A standing-room-only crowd of mourners paid tearful tribute Monday night to Yoseph Robinson, the beloved liquor store employee gunned down last Thursday as he tried to protect his girlfriend from a masked gunman.
Robinson, 34, had become something of a celebrity in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community. A Jamaican-born convert, his story of leaving behind what he described as “a world of drug deals, street crime and violence” and a stint as a hip-hop recording entrepreneur for a Torah-observant lifestyle made him a popular speaker and an inspirational figure.
Hours before presiding over Robinson’s funeral at the Shomrei Hadas Chapel in Boro Park, Rabbi Kenneth Auman, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Flatbush, told The Jewish Press that Robinson had been coming to his synagogue “for a year or so – every Shabbos. He was always impeccably dressed, and he davened with a lot of kavana.”
Robinson, said Rabbi Auman, was “really a wonderful person; my family had him in our house for Pesach lunch and we had such a lively conversation. He felt perfectly comfortable with us; he could make himself comfortable with anyone.”
Rabbi Shimshon Sherer, of Congregation Zichron Mordechai, recalled during his eulogy that Robinson would often attend Shalosh Seudos and listen closely to the rabbi’s divrei Torah, always going out of his way to come over afterward to tell him how much he enjoyed it.
Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff of Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin, another shul frequented by Robinson, referred to the deceased as Yoseph Hatzaddik (Yoseph the Righteous) and touched on the honor Jewish tradition accords righteous converts.
It was his unassuming manner and sunny personality, say those who knew him, that drew others into Robinson’s orbit. Whether they got to know him well or were simply customers at MB Vineyards, he had a way of endearing himself to people of all backgrounds.
“He had a true simchas hachaim [joy of life] about him,” said an occasional MB patron at the levaya. “He was always smiling and ready to go out of his way for you. Once, when I needed help getting the items I’d purchased into my car, he immediately came to my aid and when I tried to give him a tip he refused in that special way he had. He gave me a big smile and a wave of the hand as he went back into the store.”
MB Vineyards proprietor Benjy Ovitsh was more than Robinson’s employer; he considered himself a close friend and spoke at the funeral of Robinson’s many unusual traits, of his charitable nature, of his drawing on his own experiences to counsel young people.
Also speaking at the levaya was Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who characterized Robinson’s life as a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. Robinson, said Hikind, taught us what it means to care for our fellow human beings.
Robinson’s brother-in-law Shawn Walters, speaking for the family, told mourners that “the Jewish community saved [Yoseph’s] life. They didn’t judge him because of his past.”
Walters described his initial mystification at Robinson’s decision to become an Orthodox Jew but said he came to understand and respect the decision, and had even become curious himself about Judaism.
Many in the Orthodox community were disturbed at the news that Robinson’s body would not be interred in a Jewish cemetery but would be flown to Jamaica for burial there.
Rabbi Auman told The Jewish Press he would be leaving for Jamaica Wednesday morning. “We’re going to go along. I plan to go, and his boss Mr. Ovitsh, and some volunteers from Chesed Shel Emes. The family has a burial ground in their rural home – or where they used to live. A family backyard. We’ll have the service there in Spanish Town, some 25 miles from Kingston, where the family lives.
“He’ll be buried there. There’s nothing we can do about. The family was insistent. So we’ll make it as Jewish as we can. They agreed to a Jewish service. There will be no crosses in the room during the service; it will just be a plain room.”
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Robinson was killed when a gunman entered MB Vineyards at Avenue J and Nostrand Avenue Thursday night, apparently intent on robbing the store. When he pointed his gun at Robinson’s girlfriend, Lahavah Wallace, and demanded that she remove her jewelry, Robinson intervened.
“Yoseph grabbed the guy’s wrist,” Wallace told The New York Post. “The guy pulled back and pointed the gun back at me. Yoseph reached for the gun again. He jumped over the counter and wrestled with the guy and told me to go.”
After running to a room at the back of the store with Robinson’s cousin, Wallace heard three shots and called 911. When she felt it was safe to return to the front of the store, Robinson was on the floor, blood flowing from his wounds.
It became obvious, in the immediate aftermath of Robinson’s murder, just how much he meant to the community and how deeply his murder touched Jews and blacks alike.
“Yoseph always tried to bring the two communities together,” said Chaim Deutsch, founder of Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol. “He was such a sweet person – nobody had anything bad to say about him – and it’s tragically ironic that it was his death that brought the black and Jewish communities together to mourn this special person.”
At a press conference on Sunday, City Council Members Mike Nelson, Jumaane Williams and David Greenfield, along with State Senator Eric Adams and Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs, announced they would add several thousand dollars to the city’s $12,000 reward for information about Robinson’s killer.
Addressing himself to the gunman, Councilman Williams said, “This type of person [Robinson] can bridge communities, and you killed him. He’s gone.”
(Based on a number of tips, police reportedly brought in a possible suspect for questioning on Tuesday. As of Tuesday afternoon, however, the individual had not confessed to the crime.)
Writing on the African American-oriented website bvblackspin.com, Dr. Boyd Watkins, founder of the Your Black World Coalition, called Robinson “a role model for neighborhood children,” adding that “Even though he’s gone, it is really powerful to see how much of an impact he made in his neighborhood.”
“May Yoseph rest in peace,” Watkins concluded. “He is my hero.”
Robinson’s close friend Shais Rison eloquently summed up Robinson’s life and legacy. “Yoseph was proud to be a Jew and he was proud to be a Jamaican and he never let either aspect of his identity overshadow the other. His life was filled with compassion and selflessness. He did us proud both as a black man as well as a Jew of color.”
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In an interview with The Jewish Press just a little over two months ago (“Jamaican Hip-Hopper Turned Orthodox Jew,” June 11), Robinson said it was a chance encounter with a Hirsch English edition Chumash a little over a decade ago in a Judaica bookstore that sparked his “fundamental connection to Yiddishkeit.”
After converting under the auspices of the Los Angeles Beis Din – he described the process as a two-and-a-half year program that “centered on the weekly parshah, the halachos of Shabbos and kashrus, and the taryag mitzvos” – Robinson eventually made his way back to New York, where he’d been raised after coming to the U.S. as a twelve year old.
He spoke of his regiment of Torah study, noting he had “a chavrusah with whom I learn Mishnah Berurah, I learn parshah and mussar almost daily, and I have begun venturing into the mighty sea of Talmud.”
Asked about how he’d been treated by Brooklyn’s Orthodox community, he said, “For the most part my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and have treated me like members of their own family. These new lifelong friends are a true credit to Yiddishkeit, and beautifully fulfill the mitzvah of v’ahavtem es ha’ger.
“As in every community, however, there are biases that persist. I do get stares and occasionally hear some thoughtless comments, but I choose to focus on the positive.”
Though he described his experience – and the experience of other non-white Orthodox converts – as “heartwarming and enriching,” there were some issues involving what he termed “bias and unequal treatment.”
On that score, he felt “changes are necessary to allow a Yid such as myself, who happens to be dark-skinned, to feel secure and equally represented under the banner of Klal Yisrael.”
Nevertheless, he said if he had a message to potential convertsof any color or background it would be “if one is seeking spirituality, Judaism, practiced correctly, is the ideal vehicle for achieving that aim. I personally find it meaningful and fulfilling – but once you come aboard, keep in mind that while the Torah is flawless, people are not.”
(Supplemental reporting by Rabbi Yaakov Klass and Shlomo Greenwald)