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Hasidic Rabbi Shot Dead on Crown Heights Street

  • -The New York Times
  • Friday, October 26, 1979
  • By Sheila Rule

A 68-year-old Hasidic rabbi on his way to a synagogue was shot to death yesterday morning in the racially troubled. Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Hours later, more than a thousand. Hasidic Jews marched through the area in a funeral procession. Witnesses said the rabbi had been killed by a black man.

The police said the rabbi, David Okunov, who recently emigrated from the Soviet Union, was shot once in the head at about 7 A.M. in front of 808 Montgomery Street. The rabbi, who lived at 656 Crown Street, was on his way to services at the Congregation Anash Synagogue, 770 Montgomery Street.

Robbery, not race, was the apparent motive in the killing, according to the police. Witnesses reported seeing a young black man near the scene of the murder with a richly embroidered prayer shawl that Mr. Okunov had been carrying.

Governor Carey said in a statement that all New Yorkers were “horrified” by Rabbi Okunov’s murder.

Particularly Tragic

“It is particularly tragic that a man who came here to enjoy the free practice of his religion, who worked hard for his fellow immigrants, should be so wantonly and senselessly cut down,” the Governor said. “We can only hope that the memory of his life, of his struggle for freedom and justice and mercy, will be cherished by every New Yorker.”

Rabbi David Fisher, a friend of the victim, said he had rushed from the synagogue to the street when he heard screams.

“He was hit in the eye with one shot,” said Mr. Fisher. “He was killed in a very cold way.”

The police said that the funeral procession consisted of 2,000 people. Members of the Hasidic community put the number at close to 5,000.

At the funeral there was criticism of Mayor Koch because, according to Rabbi Elye L. Gross, of his “noncommittal policy of not respecting our commitment to remain in this area.”

Says Mayor Ignored Request

“He is permitting blight to enter this area by not funneling in Federal funds for housing,” Rabbi Gross said. He added that the Mayor had ignored a request by the Jewish community to attend the funeral.

Mr. Koch declined to comment on the criticism.

Rabbi Gross described Mr. Okunov as a family man who had gone through “hell in Russia as a Jew and finally came to free America, only to be shot on the streets on his way to prayer.”

He said that he expected the next few days to be “volatile,” but that he expected no violence in the community, which has been the scene of clashes between Jews and blacks in the past. Spokesmen for the Hasidim said no organized demonstrations were planned. Some of the Hasidim had been complaining that police protection in the neighborhood was inadequate.

The Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a black Brooklyn leader who has led demonstrations against the Hasidim in the past, said that he was “watching the developments” and that he had received calls from blacks who contended that they were being harassed by police officers searching for the assailant.

“Nothing has changed,” said Mr. Daughtry, alluding to what he called a tense racial climate.

Coalition Formed in May

A coalition of black and Hasidic leaders was formed in May in an effort to halt the hostility that had plagued the community. Mr. Gross said the coalition, which said it intended to establish a “hot line” between the two communities and an ombudsman’s office, was still in existence and “successful.”

He said black coalition members and others in the black community were “cooperating with us in every way to catch the perpetrator.”

Animosity between the two groups has resulted in a constant tension through the community. Many blacks’ are still bitter about the way Crown Heights was divided into two districts after the Hasidic leaders complained that they wanted a bigger voice in the affairs of their neighborhood.

In the summer of 1978, nearly 2,000 blacks demonstrated in front of the headquarters of the Lubavitcher Hasidim after a black contractor and civic leader, Arthur Miller, was killed in a struggle with police officers when he apparently intervened in the arrest of his brother for a driving violation. In another incident, a black youth was allegedly beaten by a group of Hasidic youths.

Mr. Gross said that a special police task force had been established to conduct the investigation into the murder of Mr. Okunov, who was buried at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens.

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