Boro Park’s Orthodox neighborhood patrol group, known informally as the shomrim — Hebrew for watch guards — has faced increased media scrutiny in the past few weeks over its role in the investigation of the killing of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky on July 12. At issue is the fact that Kletzky’s disappearance was first reported to the shomrim at least two hours before secular law enforcement officials were brought onto the scene, raising a host of “what ifs” about whether the murder might have been prevented. The controversy has raged even as New York Police Department commissioner Raymond Kelly told the New York Times that the time lag did not matter in the Kletzky case.
The debate has been roiling in the pages of the Jewish press since Hella Winston probed shomrim practices in the New York Jewish Week. More recently, it has spilled into the secular media. On August 1, Orthodox lawyer Michael Lesher published an indictment of the Jewish neighborhood patrols in the New York Post, asking, “Does anyone truly believe that Orthodox Jewish vigilantes like Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol, the Williamsburg Safety Patrol and the Smira Civilian Volunteer Patrol of Borough Park—all of them on the take for budget dollars in 2012—do the city a better service?”
On Sunday, the Post followed up with an editorial calling on the New York City Council to defund the shomrim and other patrols in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods that were collectively allocated some $130,000 in the 2012 budget: “They don’t have the same skills as the NYPD; in serious incidents, they can be as much a hindrance as a helping hand.”
Since the publication of his article, Lesher has been criticized in emails and phone calls for airing the Orthodox community’s dirty laundry in the mainstream press. In one email, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld of Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills accused Lesher of committing “messira [sic].” One who commits messirah is a moser, a traitor who reports other Jews to the secular authorities. Under some interpretations of halacha, or traditional Judaic law, the crime of being a moser is punishable by death. Though the law is considered a relic, Yigal Amir, the man who gunned down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, told police authorities that he saw Rabin as a moser, which justified his assassination of the prime minister. Amir said that he was influenced by right-wing rabbis who used the term.
“…your article may prove to be one of the most treacherous acts of messira [sic] in modern times…next to Goldstone,” Schonfeld wrote to Lesher in a message last Sunday using his Orthodox Union email address, a group for which he does consulting work. Richard Goldstone is the Jewish jurist whose eponymous report for the U.N. on Israeli and Palestinian war crimes in the 2008 Gaza War has been condemned by some as traitorous.
“My question to you as an Orthodox Jew is, what compelled you to write an article in the secular press trashing out fellow Jews?”
Reached over the phone, Schonfeld said that he was not invoking the halachic understanding of messirah in his email to Lesher, nor did he wish him harm. Rather, he meant to tell Lesher that he what he did was “treacherous” in that it could turn non Jews against Jews. Schonfeld said he was not aware of the use of the term moser by Yigal Amir.
“He should not have gone to the public with internal problems to the Jewish community before he attempted to resolve it internally,” he said.
In a phone interview with the Forward, Lesher said that criticizing the shomrim in the secular press was indeed a different undertaking than doing so in the Jewish press. If the general public sees the shomrim as hindering law enforcement efforts, he said, then perhaps the Orthodox leadership will be forced to answer to this scrutiny.
“Perhaps the primary reason that community leadership insists that you cannot publicize these issues in a format that the larger public will read is that they know that this is the one thing that can force them to change,” Lesher said.
Shining a Light on Orthodox Safety Patrols in the Secular Press
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.