The Shomrim: Gotham's Crusaders

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

One e-mail Lesher received came from Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, an officer of the Orthodox Union, one of the oldest Orthodox organizations in America, best known for its kosher certification on food.

"My question to you as an Orthodox Jew," Schonfeld wrote, "is what compelled you to write an article in the secular press trashing our fellow Jews? Especially in a media which is notorious for its hatred of Orthodox Judaism? Why couldn't you keep your comments to yourself? If you needed to unburden yourself, write in the Jewish Week for G-d's sake which would be all too glad to print an anti-Ortho diatribe. Haven't we Jews ever learned that when we spill our laundry in the non Jewish public it only comes to haunt us?"

Clearly upset, Schonfeld went on: "Your article may prove to be one of the most treacherous acts of mesira in modern times."

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.

Schonfeld's invocation of mesira, the religious prohibition on betraying another Jew to government authorities, touched on something at the heart of the ongoing debate inside the Haredi community, not only about how it treats sex abuse, but about how it will relate with the city and country around it.

In Talmudic commentary, mesira is a crime against the community, punishable by death, without any form of trial.

To many, the concept is an artifact of another time, when Jews reasonably feared the actions of prejudiced regimes.

But in the Haredi community, which largely came to the United States after World War II, suspicion of the outside world remains strong.

"They tend to look at the U.S. government as just another government that's hostile to them," Blau says.

Indeed, it is partly the prohibition on mesira that encourages Brooklyn Haredim to call the Shomrim rather than the police. And it is mesira that Haredi rabbis invoke to justify the ban on reporting child abusers to the secular authorities.

"Mesira was applied centuries ago, in anti-Semitic societies," says Blau. "If you acknowledge that American society is democratic and not fundamentally anti-Semitic, mesira is a non-issue."

Haredi rabbis aren't convinced. After decades of carefully building communities walled off from the secular city around them, communities built on Jewish law and respect for rabbinical authority, communities so self-sufficient that they have their own police forces, it's not clear what these communities will become if the outside is let in. So even as more rabbis acknowledge that in certain cases it is the right and lawful thing to call the police on a fellow Jew, many still insist on their authority to determine when to do so.

The death of Leiby Kletzky at the hands of one of the Borough Park's own caught the community in freeze-frame, in the midst of this transition. And close to the center of the picture, because of their role as enforcers of the community's internal rules and its protectors from external threats, stand the Shomrim.Like Luzer Twersky, who doesn't want to publicly identify the Shomrim member who kept his abuse as a boy quiet, even the harshest critics of the Shomrim see the volunteers patrolling the neighborhood as just a part of a bigger problem.

"The problem isn't the Shomrim," Hirsch says. "But the Shomrim are a symptom of the problem the community is still grappling with. And because of the role they play, they systematize that problem, too."

Blau agrees: "The emergence of the Shomrim reflect a community that doesn't believe they're going to be protected by the police. Is that belief going to change? We don't know."

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