The Shomrim: Gotham's Crusaders

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

By Nick Pinto

published: September 07, 2011

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?"

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.'"

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.

"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.

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."

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."

npinto@villagevoice.com