Max Rosenbaum, 85, whose life was changed irrevocably after his son’s 1991 death in race riots in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Crown Heights neighborhood, died Friday, Jan. 3, 2007, of a heart attack in Melbourne, Australia.

Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, was killed in riots that started after a driver in the entourage of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, accidentally hit and killed a 7-year-old black child, Gavin Cato, in Crown Heights on Aug. 19, 1991. Irate blacks formed a mob that went through the neighborhood. It descended on Rosenbaum, yelling, “Get the Jew!” Rosenbaum was stabbed four times and died a day later.

The race-related violence continued for several days as black youths rampaged through the racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood, home to many Hassidim, and the home of Chabad-Lubavitch. They burned police cars, looted stores and threw bottles.

Tireless crusader

Yankel Rosenbaum was a budding scholar and Chabad-Lubavitch student when he was chased down and killed. In the coming months and years, the Australia-based family frequently came to New York to press for investigations and prosecutions of individuals and institutions it felt were lax in their responsibilities toward its Hassidic citizens.

Norman Rosenbaum, surviving son of Max Rosenbaum, was quoted this week by Associated Press as saying his his father became a tireless crusader for civil rights, who was determined “that no other person would ever be subjected to the same type of violence” because of their race or ethnicity.

“From the moment he heard of the circumstances of my brother’s murder, he made a commitment not for revenge, but to obtain justice for my brother,” he told AP.

‘I don’t forgive’

Families members have said they would have preferred to stay in the background, but they were urged by American friends to continue making public appearances to assure authorities pursued both the legal cases against Rosenbaum’s killer, Lemrick Nelson, city officials who did little to prevent the riots and even city hospital officials, whose poor care led to Yankel’s death.

“People don’t understand the feeling inside, that there hasn’t been justice anywhere,” Fay Rosenbaum said. In an interview with the New York Daily News in 2005 on a trip to New York to testify at a civil trial against Kings County Hospital, she said: “I don’t forgive and I don’t forget. Nobody’s ever been made accountable. This is a scandal.”

The city of New York eventually agreed to pay the family $1.25 million to settle a civil suit and to acknowledge that poor care at the city hospital contributed to Yankel Rosenbaum’s death. The Rosenbaum family had turned down a previous $1 million settlement offer that didn’t admit mistakes.

Giuliani’s rise

Not only did the riot change the Rosenbaums’ lives, it changed New York City. Scathing reports of the city’s failure to manage the crisis contributing to then-Mayor David Dinkins’ loss in his re-election campaign and the rise of Rudy Giuliani to the mayoralty in 1993. Giuliani is now a Republican candidate for U.S. president.
Max (L), Fay, Norman Rosenbaum, Carmel Cato meet in 2003

In 2003, 12 years after the riots, the father of Gavin Cato, the boy whose accidental death was the catalyst for the Crown Heights riots, met Max and Fay Rosenbaum and told them, “I am very sorry about Yankel Rosenbaum’s death.”

Both families had looked forward to the meeting. Cato first met Rosenbaum’s other son in 2001, and the families continued working so that the fathers of the two who were killed could meet.

“They wanted to show the world that even in times of pain it is possible to create unity,” a Chabad affiliated website reported at the time.