The Shomrim: Gotham's Crusaders

They patrol Jewish neighborhoods with taxpayer money—but don't always clue in the police

The Shomrim: Gotham's Crusaders
Sean Phillips

Luzer Twersky still remembers the day he came back from shul to his Borough Park home to find his father waiting for him with an important question.

Twersky's father, a Hasidic rabbi, had just received a disturbing report. One of his employees had walked in on another rabbi, Duvid Greenfeld, molesting a young boy in the mikveh, the ritual bath.

Twersky's father knew that his young son had also studied with Greenfeld until the year before, when he moved to a different shul. He wanted to know if Luzer had seen anything similar from Greenfeld.

Background photo by Mert Sener
Luzer Twersky says he was victimized by a rabbi who later was caught by Shomrim in an other molestation incident that was never reported to police.
Emily Berl
Luzer Twersky says he was victimized by a rabbi who later was caught by Shomrim in an other molestation incident that was never reported to police.

He had.

"Greenfeld abused me from age nine to age 12," Twersky says, smirking bitterly. "My father asked me about it about a year after we ended our 'relationship,' if you want to call it that."

The man who caught Greenfeld red-handed in the mikveh was connected to the Shomrim, the community patrol that functions as a sort of auxiliary police force for the Hasidic and conservative Orthodox community in Borough Park.

But although the Shomrim are pledged to protect the innocent and work closely with police to catch criminals, that isn't what happened this time. Greenfeld was the son of a close adviser to Rabbi Mordechai David Unger, seen by many as the head of the Bobov Hasidic dynasty and one of the most influential men in Borough Park.

So when the Shomrim associate discovered the abuse, he told his rabbi and left the matter at that. The police never learned of the incident, and Greenfeld continued to teach in yeshivas, working with young children for a decade until he was finally arrested for molesting a 15-year-old boy in 2009.

Nine years after he watched the neighborhood protector turn a blind eye to Greenfeld's abuse, Twersky decided he had to leave the Hasidic community altogether. He left Borough Park, divorced his wife, and cut ties with his parents and friends.

Talking about the incident now, he says he doesn't hold any ill will against the man, still a member of the Shomrim today, who learned of Greenfeld's abuse and didn't tell the police.

"He's a good guy, in his way," Twersky says. "He's a baby who likes playing cops—that's a lot of what the Shomrim is. I've got nothing against patrolling a neighborhood, and they do a good job at it mostly: Borough Park is a very safe neighborhood for adults. It's just not very safe for kids."

The question of children's safety in Borough Park came under renewed scrutiny this summer in the aftermath of the grisly murder of Leiby Kletzky, the eight-year-old boy who vanished in Borough Park on his way home from camp.

Kletzky's parents called the Shomrim when he didn't make it home, and the organization flooded the neighborhood with a hundred volunteers searching for the boy. But Kletzky was never found alive, and when his dismembered body was ultimately discovered in the home of a Borough Park resident, the Shomrim found themselves in the center of a contentious debate.

Community leaders and politicians praised the way the Shomrim flooded the streets in search of the young boy, calling the response a source of community pride even in the face of terrible tragedy.

But critics noted that the Shomrim's efforts hadn't saved Kletzky or indeed even caught his killer. It was an unaffiliated concerned citizen, not the Shomrim, who thought to check the surveillance videos from local businesses that showed the boy being lured into the Honda of Levi Aron, a supply clerk who lived nearby.

More pressing was the question of why the Shomrim had waited three hours to notify the police of the missing boy. It wasn't until after Kletzky's parents had called 911 themselves that the Shomrim made contact with the NYPD.

Speaking to the press after Aron had been arrested and made a confession, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the Shomrim's delayed notification of police was a long-standing issue.

"We have no problem with the Shomrim being notified," Kelly said, "but we'd like to be notified as well."

But Kelly was careful not to antagonize the Shomrim, adding that the delay probably wouldn't have made a difference in the Kletzky case.

Jacob Daskal, the founder of the Borough Park Shomrim, agreed, but less diplomatically.

"It wouldn't have mattered," Daskal told The Wall Street Journal. "And the police wouldn't have come right away."

The first Shomrim group in Brooklyn started in Williamsburg in the late 1970s, as the fast-growing community of Hasidic and Eastern-European Orthodox Jews—collectively known as the Haredi community—sought to protect themselves from the petty crime then common in Williamsburg.

Shomrim means "watchers" or "guards" in Hebrew, and as the Williamsburg Jews carved out their own self-contained domain in the middle of Koch-era Brooklyn, guards were a good thing to have.

Soon the model was replicated in other Haredi outposts throughout Brooklyn. Today, there are independent, unaffiliated Shomrim groups in Williamsburg, Flatbush, and Borough Park. In Crown Heights, an acrimonious split among the Lubavitcher Hasids has led to the creation of two competing Shomrim groups.

Shomrim groups also patrol Haredi neighborhoods in Monsey, Baltimore, Miami, London, and elsewhere.

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