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.
That much is well known. But what Shaer shows is that the division is even more acute in Crown Heights itself, where a brain drain has seen the young families from the Lubavitch mainstream leave Brooklyn to serve as emissaries in far-flung outposts, giving the messianists disproportionate sway over the movement’s spiritual headquarters. Crown Heights is a battlefield in an internecine war that’s mostly cold but sometimes flashes hot.
The moderate Shomrim are key players in the fight for the neighborhood. A bunch of working-class Lubavitchers headquartered in an auto body shop, they don’t fit the stereotype of the young Hasid tethered to his books. Though they patrol the streets in vehicles that look strikingly similar to real cop cars, they’re more like a gang, or perhaps a college frat, than a professional police force. They have a beef with just about everyone in the neighborhood: the messianist yeshiva boys, a rival patrol called the Shmira and even the police.
Shaer’s description of the relationship between the Shomrim and the local police precinct is particularly telling. In one scene, a local community affairs officer of the New York City Police Department asks the Shomrim to declare a truce with the Shmira, to accept police training and to submit their members for background checks. The Shomrim refuse.
Shaer writes that “the average Hasid preferred to be policed and protected by his own. A security patrol vetted and trained by the city would really just be a proxy for the city and therefore somehow tainted.”
Things get hot for the Shomrim after they turn down the police department offer. For a group of men dedicated to a lifestyle apart from contemporary society and culture, their wartime tactics are surprisingly modern and high-tech. An anonymous blog, presumably run by the Shomrim, bashes the Shmira online. Shmira members take to interfering with Shomrim radio channels, so the Shomrim hire an expert to use advanced radio equipment to catch them in the act.
Perhaps most shockingly for the insular Lubavitchers, the fight makes its way to the New York court system. Prosecutors bring a criminal case against the Shomrim over the dormitory brawl, with help from men sympathetic to the Shmira — a stunning development in a community that has its own parallel religious legal processes and strict mores against airing disputes before secular courts.
Throughout, Shaer reveals the messy underbelly of Lubavitch Crown Heights with the language and pacing of the true-crime genre. He creates compelling characters out of the dispute’s colorful central figures, and expertly weaves context with narrative, though at times Shaer’s descriptions are overwrought: One cop’s desk is piled with “enough paper to power a Kinko’s joint for six years”; an Israeli speaks English with a “chewy” accent.
More significantly, the dormitory fight that is the book’s centerpiece is a messy, complex case. There’s no clean ending here. Though a state jury hands down a decision, the questions that remain about the fight and its motivations could leave a reader feeling frustrated even after the book ends with the “vindication” promised in the title. But the complexity of the story is not Shaer’s fault, and his distillation of the broad crisis facing the Lubavitch community is a compelling one.
As for the wider implications for Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox security patrols, Shaer’s book goes some distance toward humanizing the Shomrim. But the author does little to assure us of their competence. For these independent Jewish security patrols, it seems that their independence is as much the point as their security work.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer at the Forward.