Opinion: Did I Witness a Hate Crime in Manhattan’s Liberal Melting Pot?

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Handout
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Handout

Earlier this week, I was sipping a margarita and eating tapas with a new colleague at an outdoor restaurant on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, when I heard an unfamiliar thud.

This thud was followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground, and the clattering of eyeglasses on pavement. I turned to see a bearded man quickly stand up, put his yarmulke back on, and chase after an assailant who was walking a golden retriever.

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Then I heard a woman exclaim, “Oh my god, he hit the rabbi.”

The croquetas and patatas bravas no longer had our attention. Our night was taking a very sharp turn.

The young hostess at El Quijote was outraged. The Spanish restaurant is located next to the Chelsea Shul, a neighborhood synagogue founded in 1865. Apparently, Rabbi Chezky Wolff is a well-known figure and the thud turned out to be the sound of an L.L. Bean tote bag connecting with his head less than five yards from where we were sitting.

We’d been patrons; now, suddenly, we were witnesses to a potential hate crime and assault.

Immediately, customers in the restaurant jumped to their feet. A Black man gave chase. A British woman and her friends expressed outrage. And my colleague—a journalist—took off to see what was happening down the street. There was a real sense of indignation on the terrace. “This is New York City,” the British woman said, “and there’s antisemitism all around us.”

After the initial confusion, details started to fill in. Wolff had followed the tote bag-wielding assailant and filmed him entering the Carteret, a swanky apartment building just down the street. Then Wolff returned to the scene of the attack and spoke to a group of us.

A photo illustration showing a celebrity stylist who attacked a rabbi in New York.
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Handout

According to Wolff, he observed a golden retriever off its leash trying to enter his temple around 7 p.m. Wolff asked the dog’s owner with the tote to put the dog on a leash. The dog owner allegedly responded, “Why?”

Wolff explained that city law requires all dogs on sidewalks and public places to be leashed. That’s when the dog owner allegedly hurled a slur at Wolff and walked away.

Then, Wolff says, he whipped out his camera to document the situation. He trailed the man and his dog for about 30 feet right to the spot where I was enjoying a cocktail until I heard that thud.

Surveillance video clearly shows a man with a blue baseball hat, sunglasses, untucked white shirt, blue pants, loafers (no socks), and a tote alongside a golden retriever with no leash. It also shows Wolff with his phone trailing the man, who turns and suddenly swings his tote at Wolff, hitting him in the head, and knocking him down.

The police and an ambulance arrived quickly. Some patrons had to go and offered their numbers and whereabouts to provide statements if necessary. Wolff showed us his shaky video, which documented the physical encounter. He also invited me to join the Chelsea Shul, which he described as “a vibrant community.”

I’ve seen a lot as a journalist and traveler, but this incident was particularly unsettling.

A photo illustration showing a celebrity stylist attacking a rabbi in New York.
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Handout

A man with a golden retriever and a tote had just bashed a rabbi to the ground. And then, like nothing had happened, he just kept strolling along West 23rd Street in Chelsea, a liberal enclave in a melting-pot city. Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil,” and I guess it doesn’t get more banal than an attacker wielding an L.L. Bean tote while out walking the dog.

The next day, we discussed the incident at the morning news meeting at The Daily Beast. The New York Post had already published a short story accompanied by Wolff’s video. But Tote Bag Man had not been identified yet.

Within hours, The Daily Beast’s reporters were able to track down the 52-year-old dog owner as Aleksander Janik, which led us to the Instagram account of this self-described celebrity stylist. Janik’s page displays photos with notables including Tom Hanks, James Corden, David Letterman, and Mayor Eric Adams (who incidentally visited the rabbi’s shul last year.) It also shares a quote: “It’s okay if you don’t like me. Not everyone has good taste.”

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Michael Daly, a veteran reporter for The Daily Beast, visited Janik and asked for comment. Janik’s account differed wildly from Wolff’s. Janik claimed the rabbi had kicked his dog, Hudson. Then upon hearing Janik’s Polish accent, the rabbi called him a derogatory name, Janik alleges.

Janik says he didn’t like being followed by the rabbi with a camera and acknowledges pushing Wolff in self-defense.

Janik also denies being an antisemite or using a slur. “I’m Jewish. I love Jewish. I love Jews,” Janik said. “My grandmother was in Auschwitz,” he added. In a separate interview with the New York Post, Janik’s story shifted. He’s half-Jewish, he said. His mother is Jewish although he doesn’t practice any religion. And on his Instagram, he shared: “You don’t have to be Palestinian to care about what’s happening in Gaza. I stand with Palestine. No one is free until everyone is free.”

Rabbi Chezky Wolff speaks with police officers responding to the scene.
Ben Sherwood

Contacted by The Daily Beast, Wolff’s lawyer Cary London insisted Janik’s account is “a phony story.”

“The rabbi adamantly denies kicking the dog. There was no dog kicking,” London said. “The rabbi is the nicest guy in the world.”

I’ve been a journalist on and off for more than 40 years so I know how difficult it can be to get to the truth in stories involving conflict, accusations, and recriminations. We see this at scale between nations as well as between two men on a NYC sidewalk.

As I reflect on what happened on a beautiful late spring night in Chelsea, two facts are clear: One human being was knocked to the ground by another with a tote bag. And many people who witnessed the moment were upset and wanted to do something about it.

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It may now be up to the courts to judge between the different versions of their encounter. On Friday, police told The Daily Beast that they had arrested Janik at 10 a.m. and charged him with committing a hate crime, assault with injury, and assault with intent to cause injury. There was no word on how he pleaded to the charges as of press time. The story of the rabbi, the dog walker, and the swing of a tote bag still has twists to come.

Rabbi Chezky Wolff tells police officers what happened.
Ben Sherwood

But the immediate reaction of the bystanders on the street is one important part of this story that hasn’t been told. The news tends to focus on the anger and violence all around us in every city in the world. But in moments when it feels like we have lost our sense of community and decorum, the response from strangers reminded me that most people are kind and decent and will stand up to violence.

I’m not naive about these challenging times, but that night, when something shattered the peace on that New York street, something also restored it.

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