By Alex Alper
Last month, four men allegedly surrounded an Israeli man who was visiting Crown Heights for the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur and punched him in the face. The man, 36, knocked on the door of a nearby Jewish home at midnight. The residents called Shomrim, a group of orthodox Jewish men who patrol the neighborhood. The Shomrim arrived at the scene and called police, who are investigating it as a possible hate crime. All four assailants were black.
The incident occurred on Crown and Albany streets, just a few blocks from the intersection where nineteen years ago, a Rabbi in a station wagon struck and killed a black child, sparking three days of rioting, looting, and a murder, which thrust the Brooklyn neighborhood into the national spotlight.
Crime and racial conflicts have dropped dramatically since the 1991 riots. But Binyomin Lifshitz, a 24-year-old computer programmer, who responded to the call from the Isreali says, “It’s a false sense of security.” He said the attack on the Israeli shows the Shomrim still serve an important function for area Jews, many of whom barely speak English and are afraid to call the police.
“Jewish people who are in this neighborhood come from Russia and Eastern Europe, not from a democratic culture,” said Lifshitz. “People have instilled this mindset where they are not very trusting of the police regardless of anything.”
Last month, a Borough Park Shomrim patrol approached a man accused of fondling himself in front of children in a Borough Park playground. The man had a gun and fired at the four Shomrim members, wounding all four, though none of the wounds were life threatening.
Brooklyn Democratic Senator Eric Adams pledged to donate five bulletproof vests to the group, whose members are always unarmed.
Shomrim is a volunteer patrol group that responds to reports of ongoing criminal activity, such as armed robbery and burglary, and helps citizens with routine problems such as locked and stalled cars.
Serving as a “liaison between the police and the community,” Shomrim members instruct crime victims to call the police and provide translation when they file a police report if the victims do not speak English. If the crime act is ongoing, Lifshitz said, Shomrim may chase the alleged perpetrator, and, if they catch him, perform a citizen arrest—surrounding him, and saying “anything to him to buy time until the cops come.” If they don’t catch him, or think giving chase is too dangerous, they simply call the police.
Shomrim claims an average response time of 1.5 minutes, 2.7 minutes faster than precinct cops. They work on the Sabbath and holidays, although Jewish law generally prohibits it. They have no weapons, they say, because weapons could be used against them.
Adams says the Shomrim are a needed supplement to the declining numbers of police patrolling the neighborhood.
“Our police department now has been stripped to the maximum,” said Adams, a former officer. “The only way to complement the crime-fighting operation is to have these community civilian patrols.” He said the NYPD has lost more than 6,000 officers citywide since 2001.
The organization was established in the 1960s to protect Jews living in a mixed race neighborhood with high murder rates, then expanded after the 1991 riots, and now claims to serve the whole community, irrespective of race. Of 125,000 Crown Heights residents, almost three quarters are black.
“We are here to diffuse the tension,” said Gadi Hershkop, a 36-year-old school bus driver who joined Shomrim during the ’91 riots. “When I roll now, and I see a lady get robbed, I don’t care if she is white, black, Hispanic. We’re colorblind.”
That’s why Shomrim responds to car crashes, Lifshitz said. “In a car crash everyone’s emotions are compromised and adrenaline is running,” he said. “It took a car crash to spark the ’91 riots.” Hershkop said he broke up a physical fight between a Hispanic couple and unlocked the cars of two African American women.
But while the Shomrim proclaims its positive impact on race relations, some black Brooklyn leaders are skeptical.
“Every black youth that [the Shomrim] see in hip hop gear is a criminal,” said City Councilman (D-Brooklyn) and gubernatorial hopeful Charles Barron, a former Black Panther. “They [Shomrim] get preferential treatment from the police department and they try to agitate and intimidate black citizens.”
Barron pointed to the 2008 beating of Andrew Charles, a twenty-year-old black college student who was assaulted by two white men wearing yarmulkes. They approached him on the street, said “Do you have a problem?” tear gassed him, and beat him on his back and arm with a nightstick, sending him to the hospital. Yitzhak Shuchat, one of the alleged perpetrators, then fled to Israel.
Charles’ attackers were member of Shmira, a splinter group that left Shomrim in the late 1990s, according to Hershkop.
“The [Shmira] take in a lot of kids and do a lot of stupid things,” said Hershkop. “We take a lot of heat for their stupidities.” Yet Hershkop acknowledges he was only 16 when he was allowed to join Shomrim, around the time of the riots. An age floor of 18 is now strictly adhered to, he said, while many Shmira members are below that age.
Shmira was unavailable for comment.
Even though it was Shmira members who assaulted Charles, the Shomrim have their share of run-ins with the law. In 2007, a fight over a bed among students in an Orthodox Jewish school devolved into a fight between Messianic and non-Messianic Jews. Shomrim was called, and Hershkop, Lifshitz and four other members arrived at the scene. A scuffle ensued. Hershkop was convicted of a misdemeanor for third-degree assault.
Hershkop said Shmira members rigged the fight to entrap and implicate the Shomrim, he said, in an attempt, to “silence us forever.”
Despite incidents like the 2007 conviction, Charles Green, a black Medgar Evers College political science professor and a lifelong resident of Crown Heights, does not think poorly of the Shomrim. “The existence of the Shomrim does not increase ethnic tensions. Every now and then they step out of line, but by and large they run well.”
Senator Adams agreed. “We all recruit from the community at large,” said Adams. ”There are good apples and bad apples. You don’t judge the whole based on the actions of a few.”
Murder and rape in Crown Heights are up 50 percent and 36 percent so far this year, according to NYPD figures. Anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City increased 14.4 percent in 2009 over the previous year. The recent start of the trial of four men accused of attempting to bomb a synagogue in the Riverdale section of the Bronx is a reminder of the persistence of anti-Semitic crimes in the city.
Still, Hershkop says most of the calls he receives are not for hate crimes. “If a guy needs money, he is robbing somebody. If a Jew walks by, he is going to get it.”
But not all of the crimes Hershkop deals with are serious.
He once helped a child out of handcuffs and untangled another from a seat belt. “The mother is weeping, and I’m smiling because it is funny to see the kid in a pretzel like that.”
“They do help other people,” said Green. “Their main goal is protecting the Hasidic community, but they don’t distinguish.”