NEW YORK — The elderly woman had stopped by the Jewish Community Center in the Canarsie area of Brooklyn and was shuffling away, leaning heavily on her walker, when a young man punched her in the head as he walked past, knocking her to the ground.
When she returned to the center for help, the staff called for an ambulance, vigilant that this might have been another example of the "knockout game," a social media trend that had young people punching out random individuals on the street last year. Since that November incident, the neighborhood hasn't had any other anti-Semitic assaults, but that doesn't mean the victim has healed, said Rabbi Avrohom Hecht, executive director of the center, who helped the woman after the assault.
"People should realize when they do this to someone there are emotional and mental scars they leave on people," Hecht said. "I know this woman is still suffering."
Though the knockout game was widely condemned by New York leaders, it still contributed to a threefold increase in anti-Semitic assaults in New York City last year — 21 compared to five in 2012, according to an annual audit by the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit that fights anti-Semitism.
Nationwide, there were 31 assaults on Jews or those who were perceived as Jewish in 2013, up from 17 the year before, the report released Tuesday said.
They included an incident that targeted a 12-year-old girl who had a bottle thrown at her by a group of girls, one of whom called her a "dirty Jew"; an attack on a 24-year-old Jewish man wearing a yarmulke; and an assault on a man in Los Angeles who was surrounded by a group of men who hit him and shouted "Heil Hitler!"
"Even if there's one incident of hate, that's too many," said Evan Bernstein, the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "We have to do a better job of trying to prevent it from happening."
Overall nationwide, anti-Semitic incidents declined 19% from 2012 to 2013, the audit shows. There were 315 vandalism incidents, down from 440 in 2012, and 405 incidents of harassment and threats, down from 470 the year before.
New York had the highest number of anti-Jewish incidents last year, according to the audit. And the increase in assaults represents a worrying surge in a city and state known as a melting pot for cultures and ethnicities from around the world.
"It's been a real increase, and we are concerned about it," said Hecht, the Canarsie rabbi.
The knockout game rose to prominence last year after police reported several incidents of pedestrians being assaulted with one punch seemingly at random, with the attacker quickly moving on once the victim was on the ground. Videos of some of these knockouts appeared online, where teenagers claimed credit for the attacks.
Legislators in a number of states, including New York and New Jersey, quickly introduced bills trying to stem the game, hoping to try juveniles who participated in it as adults. So far, few of those bills have gained momentum.
But Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, cautioned that it might be a stretch to link the knockout game with a rise in anti-Semitic assaults. First, he said, there is no proof that the incidents were linked, or even that any kind of formal game existed, and second, the main motivation of the game was not hatred for a particular group, but "social distance."
"If you're young and African American and living in Crown Heights, and you want to assault someone who is not like you, the large number of Hassidim walking around that neighborhood make an obvious target," Butts said in an email. "If Crown Heights was full of new Asian immigrants, or Swedes, or Oklahoma cowboys, maybe they would have been just as good a target."
The increase in knockout game incidents in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn led to a November forum with religious leaders, principals and law enforcement officials in a bid to stem the assaults. It was there that a newly elected councilwoman spoke about simmering tensions between African Americans and Jewish residents in the area, noting that some African Americans living there were worried that they would be pushed out by a growing Jewish community.
That councilwoman, Laurie Cumbo, posted a letter to followers on her Facebook page, which read in part: "I relayed those sentiments at the forum not as an insult to the Jewish community, but rather to offer possible insight as to how young African American/Caribbean teens could conceivably commit a 'hate crime' against a community they know very little about."
Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Center, emphasized that there hadn't been any reported incidents in the area this year and said that might be because police went into schools and talked to students about the crimes, or it might be because teenage trends were fickle.
"Most of the incidents tended to be young people, and there's obviously something that's a trend for a time," Cohen said. "But then the message gets out that it's not going to be acceptable, and something else rises."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times