The Shomrim: Gotham's Crusaders

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

The Borough Park Shomrim began in 1989 when several bakery workers found that they often encountered street crimes as they made their delivery rounds late at night.

"They decided they were going to do something about it, and they were pretty good at it," says Simcha Bernath, a spokesman for the Borough Park Shomrim. "They were just six or seven guys, but they were stopping break-ins, robberies, stuff like that."

More than 20 years later, the organization has grown to include more than 100 volunteers, equipped with two-way radios and flashing lights on their vehicles.

Attorney Michael Lesher: “If these patrols are taking public money to do what they do in competition with the police force . . . then that’s a serious matter.”
Emily Berl
Attorney Michael Lesher: “If these patrols are taking public money to do what they do in competition with the police force . . . then that’s a serious matter.”

The Shomrim tread a narrow line when they talk about their work. On the one hand, they are clearly proud of their success and the bravery they have shown in defense of their community. On the other hand, they are mindful of the delicate balance that exists in their relationship with the New York Police Department, and they are careful not to present themselves as an autonomous vigilante force.

"We're just the eyes and ears of the police and the community," Bernath says. "We're a bit of a 311 service. We help the elderly. People call us up with problems and we're there to help."

Bernath stresses the close relationship between the Shomrim and the 66th Precinct and frames his group's work as a supplement to the hard-working but understaffed NYPD.

"The NYPD doesn't have 10,000 cops in every precinct," Bernath says. "That means they have to work with a priority system: If they get a call about a guy with a gun, they'll prioritize that over someone calling because they're lost or something like that. If you're that second person, you might be waiting."

The Shomrim exist to fill that gap, Bernath says.

"Why don't people call 911? Because they want to see action right away, not get caught up in a lot of questions and answers," he says, adding quickly, "Not that that isn't the right way for the police to do it—who am I to say they shouldn't ask a lot of questions?"

The questions of a uniformed secular police force can actually be a problem for some residents, though.

"We have a major elderly population, and many of them are Nazi concentration camp survivors, and even though they love the United States, they still have that scaredness with the police," he says.

Add to this the fact that many residents find it easier to speak in Yiddish than in English, Bernath says, and the need for the Shomrim is clear.

But the Shomrim do more than just help old ladies cross the street. Bernath can't resist invoking the time in 2007 that the Borough Park Shomrim helped nab a gang of burglars who posed as water inspectors to get into the apartments of the elderly and trusting. The thieves had been on a tear through Brooklyn.

"The police, due to our great relationship, told us about this," Bernath says. "We found out about it on a Wednesday. On the Friday, we get a call over our hotline: 'We think these are the guys.'"

Making use of their unmarked cars, the Shomrim followed the van in question throughout the neighborhood for five or six hours, but it never made any suspicious moves. Finally, Bernath says, five men got out and entered a building. The Shomrim called the precinct commander, and when the men left the building with several apartments' worth of loot, the cops nabbed them.

"We had a great arrest," Bernath says. "If not for the Shomrim, it would never have happened."

The Shomrim are also prepared to put themselves in harm's way before police arrive.

Last fall, as children filled the streets of Borough Park for a religious celebration, the Shomrim got word that David Flores, suspected of masturbating in front of children in the neighborhood earlier in the day, was still cruising the area in his car.

When the Shomrim found him trapped in traffic, Flores fled on foot, carrying a gun. They tackled him, and in the resulting scuffle, four Shomrim members were shot, though none fatally.

The incident earned the group recognition from legislators—a state senator secured funding to get them bulletproof vests—and reinforced an image of the Shomrim as courageous, even swashbuckling defenders of the community.

"It was like a scene out of the movies," Jacob Daskel, a Shomrim member, told the New York Post.

If a recent recruiting video released by the Shomrim on YouTube is anything to go by, cinematic heroics in the face of evil outsiders is what the Shomrim live for.

In the 15-minute epic, spooky music plays as a suspicious-looking Hispanic man breaks into an apartment. A frightened child in a yarmulke hears him from his bedroom and stealthily calls the Shomrim. The call goes out, and soon SUVs and minivans equipped with sirens and flashing lights race through the streets. Some Shomrim storm the apartment from the front; others clamber acrobatically up the rear balcony. Soon, the perp is in custody, in the back of an NYPD squad car that seems only to have just arrived.

In the next segment, scenes of daily life in Borough Park—shopping for groceries, running a bakery, teaching a youngster the Torah—are intercut with shots of a black man walking down the street. When, inevitably, the black man steals a woman's purse, the Shomrim once again spring into action, abandoning their groceries, their bakery, and their student to give chase. The camera switches to slo-mo as one volunteer vaults a chain-link fence in his pursuit. In no time, the rueful-looking criminal is sitting defeated, surrounded by a circle of stern Shomrim.

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