The Shomrim: Gotham's Crusaders

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

But in recent years, the number of documented incidents of sexual abuse in the Haredi community has grown too large to ignore.

High-profile cases, like those of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, Avrohom Mondrowitz, and Baruch Lanner, along with others, have peeled away the veneer of impossibility.

Hammering the point home is a small but influential group of blogs, including FailedMessiah, Un-Orthodox Jew, Daas Torah, and Unpious, that have documented the cases.

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.

"How influential are the blogs?" Blau asks. "We don't really know. But there's no question that they're penetrating into the world of people who don't officially look at the Internet but in fact do."

As the evidence accumulates, the denial has worn away, Blau says.

"Now there's pressure from below, from the laity in the community, that we have to deal with this problem. We're in the process of that shift now."

The process is slow. Once the consensus of the Haredi rabbis was that accusations of sexual abuse were never to be taken to the police. And while some, like the prominent Hasidic rabbi Menashe Klein, continue to take this position, others have beat a peculiar retreat.

In the middle of the search for Leiby Kletzky, Rabbi Schmuel Kamenetzky was recorded telling an audience that if a Jew is suspected of sexual abuse, it is the duty of the accuser to take the issue to a rabbi before a decision is made to involve the police.

Coming when it did, from a leading figure within Agudath Israel, a powerful umbrella organization for American Haredi Jews in America, the statement caused a stir. When asked if Kamenetzky's statement represented the official position of Agudath Israel, the group walked the position back—sort of: The police should be called if the evidence of abuse reaches a certain threshold, but not when it doesn't. So how is someone to know if the evidence reaches the proper threshold?

"The individual shouldn't rely exclusively on their own judgment," the statement reads. "Rather, he should present the facts to a Rabbi."

This new position, that sometimes it is appropriate to notify the police about sex abuse, but rabbis should be consulted, jibes perfectly with the Shomrim's position on reporting sex abuse.

Since telling the press that the Shomrim don't report sex abuse because rabbis won't let them, Jacob Daskal has taken to referring questions to a designated spokesman, but Simcha Bernath's clarification of Daskal's statement didn't make it any less troublesome.

"If someone calls us about sexual molestation, and it's certain, we make sure to tell them: 'Call the police,'" Bernath says. "But if they're not sure about it, that's something we don't get involved in. We're not detectives or prosecutors. If someone in that situation wants to talk to a rabbi instead of the police, he can talk to a rabbi."

Ben Hirsch says that in many of the cases his group has handled, the Shomrim go further than that, actively dissuading families from taking their accusations to the police.

Bernath denies that Shomrim ever try to talk families out of reporting sex abuse. Asked how many reports of abuse they handle in a year, he demurs.

"We don't keep stats," he says. "We're all volunteers. Nothing's computerized."

Even in cases where parents have gone to the precinct to report sexual abuse, the Shomrim still get involved, Hirsch says.

"The family will come in, and the precinct will actually call the Shomrim to help make sense of it," he says. "The Shomrim come down and try to finesse the situation."

By the time they're done, the complainants have often decided not to press charges after all.

"You have to understand the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear here," Hirsch says. "You're dealing with a community that's cradle to grave. People do not leave. Marriages are arranged. So in order for your family to maintain its social standing, you need to be working hand in hand with rabbinic leadership. If you mess up, report a teacher, embarrass the community, you'll deal with the consequences. Your children won't be accepted into schools. Basically, you're out of luck."

Faced with the prospect of total social isolation, it's no wonder many families decide not to press charges. That pattern made it harder to convince secular authorities to take the problem seriously, Hirsch says.

The debate over the Shomrim after the Kletzky murder reached a boil on July 30, when Michael Lesher, a lawyer from New Jersey who converted as an adult to Orthodox Judaism, wrote an incendiary piece for the New York Post calling the Shomrim "Jewish vigilantes" and calling for an end to their public funding.

Speaking to the Voice after the piece ran, Lesher said he doesn't question that the Shomrim does much important work. But as a lawyer who represents victims of sexual abuse, many from the Haredi community, he can't get over their role in suppressing reports of abuse.

"If these patrols are taking public money to do what they do in competition with the police force, and in violation of applicable law, then that's a serious matter."

In the days after his column ran, Lesher and the Post were deluged with comments from Haredim, some thanking him for his position, but many furious—not only at his position, but that he had articulated it in the secular mainstream media.

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