Rabbi’s slaying brings together Northeast Miami-Dade’s Orthodox Jewish community

A Northeast Miami-Dade community is struggling to cope with the loss a rabbi who was gunned down on his way to temple over the weekend.

08/14/2014 2:01 PM

08/14/2014 9:16 PM

When Rabbi Joseph Raksin was gunned down last weekend on his way to temple near North Miami Beach, it was the Orthodox Jewish community's volunteer rescue crew, Hatzalah, that responded first and offered aid.

When news spread that Raksin did not survive, the Orthodox community — many of whose members didn't even know the rabbi, who was visiting from Brooklyn, New York — flooded the street in front of Bais Menachem Chabad to pray for his soul. They pooled money to offer a $50,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction.

And it was the Shmira Patrol, the neighborhood watch group, that escorted the hearse carrying Raksin’s body to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport — with lights and sirens — assuring that everything was done by Jewish law before the body was flown back home to Brooklyn.

“You hurt your finger, the whole body hurts,” said Rabbi David Lehrfield, spiritual leader at Young Israel of Greater Miami in Northeast Miami-Dade for more than 30 years. “Whether you knew him or not, it is like a member of our family was killed.”

The slaying of Raksin rocked the neighborhood — about a square mile roughly bordered by Miami Gardens Drive to the north, South Glades Road to the east, Northeast Sixth Avenue to the west and 167th Street to the south — to its core. As violence escalates in the Middle East and elsewhere, many in this tight-knit Jewish community assume they are under attack even as the killers — and their motive — — remain unknown.

“It’s all you think about,” said Leslie Dratler as she unloaded groceries earlier this week at South Florida Kosher Meats, 1324 NE 163rd St. “But we can’t let it stop us from living.”

Yona Lunger, a community activist and member of the Shmira Patrol, said he and everyone else is on high alert and are trying to help police find out who killed the rabbi.

“This is the time for us to come together even stronger,” Lunger said as he drove through the streets of this enclave where most people know one another. “We have to have each other’s backs.”

On Thursday, the Anti-Defamation League stressed the importance of everyone joining together.

“We remain strong, unified and committed to working shoulder-to-shoulder to ensure the safety and security of all individuals and Jewish institutions, especially in the face of increased anti-Semitism here and abroad,” the ADL said in a news release. “We are confident that we will emerge from this tragic time stronger and more united than ever. May Rabbi Raksin’s memory be for a blessing.”

Police have reached out to residents near the site of the slaying in the hope there is surveillance video that could lead them to the suspects.

A Miami-Dade County police detective sent an email Thursday asking the community about a light-colored Toyota Tundra pickup truck with an extended cab and a ladder mounted on top of a camper. The detective stressed that its owner was not a suspect but might have information about the crime, Lunger said.

On the Saturday he was killed, Raksin was doing what is common practice in this community, observing the Sabbath — the day of rest. Observant Orthodox Jews refrain from carrying money and avoid anything that can be linked to work, such as driving or using electronics.

“It’s a tragedy that a guest came in and had such a tragic ending,” said Rabbi Lehrfield. “That a person should be taken like this on his holy day is a slap in the face to a person’s religion.”

About 9 a.m. Saturday, he walked out of his daughter’s house, said goodbye to his family and headed east on Northeast 175th Street to a nearby temple, wearing the traditional Orthodox black hat and long coat.

Witnesses said he was approached by two men at Eighth Court, and was shot.

A neighbor called police, and someone in the community called Hatzalah, which is allowed to operate even on the Sabbath for emergency reasons. Raksin was airlifted to the Ryder Trauma Center, where he died.

When word spread, the community cried and prayed. After sundown, a Star of David fashioned from candles appeared at the spot where Raksin was gunned down.

The next day, many people in the community — already on edge from an incident July 28 in which a swastika and the word Hamas appeared on the pillars of a temple — wondered whether Raksin was targeted because he was Jewish. That belief was further fueled by an incident the day of Raksin’s memorial service: A couple who attended the service reported that someone had scratched a swastika and iron cross on their BMW.

“We are peace-loving people,” said Rabbi Lehrfield’s daughter, Jennifer. “We don’t bother you. Why bother us?”

Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, said the Jewish community has a “heightened awareness of anti-Semitism because of what is going on in the world.”

Sheskin, who is completing the 2014 Jewish Population Study, said that the Orthodox community, which in 2004 represented about 9 percent of the Jews in Miami-Dade County, lives by the tradition of watching out for one another.

“As Jews, we have a responsibility to take care of other Jews,” he said.

Earlier this week, police said they had not ruled out the possibility that Raksin’s slaying was a hate crime, but had no indication that it was. They said the motive may have been robbery.

“We are here to make the community feel safe,” said police Maj. Saima Plasencia, who heads the Miami-Dade County Police Department’s Intracoastal District. Plasencia joined several patrol cars Tuesday that were monitoring the area. A large mobile patrol van was parked on a swale with a poster that had Raksin’s photo and a telephone number to call if someone has information.

The county is working closely with nearby North Miami Beach, where crimes generally are limited to burglary, petty theft and occasional robberies.

“I have confidence in our homicide bureau that they are going to make an arrest in this case,” said Placensia. “There is no doubt in my mind. It’s just a matter of time.”

As Lunger drove through the community as a Shmira patrol volunteer, he pointed out symbols tied to traditional practices. A line made by wire that can be seen on the streets, for example, is known as a Eruv, and marks where Jews can carry items on the Sabbath.

There are also several business in the community that cater to Orthodox beliefs, such as wig stores for women who can show their real hair only to their husbands, modest clothing stores, and dental and doctor’s offices that offer kosher prescriptions. At Jerusalem Pizza, 761 NE 167th St., there is a sink in the back so diners can wash their hands according to tradition before eating.

A family visiting from Brooklyn said they almost didn’t travel to South Florida after hearing about the shooting.

“We were afraid,” said Miri Moskowitz, as she munched on her kosher Greek salad. Her husband, Saul, said his wife and mother-in-law will let him go to services only if he walks with someone else.

“We never thought it would come to this,” he said.

Yitzie Spalter, co-owner of South Florida Kosher Meats, which has been around for more than 30 years, said the community is hardworking and is simply trying to provide for their families.

“We are all grieving together, he said. “We have to unite as a community to get through this.”

Investigators asked anyone with information to call the Miami-Dade Police Department at 305-471-2400 or Crime Stoppers, anonymously, at 305-471-8477.

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