From James Baldwin to the Crown Heights riots, friction between the African-American and Jewish communities in New York City is a well-documented phenomenon. But for every publicized conflict, there are countless instances of peace and cooperation. In November, District Leader Geoffrey A. Davis co-published a children’s book with writer Meda Leacock to tell another side of the story.
“Love Yourself, Love Each Other,” recounts the unlikely friendship between two black brothers and the Grand Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Six-year-old Geoffrey and his brother James were playing basketball near their Crown Heights home when the famous and influential rabbi stopped to admonish them for arguing and urged them to “Love yourself, love each other.”
As a leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch congregation, Schneerson transformed the movement from an insular Hasidic group to one of the largest Jewish organizations worldwide. That this larger-than-life figure took the time to reach out to the boys made a positive and lasting impression on Davis.
“We were Christians, he was a Jewish man. We were black, he was white. We were children, he was a senior. So every aspect was out of the norm,” Davis said.
Schneerson would regularly pass the boys on his walk home from the synagogue, and over the years, Davis got to know the rabbi and to absorb his message of peace. Though he is a Christian, Davis has called himself a “lifelong follower” of Schneerson’s, and still visits the rabbi’s grave in Queens.
Something about what Schneerson said to the boys on that day has stuck with Davis, and that message has informed much of his politics and activism.
“When you don’t love yourself, you’re actually hurting your brother,” said Davis. “You’re lashing out at the world because of how you feel about yourself.”
Sadly, Schneerson would play an unintended role in the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when a vehicle from his motorcade struck and killed the 7-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants. Another child was seriously injured in the accident. In the ensuing riots, one Orthodox Jewish man was killed and several others were injured.
The riots inspired Davis’ brother James to get involved in local politics. He was eventually elected to the City Council, where he served until he was assassinated by a political rival in 2003.
Today, Davis runs the James E. Davis Stop the Violence Foundation in his brother’s honor, and carries on the rabbi’s message of non-violence. With the recent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in Brooklyn, he hopes his new book can bring a message of peace and cross-cultural friendship to young readers.
“At this particular time, it is extremely important to address violence with our young people at their earliest possible developmental stage,” said Davis.
On Monday, December 17, Brooklynites can join Davis and Leacock for a reading of “Love Yourself, Love Each Other” at the Jewish Children’s Museum.
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