Opinion: Baltimore Violence Raises Questions About Jewish Patrol

The Shomrim, a familiar sight in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, serve as a patrol force in Orthodox and Hasidic communities, where distrust of police runs high. (Photo from bpshomrim.org via The Jewish Daily Forward)

In early May, a circuit court judge in Baltimore found the 24-year-old Eliyahu Werdesheim guilty of beating a black teenager, Corey Ausby, in a case that drew comparisons to that of George Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Prosecutors say that Werdesheim and his brother, Avi, beat Ausby with the butt of a two-way radio. Werdesheim says he was acting in self-defence, and that Ausby threatened him with a nail-studded board.

Werdesheim was part of a local Shomrim, or all-volunteer Orthodox Jewish security patrol. The Shomrim is a familiar sight in Brooklyn’s predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, and have sometimes been the focus of resentment here (as described in this Ippies-award-winning video produced by The Jewish Daily Forward, which says that the Shomrim in Crown Heights have been “publicly criticized for singling out people of color”). In Baltimore too, tensions swirled around race and preferential treatment — “If the culprits were African American, some people feel justice would’ve been swifter,” the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Baltimore said.

Matthew Shaer, the author of the book “Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights,” explored the role of the Shomrim in an opinion piece for The Jewish Daily Forward:

The spectacle was new for Baltimore, where the Shomrim are a relatively recent phenomenon: According to the official website of the Shomrim of Baltimore, the patrol was founded in 2005. It would not have been new for Brooklyn, where Hasidic anti-crime organizations have been active for decades. For the most part, the Shomrim — from the Hebrew for “watchers” — are viewed as a benevolent presence. They fix flat tires, maintain order at parades and religious events and organize foot patrols to track down missing individuals. (Famously, the Boro Park Shomrim managed to rapidly mobilize hundreds of residents after the 2011 disappearance of Leiby Kletzky, a young Hasidic boy eventually found murdered.)

The Baltimore incident raised the question of how far a community’s own safety patrol should go, Schaer writes.

But even in Hasidic communities, there is an acknowledgement that the Shomrim sometimes overstep their bounds. And no wonder: The very thing that makes the Shomrim the Shomrim — the two-way radios, the squad cars, the sense of authority — has long made the organization a magnet for troublemakers and would-be tough guys.

Shaer writes that the Shomrim describe themselves as intermediaries, or “liaisons between city and community,” and that they were born of the ultra-Orthodox distrust of city police.

Three years ago, when I first began researching a book on the Shomrim, I was surprised to hear otherwise levelheaded Hasidic acquaintances tell me that in the case of an emergency, they would notify the Shomrim first, and only later — if at all — the New York City Police Department. In areas hit particularly hard by crime and patrolled only lightly by police, the Shomrim are often seen as providing an essential bulwark against “outside” elements, which are almost always black or Hispanic. In a best-case scenario, the Shomrim can get to a crime scene before the authorities and provide essential data to the police.

The history of the Shomrim is rooted in vigilantism, Shaer writes. It began when a Lubavitcher rabbi founded the Crown Heights Maccabees in the 1960s, alarming the NYPD, who pressured the rabbi to shut down this original Hasidic police force. But even after the group was re-formed as the Shomrim, members were often accused of — and sometimes prosecuted for — assault.

In fact, poring over news clippings and magazine reports, a simple pattern repeats with alarming regularity: One or more patrol members allegedly attacks an African-American man; black leaders allege injustice; the front pages of the tabloids spill over with indignant headlines; the city and police promise a crackdown, and inevitably, after six months or a year, the outrage fades. The Shomrim remain intact.

Partially, this is a matter of the aforementioned community support for the patrols. And partially, it’s a matter of politics. Although authorities have often pursued individual members of the Shomrim, they have signaled unwillingness to go after the organization in any systematic way — a nod, undoubtedly, to the sizable clout of the Hasidic and Orthodox voting blocs.

But reform is possible, Shaer argues. The Shomrim can best serve the community by establishing friendly relations with police, he writes, to allow for a two-way flow of information between officers and the community.

Criminal offenders must be punished to the full extent of the law. But improved relations between police and Shomrim could go a long way toward preventing another assault like the one on Corey Ausby.

As well as the video produced by The Jewish Daily Forward on Crown Heights two decades after the racial riots that scarred that community, WNYC produced a piece by four Caribbean teens in Crown Heights, who seek insight from the seemingly elusive Lubavitch Jews that share their streets about the stereotypes and myths on both sides of the ethnic divide.

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