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Danielle Richards/Genesis Photos

Rabbi Levi Welton at the Lincoln Park Jewish Center (Danielle Richards/Genesis Photos)

Metro Minute

Darkness and light

A snippet from a strained Shabbat in an Orthodox congregation in New York

A New York moment: 

While working on an article about rising anti-Semitism in New York, I visited an Orthodox synagogue just north of the city called Lincoln Park Jewish Center. Detectives from the local police station had attended the service the week before to show police support amid fears of violence. The atmosphere this Shabbat was strained but still warm. The congregation sang a song that concluded, “God is with me, I shall not fear.” 

Rabbi Levi Welton delivered the week’s sermon about Joseph in Egypt. He told a story about a Lyft driver recently asking him where he was from. Welton told him, “the Bronx,” but the driver persisted in asking whether he was originally from the United States. Welton was annoyed but decided to acquiesce to the question under the question and said, “I’m Jewish. Where are you from?” 

The driver was from the Dominican Republic and told Welton he had been reading Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian. He showed him the book sitting next to him in the car, then said it was his dream to visit Israel. 

“I realized I had been so defensive: ‘You want to fight the Jews, come on!’” said Welton. “But the way to fight the darkness is with light.” 

The service concluded, congregants gathered for lunch, and Welton warmly introduced me to everyone in the congregation. Talking about those who have negative views of Jews, Welton added: “According to the Torah, the most effective way to defeat your enemy is to transform them to your friend.”

Worth your time:  

The Sloan Kettering Institute here in New York released new findings about the nature of cancer metastasis, where cancer cells spread in the body. The research indicates cancer cells take advantage of the wound healing process to spread—which seems like microscopic evidence of the fall and a broken creation.

This week I learned: 

Rapper Noname declared Jan. 11 to be “Library Card Registration Day.” The attention excited a number of librarians and workers. 

Noname highlighted the importance of having human interaction: “I’ve been put onto some crazy books I never would have ordered online just because I was in person talking to another human being,” she said. 

A court case you might not know about: 

Related to a current legal fight between Apple and the Justice Department: A private contractor will charge law enforcement about $15,000 to hack into an iPhone. Just a few years ago that price was $1 million. 

Culture I am consuming: 

Robert Caro’s book Working, one of WORLD’s Books of the Year. There’s so much in there that is useful for my work, but I think his example of meticulousness and persistence is useful for anyone. Reading this book as a journalist gives me a feeling of, “Oh, you felt that too!” and also a feeling that Caro’s slow investigation process is from a bygone era. 

He talks about early in his journalism career realizing “there was a whole level of ruthlessness … of which I hadn’t conceived.” I remember shocking moments like that in my reporting, realizing the ruthlessness of people. It’s a good reminder to be generous with subjects, as Caro is, and aware of the ruthlessness of the world. 

Metro Minute will be on hiatus until February. 
Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback. ebelz@wng.org 

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Kathy Willens/AP

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Metro Minute

Reforming reforms

Did New York’s criminal justice reforms go too far?

A New York moment: 

On Jan. 1, bail reform went into effect in New York, prohibiting judges from setting cash bail in about 90 percent of cases. Before, New York’s bail system was a mess. In 2018, I wrote about it, spending a day trying to post bail for someone at a far flung city jail. The national push for this particular criminal justice reform has been bipartisan, focused on how cash bail singles out the poor for pretrial detention. 

Reform advocates in New York have pointed out several examples of this disparity: Harvey Weinstein stands accused of the violent crime of rape, but he had the means to post his $1 million bail to stay out of jail pretrial. Meanwhile, Bronx teenager Kalief Browder spent three years at Rikers pretrial over an alleged theft of a backpack, because his family could not pay the $3,000 bail, only to have charges eventually dropped. Browder made several suicide attempts in jail, and then finally died of suicide two years after his release. 

New York’s bail reforms that passed last year went well beyond what other states had done, even New Jersey, which eliminated cash bail but allowed judges to assess the risk of releasing defendants pretrial. Under the New York reforms, judges can only set bail for certain violent crimes—all others are released pretrial. 

What makes New York complicated is that its judges have never been allowed to assess a defendant’s risk to the community in setting bail, on the grounds that this helped ensure the right to presumption of innocence. As a main condition for setting bail, New York judges are only allowed to determine someone’s flight risk. The new law doesn’t change that.

But it does rely on measures that reasonable criminal justice reform advocates have endorsed to me: supervised release and ankle monitoring. The problem is that the state did not add additional funding for these programs even though the numbers needing monitoring will grow substantially. (Bail company advocates have argued to me that the bail system has worked for hundreds of years, and these new measures won’t.)

