How One Black Orthodox Jewish Woman Is Opening Minds in Her Brooklyn Community
Less than two weeks after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Mayaan Zik, a Black Orthodox woman and longtime resident of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, stood on the main drag of Kingston Avenue, and introduced a number of speakers from both the Black and the Hasidic Jewish communities to kick off the rally, “Tahalucha for Social Justice.”
The majority of the attendees were made up of Orthodox Jews holding signs with phrases like “If Not Now, When?” (the historic phrase attributed to Hillel the Elder), and its Hebrew translation scribbled below. They were congregated across the street from 770 Eastern Parkway, the central landmark and the physical heart of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism. Zik spoke in front of the crowd and relayed a weekly Torah portion about lighting a menorah and its deeper meaning: the person’s job to kindle a flame until it rises on its own. She then tied the portion back to the reckoning about systemic racism happening throughout America. “Together, we are raising the flame of justice and kindling it in hearts and minds,” Zik said in her opening remarks. “I hope we ‘cause to ascend’ the level of justice and outright fairness in America, particularly for the Black community right now.”
This “After the Ugly Cry” group felt like a safe space for Zik, her friends, and like-minded people to share their thoughts and emotions.
After the killing of Floyd by a white police officer, Zik’s “After the Ugly Cry” WhatsApp group was buzzing with questions from its members who wanted to go to protests, but there were worries about the spread of COVID-19 and violence. Then, someone brought up the idea to create their own rally. At the time, Zik and her friends had been hearing conversations that had been mainly focused on the looters. For them, creating this rally would be a place where people could listen and learn. “It became a space of, ‘How can we educate people? If someone has a response about this or has a negative response about race or the current protest, it’s like, ‘Hey guys what is your perspective? How can we make it better?’ There is a wrong happening and there is an injustice happening to the Black community and we need to support them, we need to stop focusing on looting and the destruction of business,” says Zik.
The rally marked a new page for Orthodox Jews in the Chabad-Lubavitch community. The sect’s philosophy of finding love and light even in the deepest of tragedies or violence hails from the teachings of its late leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, usually referred to simply as the Rebbe. While it is considered the more open and modern of the Hasidic factions, it is not without its own issues. Crown Heights itself is scarred from racial violence hailing back 30 years ago: In 1991, after returning from visiting a cemetery, a driver in Schneerson’s motorcade hit the two children of Guyanese immigrants, instantly killing seven-year-old Gavin Cato. For three days, riots broke out, and Yankel Rosenbaum, an Orthodox student from Australia, was killed. Decades have passed since that incident, and while there were some attempts to repair the relationship, tensions haven’t necessarily eased and the communities have since remained fractured.
While the march signified a small but refreshing and poignant chapter in Chabad-Lubavitch history within Crown Heights, there was also a spotlight on Zik, who considered herself the emcee of the rally, introducing speakers and reading parshas. “I was like, ‘Add some chassidishe joy and simchas. I was very nervous throughout, I didn’t memorize my speech. I was like, ‘I’ll do it through my phone. The wind was blowing the sheitel [wig] into my eyes, and I couldn’t see it,” says Zik. “My hands were shaking.”
Zik is one few people of color in the Chabad-Lubavitch community, and her entrance into the Chabad-Lubavitch community was riddled with discrimination. Zik, whose mother is Jamaican and father hails from Alabama (where Zik was born), grew up in Washington, D.C. As a child, her grandmother would read her Old Testament stories before she went to bed. When she was a teenager, she found out that one of her mother’s relatives had been rumored to be Jewish. Zik then delved into learning about the religion, including both the Hebrew and Yiddish languages. She later moved to New York where she attended Cooper Union for a degree in fine arts. After her first year of living in dorms, school policy forced her (like other second-year students) to find her own housing for the remainder of her Bachelor’s degree; she found an apartment in Crown Heights at the last minute. It was there in her apartment she saw a poster of a bearded, pious-looking man. “I had moved to Crown Heights and there was the picture of the Rebbe, but I didn’t know that at the time,” says Zik.
