'People Are Terrified' |

Center of Jewish Life in L.A. Exits Shabbat, Enters Storm of Protests

For three days, Orthodox residents of Pico-Robertson neighborhood were oblivious to the tumult rocking their country over the death of George Floyd. It reached them on Saturday night

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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A protester holds a skateboard in front of a fire in Los Angeles, Saturday, May 30, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A protester holds a skateboard in front of a fire in Los Angeles, Saturday, May 30, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu,AP
Allison Kaplan Sommer

“Anxious, frightened, and scared” is how Rebecca Klempner described her neighbors in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson neighborhood as the realization took hold Saturday night that angry demonstrators were burning, vandalizing and looting stores, breaking windows and setting fires in garbage bins, buildings and vehicles – just steps away from their homes. 

As protests over the death of George Floyd – killed Tuesday when a police officer kneeled on his neck – turned violent, leading to riots and looting in the epicenter of Orthodox Jewish life in LA, Klempner and others who are Shabbat-observant were almost completely unaware of what was happening around them.

They had been tuned out from the news for much longer than the usual Shabbat period of Friday till Saturday evening: The Shavuot holiday began on Thursday evening, which meant they were unplugged for three days – oblivious to the news breaking on television, radio or online for over 48 hours.

Demonstrators smashing a police vehicle in the Fairfax District as they protest the death of George Floyd, Los Angeles, California, May 30, 2020.
Demonstrators smashing a police vehicle in the Fairfax District as they protest the death of George Floyd, Los Angeles, California, May 30, 2020.Credit: AFP

“There is looting now on the far side of our neighborhood, and people are honestly terrified,” Klempner said in a telephone interview with Haaretz late Saturday night.

“We’re in our apartment, away from windows. I told my husband that if we start to hear people outside, we’ll sit or lay on the ground – so if there are shots, we won’t get accidentally hit. The shades are drawn and windows are tight in case there’s tear gas,” added Klempner, a married mother of four who lives half a block from Pico Boulevard.

Together with the nearby Fairfax district, this neighborhood is widely considered the epicenter of Jewish life in LA, crowded with synagogues and kosher food stores – including the legendary Canter’s Deli.

Klempner spoke on Saturday evening after a curfew was imposed on downtown Los Angeles, which was later extended to the entire city – one of 15 cities across the United States to do so. In addition to imposing the curfew, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti also requested assistance from the National Guard to “maintain peace and safety on the streets,” as Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles County.  

“This is no longer a protest,” Garcetti told local media on Saturday night. “This is destruction. This is vandalism.”

Klempner said that as they headed into the Shavuot holiday on Thursday, members of her community knew there would be protests in LA against police brutality and calls for racial justice, but didn’t expect them to take place so close to where they lived. 

LAPD commander Cory Palka standing among several destroyed police cars during a protest over the death of George Floyd, May 30, 2020, in Los Angeles.
LAPD commander Cory Palka standing among several destroyed police cars during a protest over the death of George Floyd, May 30, 2020, in Los Angeles. Credit: Mark J. Terrill,AP

Most of the talk that day, she said, centered around the fact that after synagogues had been shut for months – since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early March – they were due to reopen Sunday morning for outdoor prayers, albeit with strict guidelines: registering in advance to participate; having temperatures taken; wearing masks; and social distancing. The outdoor prayers have since been suspended, for the safety of community members.

Throughout Saturday, Klempner said, “We heard helicopters – but that’s not the most unusual thing in LA.” She speculated at the time that they may be monitoring illegal outdoor prayer gatherings. Since the coronavirus outbreak, prayer services have been forbidden. 

“I assumed that maybe the helicopters were making sure people weren’t gathering for outdoor minyanim. And we’ve heard a lot of sirens since COVID-19 hit us,” Klempner noted.

“It was all about the unnerving sounds: sirens and helicopters, and the popping sounds of either gunshots or firecrackers,” agreed Esther Kustanowitz, another Pico-Robertson resident.

On Saturday afternoon, Klempner and her husband took a walk to the adjacent neighborhood of Beverlywood, where they bumped into a couple who had heard about the violence close to their area. Then, at 7:45 P.M., toward the end of Shabbat, a Hatzolah emergency medical services vehicle drove down their small street and broadcast an urgent message: “Please go home, go inside. Everyone, please return to your homes and go inside.”

There was no explanation as to why.

By the time the Hatzolah vehicle drove through, Klempner said, a passer-by had informed them “something had gone awry at the protest. A friend we waved to across the street said a non-Jewish neighbor had told them curfew was about to start. I was nervous because my teenage sons were out still, taking a walk.”

As Shabbat finally ended and she tuned into the news, Klempner learned that looting and vandalism had taken place at familiar local businesses like the Ariel Glatt Kosher Market and Syd’s Pharmacy & Kosher Vitamins, and that the curfew was in place.

The news also spread that amid the chaos, a local synagogue, Congregation Beth El, had been vandalized with graffiti reading “Free Palestine” and “Fuck Israel.”

American Jewish Committee LA Regional Director Richard S. Hirschhaut told the LA Jewish Journal: “It is deplorable that certain protesters in Los Angeles today resorted to violence and vandalism. Sadly, their destructive opportunism included the defacing of Congregation Beth Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in Los Angeles and the spiritual home to many Holocaust survivors over the years. The epithets scrawled on the synagogue wall do nothing to advance the cause of peace or justice, here or abroad.”

As the severity of the situation sunk in late Saturday, Klempner went on to Facebook “to post a notice that I was OK, because I was afraid my relatives would be freaking out. And I saw about 75 percent of my frum [Orthodox] Facebook friends [were] concerned about violence and looting, but similarly frustrated because this is the natural outcome of our nation ignoring racism and even instigating racism for decades.”

The others complained that leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. never looted or behaved violently.

“The rest of us have been pointing out [in response] that, clearly, not enough white people listened to Dr. King to stop hating black people,” Klempner said. “People scorned Colin Kaepernick or made fun of him ... but when you don’t listen to someone protesting nonviolently, at a certain point the rage overflows.”

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