Now, barely a week under the new bail law, New York’s reforms are under heavy scrutiny, from New York Police Department chief Dermot Shea and from the Jewish community. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he would revisit the law to address concerns, particularly from the Jewish community after a wave of anti-Semitic attacks. The new law does not allow judges to set cash bail in cases of hate crimes. Support groups for victims of domestic violence have also advocated for New York judges to have more discretion in setting bail. I’ll be keeping an eye on where this leads, and what it might mean for such criminal justice reforms nationally.

Worth your time:  

It’s been more than a year since this fascinating story about the Appalachian mafia rigging the McDonald’s Monopoly game came out. Here’s hoping someone is making it into a movie. As an aside, I love that American prosecutors put so much creative effort into naming their investigative operations (in this case, “Operation Final Answer”). 

This week I learned: 

Dogs on the loose delayed 107 trains in the city last year, and raccoons took second place by delaying 87. Late getting to work in New York? Blame a goose on the tracks. 

A court case you might not know about: 

This spring the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the validity of various subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s taxes and other financial information. Meanwhile, in a less noticed case in New York, a woman who accused Trump of rape might seek the release of his New York tax returns to show that her defamation case has jurisdiction in New York. Trump’s legal team in that case had argued the New York courts don’t have jurisdiction over the case, because Trump’s comments against the woman were made in Washington, D.C.  

Culture I am consuming: 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. What a dazzling book. One of my friends pointed out that someone should do an essay comparing it with another afterlife parable, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org

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Vivvi Smak/istock

Angels and a Christmas tree in front of the Rockefeller Center (Vivvi Smak/istock)

Metro Minute

A tale of two Christmases

New York Christmas parties reveal the shifting economics of different work sectors

A New York moment: 

This past weekend I went to a small Christmas party in someone’s apartment, where several former New York Daily News employees gathered and briefly commiserated about the newspaper’s travails before reaching for more ham and cheese and changing the subject. I freelanced for the Daily News back in 2006, in the sunset of its heyday. At one point, the Daily News had the largest circulation in the country and a place in pop culture as the model for Superman’s Daily Planet. Since then, layoffs have been a recurring theme, culminating last year when the ownership cut the newsroom in half.

The apartment party made me think of the contrast with another Christmas party I’d gone to. It’s no secret that news organizations have lost a large slice of advertising dollars to Silicon Valley. A few years ago I saw where those dollars went when I went with a date to Google’s Christmas party for its New York employees. It was the kind of party that felt designed to showcase American wealth—the Roaring ’20s, a century later. 

At the Google party, acrobats twirled, people lined up at open bars, live bands (yes, plural) played, a train drove through the crowd and shot confetti, and tables hosted platters of shrimp and steak. It was a fun, memorable night, but as I sat in that apartment living room this year with laid-off reporters and designers, I thought of the contrast. Meanwhile, the WORLD New York bureau, which consists of me, is not hosting a party this year. 

Worth your time:

There is such a thing as the Cloud Appreciation Society, and it sounds like the perfect antidote to looking at a computer screen all day. 

This week I learned: 

Netflix has reopened a shuttered single-screen theater in Manhattan to showcase its films. The 71-year-old Paris Theater was the last single-screen theater in New York City when it closed. The reopened theater is nice for the city, but it also means that Netflix can show its films on its own terms. Major theater chains like AMC refused to screen Netflix’s The Irishman unless the streaming service committed to a two- or three-month exclusive theatrical release before adding the film to its streaming catalog. Netflix wanted a shorter theatrical release, and so The Irishman never showed in the big theater chains. 

A court case you might not know about: 

New York’s attorney general lost a landmark case where the state had tried to hold Exxon Mobil liable for climate change through a state fraud law. Some other states are bringing similar cases involving the liability of energy producers for climate change, but this case focused on the information Exxon Mobil shared with its investors about the effects of climate change. While this won’t be the end of such cases, New York has one of the most prosecutor-friendly fraud laws, the Martin Act, so the attorney general’s loss in New York is significant. 

In his ruling, the Manhattan judge said the decision doesn’t absolve Exxon Mobil of responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions: “ExxonMobil does not dispute either that its operations produce greenhouse gases or that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change. ... But ExxonMobil is in the business of producing energy, and this is a securities fraud case, not a climate change case.”

Culture I am consuming: 

Marriage Story, a Noah Baumbach film that goes through every little pain of divorce. I thought Baumbach did a good job of showing the gritty details of a marriage ripping apart, but a lot of it felt overacted to me. It’s hard to take a performance seriously when you’re thinking of the Saturday Night LiveMaster Thespian” skit with John Lithgow, where the comedians spend the whole time complimenting each other on their acting. 

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org 

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