Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights
By Matthew Shaer
Wiley, 256 pages, $25.95
When 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky went missing in Brooklyn last June, it took two hours for anyone in Leiby’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood to inform the police. The local volunteer Jewish security patrol heard almost immediately.
The patrol, known as the Shomrim, organized a massive posse to search Boro Park for the boy. But it was the police who found him days later — hacked to pieces, in a nearby dumpster and in the alleged murderer’s freezer.
Jewish security patrols have existed for decades in Orthodox enclaves in New York, but few have received as much outside attention as the Boro Park volunteers in the days after Leiby’s murder. Early on, the Shomrim’s rapid response drew praise, but after the praise came questions, some of them damning.
A new book by former Christian Science Monitor staff reporter Matthew Shaer goes some way toward explaining why Leiby’s parents didn’t call the cops when they lost their child. In Hasidic Brooklyn, the Jewish Orthodox security patrol is more than just a neighborhood watch: A powerful local force, it is central to communal identity, and in a community eager to preserve its insularity, it forms a buffer against secular authorities.
Shaer’s book, “Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights,” doesn’t deal directly with the Shomrim of Boro Park. Instead, it looks at a Lubavitch neighborhood in Crown Heights and digs deep into the culture and context of a similar patrol that operates there.
In December 2007, the Crown Heights Shomrim stormed a yeshiva dormitory unprovoked, thrashing yeshiva boys in a large-scale gang attack. Or perhaps the Shomrim themselves were ambushed, set upon and outnumbered after being lured into a trap. The brawl in room 107 at 749 Eastern Parkway — and the ongoing dispute about what actually happened there — is at the center of Shaer’s story. The implications of the fight ripple across Crown Heights and the entire Lubavitch empire.
The yeshiva boys and the Shomrim are on opposite sides of a rift within the Lubavitch movement over the memory of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement’s charismatic rebbe, who died in 1994. While the Lubavitch establishment fears that expression of the messianic hopes that continue to surround Schneerson might scare away nonobservant Jews, fervent radicals like the yeshiva boys are swept up in the hope of imminent redemption. Without a strong successor to heal the rift, the split has grown severe.