Soon after, Zik began to go to explore the surrounding Jewish community. It was Hanukkah time and she had heard from her friends about a large menorah display around 770. She headed to 770, dressing modestly in wide-leg pants, a jacket, and a hat. Almost immediately, she was approached by two women. “Out of nowhere there were these two women who were like, ‘What are you doing here? You gotta get out of here! I’m going to call the police on you.’ And they just were yelling at me, were in my space, and chased me and I couldn’t believe this. I never had these things happen to me before. I was from D.C. and even New York, despite its various characters, it is a [politically correct], ‘be who you are’ kind of place.”
It wasn’t until a few months later that she attended for a third time with a friend who recommended that they go to the more peaceful Kingston Avenue-facing side of 770. Once again, the woman who harassed Zik was there yet again. “I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, it’s her again. I’ll just go now.’ She comes up to me again and is like, ‘Why are you here? You need to get out of here. We don’t allow people like you in here.’” Says Zik: “My friend got up and said, ‘No you’re wrong. The Rebbe loves everyone and if anything, the Rebbe would be very disturbed about your behavior. You need to get out of the shul.” So she told the women off and the woman didn’t know what to do with herself.” And yet, this was not the last time that Zik would see the women: Around the holiday Simchat Torah, the woman was on the street asking for tzedakah, or charity, a tradition leading up to the holiday, and spotted Zik. This time, the woman was pleasant, but mistook Zik for another woman of color in the community.
Slowly, Zik found her group within the Chabad-Lubavitch space. “Finally when I got to Judaism, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in the right neighborhood. This is great, now I have to find the right house now,’” she says. One of the main draws had always been Chabad’s fundamental teachings, something that she used to work through her experiences with racism within the community. “I think that Chabad has a focus on joy. That is what attracted me to it; that is what I liked about it,” she says. “I remember making that comparison in my head, ‘It’s all going to be okay. Let’s work through this with joy, with simcha. We have a challenge, just joyfully jump over that. It is going to be okay.’ It is very positive , and it is centered around positivity. It’s all good, even if there are troubles, it is going to be better. Even find the good in trouble.” Zik immersed herself. She made friends. She attended seminary, a Jewish learning school for women. Eventually, Zik met her husband, a white Israeli man who was secular but later became religious, over a Shabbat dinner in 2008.
The discrimination has now affected her biracial children as well. “My kids have to deal with ‘schvartze’ and ‘goy’ not by other adults, but by other children who don’t know better,” she says. “My son was around four and five, and some of the kids would say something [about me] like, ‘Is that your babysitter? Is that your goy?’ Like people own people. He would just say, ‘No, that’s my mom,’ and they’d be like, ‘Is she Jewish? Are you Jewish?’ It always comes back to, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I moved him out of that school. It was really disrespectful for him to go through [that] besides just the bullying.” She adds: “So far, I’ve found schools that don’t pay attention to that aspect of a person but really focus on teaching children Torah and focusing on their personality and building up good character.”
Ultimately, becoming a mother is what galvanized Zik to be more vocal about racism and discrimination. “Before having children I was more willing to say, ‘I’m just going to peacefully ignore and go off in a different direction and live my life peacefully. But as I’ve seen it the intersection of dealing with it regards to my children, I’ve had the whole thing of, ‘Well, now I have the whole thing of becoming a warrior or a protector of my children and growing a stronger spine and standing up for them.’ I think pre-married, pre-mom me would not have done that and would have shied away from that kind of attention and moving away like, ‘I’m not going to make a ripple.’”
“Doing a rally was a form of action. There is a whole thing in Chassidus that has to do with thought and speech, and action. Action is where it’s at. You can do a whole lot of talking and a whole lot of thinking, but nothing happens until the action,” says Zik. “Our rally was the action of that point, and we wanted to continue and we didn’t want to sit back and say, ‘Oh, we did this thing this one time.’ If we are going to do this, we are really going to do this, we are going to go around and try to institute change in the neighborhood and our community as much as we possibly can.”
The group aims to educate and amplify Black voices by sharing information, including moments in Black history, supporting other protests, and eventually they will be meeting with politicians. And for Zik, and the Crown Heights community, this is all just the beginning. “That was rooted in our chassidishe values that we all hold dear, but also a progressive thought in a way, you don’t have to wait for anyone to fix what you need fixed, you can do it yourself,” she says. “You can go out there and do the work. We can fix the world today and turn it over.”