Vigilante Justice and the Jews

Baltimore Conviction Puts Shomrim in Spotlight

Wary of Outsiders: Distrust of the police in Orthodox and Hasidic worlds runs extremely deep. Shomrim members, all volunteers, usually describe their roles as those of intermediaries, liaisons between city and community.
Courtesy of bpshomrim.org
Wary of Outsiders: Distrust of the police in Orthodox and Hasidic worlds runs extremely deep. Shomrim members, all volunteers, usually describe their roles as those of intermediaries, liaisons between city and community.

By Matthew Shaer

Published May 13, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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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.

In the 1960s, a Lubavitcher rabbi named Samuel Schrage founded the Crown Heights Maccabees, the original Hasidic anti-crime patrol. The police, alarmed by the presence of untrained vigilantes, put steady and unrelenting pressure on Schrage to shut down the Maccabees. Later the organization reformed as the Shomrim, but the scent of controversy followed the members still; over the next four decades, Shomrim members were routinely accused of — and often arraigned 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.

These days, there are dozens of Jewish anti-crime patrols across the country and abroad — in New York, Miami Beach, London and Australia. They are extremely unlikely to fade away.

But they can be reformed. And not by force or prosecution, but with a little effort from city officials. History suggests that the most effective Shomrim patrols are the ones that maintain an active and friendly relationship with the local police. This is the case, for instance, in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Boro Park, where police often speak approvingly of the Shomrim patrols, and in Crown Heights, where the local precinct house has cleared a room for members to congregate. In exchange, the Shomrim patrols keep the NYPD informed of their activities, and up to date on happenings inside the community. And they seem increasingly less likely to operate outside the bounds of the law.

An NYPD official in Brooklyn once told me that as soon as he was assigned to the neighborhood, he made it his job to learn by name and face the ranks of the Shomrim and to encourage those men to come to him, to share information, to open up a conversation. He worried — correctly, I think — that by cracking down on only the Shomrim, he would open up a gulf between the Jewish patrol and the NYPD. It was better to stay “friendly,” he said.

Obviously, friendliness is not a catch-all: 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.

Matthew Shaer is the author of “Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights” (Wiley, 2011). He writes regularly for New York magazine.


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