Jewish street patrols curb crime – and generate controversy
Hasidic groups in New York patrol religious neighborhoods in marked cars, but they occasionally clash with outside groups and even among themselves.
The disheveled man looks momentarily confused. He’s wearing a puffy red coat that looks as if it was salvaged from the city dump. “Are you guys cops?” he asks.
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He’s been set upon by four Hasidic Jews in the center aisle of House and Home Hardware on Flushing Avenue, a commercial strip that runs through the Hasidic section of Williamsburg in Brooklyn – a neighborhood uncanny for its resemblance to a 19th-century shtetl.
The man’s presence is as misplaced as a Hell’s Angel in Amish country. But it’s not just the grimy clothes that make him unwelcome: His pants are inexplicably torn open, exposing his boxer shorts to the frightened Hasidic patrons he’s been begging for money.
With bushy beards and black yarmulkes, the four Jews entreating the vagabond do so with an air of authority. Their intimidating posture, coupled with the two-way radios that hang from their belts, elicits the man’s question again: “Are you guys cops?”
“Just get out of here,” he’s told, with an expletive thrown in to convey gravity. The man leaves and order is returned to the shop.
The four enforcers may not be members of the New York Police Department, but to the hardware store manager, if they’re not exactly the law, they’re certainly keepers of the peace. They’re members of a volunteer civilian patrol called Shomrim (Hebrew for “watchers”), which, in addition to Williamsburg, has independently run chapters in Crown Heights, Flatbush, and Borough Park – all Brooklyn enclaves densely populated by religious Jews.
Some people see them as a model for helping curb urban crime, though others fault them for clashing with outside groups – and even among themselves.
Shomrim is not your typical neighborhood watch. For starters, the groups have a 24-hour hot line and dispatcher, their own marked vehicles, and a track record for dealing with everything from assault and battery to domestic violence.
“Everything that happens in the world happens here,” says Yossi Pollack, a senior Shomrim member, as we drive through the streets of Williamsburg peering down alleyways. “Our telephone number is just like 911 – they call us for everything.”
It raises the question: In a city like New York, with one of the largest and most respected police forces in the world, why not just call the cops directly when a problem arises?
“A lot of people in the community are a little apprehensive of the police,” says Binyomin Lifshitz, who, along with fellow Shomrim member Gadi Hershkop, took me on a separate ride-along in Crown Heights. “They don’t want to interact with the police unless they absolutely have to.”
And when that happens, adds Mr. Hershkop, “Shomrim is like the liaison between the community and the police.”
The members of these Jewish enclaves feel more comfortable dealing with their own, both for language (Hebrew and Yiddish are prevalent) and cultural reasons. Furthermore, many are descendants of Eastern European and Russian shtetls, where, more often than not, it was the authorities who were behind their persecution.
Like the traditional dress, language, and customs sustained in these communities for centuries, apprehensions of law enforcement endure, too.
Community leaders also worry about the police getting involved and locking up someone who might not deserve it. When it comes to Jew-on-Jew crime, Crown Heights Shomrim will always consult a rabbi before involving the police.
“It’s been for centuries that Jews settle matters internally,” says Mr. Lifshitz.
Yet the main focus of Shomrim seems to be protecting Jews from non-Jews. Williamsburg’s patrol, in fact, was started in 1977 by Rabbi Moshe Hoffman because he was tired of seeing fellow Jews fall victim to violent muggings.