The Shomrim: Gotham's Crusaders

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

In the final scene of the video, which was released a week after Leiby Kletzky's dismembered body was found, the Shomrim are mobilized to find a missing child. In the video version, the search ends better than Kletzky's did. The Shomrim find the child safe and sound, and returned him to his grateful mother.

The YouTube video isn't just the Shomrim's paean to '70s cop shows. It's working toward a point:

"My dear friends, this undertaking is costly," a voice intones near the end of the clip. "Sure, there is a lot of volunteering on our part. However, who covers the monthly rent on our headquarters? The electric, heating, telephone bills? High-tech computer systems?"

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.

As it turns out, the answer, in large part, is New York taxpayers.

Although the Shomrim are hardly the only community patrol organization in the city, they are without peer when it comes to securing public money for their operation.

In the 2009–10 budget cycle, the Borough Park Shomrim took in $50,000 in member-item earmarks from state senators Diane Savino and Karl Kruger and New York State assembly member Dov Hikind.

They got another $42,500 this year in member items from city councillors. All told, Brooklyn's assorted Shomrim groups took in some $130,000 in member items from the New York City Council this year. Such is their funding situation that several Shomrim groups have been able to buy some fairly sophisticated equipment, including police-style mobile-command center trucks.

On the record, the Brooklyn politicians funding the Shomrim say it's just good sense to equip community watch organizations like the Shomrim, and point to the praise heaped on them by the police and the Brooklyn D.A.'s office.

Off the record, Brooklyn political players acknowledge another factor: The Shomrim have juice.

"There's no getting around the fact that this community has an enormous amount of power in Brooklyn politics," says one elected official who didn't wish to be identified for fear of alienating constituents. "They're the most disciplined voting bloc there is—people vote for who their rabbis tell them to vote for. That gives them a power totally out of proportion to their actual size. You can't run for office without kissing those rings."

That sort of influence certainly helps keep the Shomrim funded. It also makes it harder for elected officials and their appointees to push back when the Shomrim want to do things their way.

The most heat the Shomrim took in the aftermath of the Kletzky murder wasn't for failing to find the boy or for waiting too long to call the cops. It came with the revelation that the Shomrim actually maintain a list of suspected child molesters in the neighborhood that they will not share with police.

"The community doesn't go to the police with these names because the rabbis don't let you. It's not right," Shomrim coordinator Jacob Daskel told the Daily News shortly after Kletzky's body was found.

The statement resonated because it placed the Shomrim at the heart of an issue that has been bubbling in the Haredi community for the better part of a decade: a sex- abuse epidemic akin to the far more publi- cized scandal rocking the Catholic Church.

"The Shomrim have helped the police maintain a community that's mostly free of the shootings in the streets and crimes that usually end up in the media," says Ben Hirsch, a founder of the advocacy group Survivors for Justice. "But you do still have some of the terrible social crimes that police would normally be responding to. Instead, within these communities, these crimes are usually reported to Shomrim, and the Shomrim coordinators working together with Orthodox Jewish "community liaisons" cover it up, and it never gets to the cops."

Hirsch, an Orthodox Jew from Flatbush, founded Survivors for Justice in 2006 to help Haredi victims of sexual abuse.

"The problem is that for a very long time, the rabbinic leadership has refused to acknowledge the problem. You protect the offenders long enough, and over time you're going to create a safe environment for deviants."

The results have been predictable: Just as the church shuttled known pedophile priests from diocese to diocese rather than turning them over for prosecution, rabbis, youth leaders, and yeshiva teachers caught molesting children have been shielded from the secular justice system. Instead, at worst, they are called to account for themselves before rabbis, where the result is often a slap on the wrist and reassignment to another yeshiva.

"In Judaism, the notion of repentance is a very critical concept," says Rabbi Yosef Blau, who has sat on rabbinic boards investigating suspected sex abuse. "So when he goes before the rabbis, the accused will often say he may have done terrible things, but he's a religious person, and he's changed. The belief that people can change, that plays a large role in these decisions."

With incidents of abuse routinely swept under the carpet, the community has been slow to acknowledge the scope—or even the possibility—of the problem.

"You started out with a lot of denial," Blau says. "People thought, 'It can't be that people who look like us and are religious like us would do such horrible things to children.'"

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