Quiet streets and silent fears

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The Independent Online
THE WINDOWS of the wide Victorian house are shrouded in net. The quiet backstreet it lies in, not far from a green park, looks tranquil enough. A boy speeds past on a bicycle, in a black hat, his side curls and his long coat lifting in the wind. But here on Monday, in her own home, Miriam Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew aged 64, was murdered.

About 5,000 Orthodox Jewish families live in north-east London, in the area around Stamford Hill and Stoke Newington, clustered within walking distance of their synagogues. Mrs Lieberman had many relatives among them and even more friends: she was, they say, actively kind, generous, gentle, incapable of making an enemy. A thousand came to her funeral. The shock waves from her death are still reverberating through a community already under stress.

Outside the Beigels grocery shop on Stamford Hill two Jewish women in their early thirties stop to talk. 'This area is unbelievable,' one of them says.

'You don't know any more where you're safe,' says the other, her pushchair full of Kosher food. 'I lock myself in. I keep telling the children not to open the door to anyone.'

Mrs Lieberman lived with that fear. Since a burglary at her house she only spent the days there and slept each night at one of her children's homes. At some time on Monday, between midday and midnight, she either opened her door to a stranger, or came in to find her house already being ransacked. She died from multiple injuries.

Around the corner from her house two old ladies are talking across the hedge. Daytime burglaries, they say, are common. In the past few months one of them had heard a crash, had come out to see her neighbour's door kicked in and a young man running out of the house. 'They're very quiet, the Jews,' they say, 'Keep themselves to themselves. Trouble is, maybe some lads think - they're Jews, they must have money in the house.'

That thought, if it crossed the murderer's mind, was wrong. Mrs Lieberman was poor, with a sick husband. Few in her community have money to spare: the belief that it is a duty to have large families drains cash. Wives can rarely work, and in the last few years many have overstretched themselves by taking mortgages for housing. Yet more money is needed for schooling: Jewish schools are not supported by the state. As a result the recession has hit the Orthodox Jews of Stamford Hill savagely.

'Many families are being thrown out of their houses,' says Ita Symons, director of the Agudas Israel Housing Association, which is trying to help. 'Things are very bad indeed. The sole providers are losing their jobs.'

Mrs Lieberman was about to move into sheltered housing. 'We are horrified, speechless,' says Ita Symons. 'Now none of us stay in the house. If my husband goes out, I go out. We are always scared. We can no longer live free.'

The Orthodox Jews are not, of course, the only residents of Stamford Hill to feel fear. There is no evidence that Mrs Lieberman's death was due to anti-Semitism: the likelihood is that it is one more sign of rising, often drug-related, violent crime in the area. 'I lock myself in every night,' says one woman in her fifties, walking in Clissold Park. 'If anyone knocks I look through the letterbox. It's got much worse. People used to leave their doors open here.'

But there are signs of extra pressures on the Orthodox Jews of Stamford Hill. A few streets away from Mrs Lieberman's home is the Jewish Avigdor Primary School. No child is allowed home unescorted, however close they live. Instead all are kept in school, and a man with a walkie-talkie at the gates tells the teachers inside they can release the children as each parent arrives.

There has, according to a spokesman for the Board of Deputies, been a rise in anti-Semitic violence in the last few years, virtually all in the form of hooliganism against Jewish schoolchildren, mostly at a particular school in north- west London. 'The figures are not high,' he says. 'But there is a problem with other incidents. There is a substantial increase in anti-Semitic literature and increased daubings and desecrations in cemeteries.'

Mrs Lieberman was buried this week in Enfield. In 1990, stones in a cemetery there used by the Jews of Stamford Hill were sprayed with swastikas. Many feel that to publicise such callous vandalism is only to encourage copycat attacks. 'On the whole, the population and the community live well side by side,' says Joe Lobenstein, a Conservative councillor in Hackney.

But without doubt there is suffering as a result of fear. 'A Hassidic man does not walk alone on Friday night,' one woman tells me. 'There have been attacks in the past. Our children are punished if they walk alone. That is anti-Semitism. We are not bitter about it. It has always been so. We know that is the price you have to pay for being a Jew, and a visible Jew on account of your clothing. And then there is the general crime on top of that.'

Part of that crime is prostitution. Street women and kerb crawlers are another pressure making women feel less safe on the streets. In a back office of the Adath Yisroel synagogue, close to Mrs Lieberman's home, Mr Barnett, administrator of the burial society that had just arranged her funeral, speaks sadly of how such prostitution is spreading. His black felt hat hangs on an old green safe marked 'Funeral Director: Official Business'.

'Some of the prostitutes are so young,' he says. 'There are spiritual values which are being eroded. It is very unpleasant. That is an understatement.'

About 300 Orthodox families hoped last year to move to a new, quieter, safer community in Shenley, Hertfordshire, away from all these troubles. So far their hopes have come to nothing. Lack of funds is part of the reason. But there was also opposition from some villagers who feared that these religious people in their strange long coats and black hats would not integrate, would keep too much to themselves.

Yet it is the very fear from which they were trying to escape that makes this community more withdrawn. There is a sad inevitability about the circle of events in Stamford Hill. In Clissold Park, near where Mrs Lieberman died, a middle-aged woman says how pleasant it was once. 'This is a Jewish area, you could walk in peace,' she says. 'I admire them. But the sad thing is, they don't talk to people as it is. And this murder is going to make that worse.'

(Photograph omitted)