone conversation, the third rov, who had not been reachable earlier, returned the call and was apprised of developments. That rov stated that once the other rov had issued his ruling, he could not go back on it after learning the identity of the party, and that, in his opinion, the rov’s original ruling permitting the filing of charges must stand.
On Wednesday, Detective Mike McDermott of the 71st Precinct Detective Squad spoke to each of the respective complainants. He said he had discussed the matter with Deputy Inspector Frank Vega, the 71st Precinct’s Commanding Officer, as well as with Sergeant Troise, who had responded to the scene after the incident, and that the police position was that the matter was actually an internal dispute among the Jewish community. The police were not willing to be used, said the detective, as leverage in favor of one side or the other, and that if the parties could not settle things on their own, they would both be arrested and a judge would ultimately sort out what had really happened.
Wednesday evening at approximately 7:30, Messrs. Rubashkin and Best met Detective McDermott at the precinct for a final attempt to resolve the matter amicably. At that meeting, Mr. Best told Mr. Rubashkin that he did not believe Mr. Rubashkin was a bad person, but that Mr. Rubashkin was running the Jewish Community Council/Vaad HaKahal in a bad way. Mr. Best said he was willing to drop his charges on two conditions: 1) the recent election for Rabbonim be voided and a new, fair, election be held in its place; and 2) Mr. Rubashkin resign from the Jewish Community Council/Vaad HaKahal.
Mr. Best then read a letter of resignation he had prepared for Mr. Rubashkin, in which the latter would inform the community of his resignation in a dignified and face-saving way. Mr. Best added that, if Mr. Rubashkin chose to accept the proposed deal, a new and substantive position would be created for him in which he would be placed in charge of the community’s chesed activities. Mr. Rubashkin asked for the letter to be typed up for his review, and said he wished to consider the matter privately. He then retired to a separate room with Detective McDermott and fellow Vaad HaKahal member Dr. Tzvi Lang.
After several minutes, the detective returned and informed Mr. Best, in apparent vexation, that a deal could not be reached and that, consequently, both parties were being arrested.
Mr. Rubashkin said he considered Mr. Best’s conditions nothing short of extortion and blackmail, and that he would not cave in to such demands. On the contrary, he said, he planned to use the photocopy of Mr. Best’s proposed letter of resignation as evidence to charge Mr. Best with those crimes. Mr. Best, on the other hand, said he believed Monday’s incident was a gift from heaven, in that it allowed the community’s issues with Mr. Rubashkin to be brought to a resolution immediately, since the civil case brought by Mr. Nash had been postponed until September 11th.
Mr. Best and Mr. Rubashkin were each treated with courtesy by the detectives, who allowed each to wait in a separate locked room while their paperwork was being processed, instead of in the precinct’s holding pen. At one point, however, since the precinct’s fingerprint machine had broken down, the two men had to be transported to the nearby Transit Division station on Franklin Avenue and Carroll Street, a trip which regulations required be made in handcuffs. The two community leaders were kept at Franklin Avenue for about an hour before being returned to the 71st precinct, where they were uncuffed and permitted to go back to the separate rooms. Finally, between 1:15 and 1:30 a.m., the two were issued Desk Appearance Tickets, or D.A.T.s—i.e., summonses to appear in court on a certain date—and released.
The hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on the morning of July 26th.