Shomrim: Jewish Neighborhood Watch
A Private Police Force Grows in Brooklyn
By Gene Gallerano
WILLIAMSBURG– “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 20 years and have never seen a Shomrim command center,” the man said through a waft of cigarette smoke. Wearing a braided black and green kippah, white dress shirt and black trousers, the Orthodox Jewish man seemed to enjoy adding to the mystery. Bedford Avenue passes through the heart of the Haredi community in South Williamsburg and is the immediate area to begin the search for a patrol group that is simultaneously everywhere but hard to find.
Their insignia looks like the NYPD’s. Some drive private cars and some drive Interceptors, the same models that the NYPD drive that include lightbars that will flash red and blue. Yarmulkes on their heads, most wear uniforms that could easily be mistaken for a branch of the NYPD or federal agents, they are accompanied by the constant chatter on point to point radios clipped to their belts.
Social media and radio communication are the most potent weapons in the Shomrim security arsenal. Large patrol units of Orthodox Jewish males can mobilize in minutes. With volunteers also living in their neighborhood beats, this means a group of Haredi men have the ability to be alerted and activated with an immediate and overwhelming response and physical presence if necessary.
Brooklyn is the home of the largest Haredi community outside of Israel and the Shomrim, which means “guardian” in Hebrew, are made up of a group of Jewish civilian volunteer patrols in South Williamsburg, Flatbush, Borough Park and Crown Heights. They have spread to cities like Baltimore, Miami and even Northeast London.
While the Shomrim are widespread, the branches are not necessarily affiliated nor do they wield any power over other groups. Each group is responsible for their own resources which come through private donations, taxpayer funding (according to the New York City Council, the Flatbush Shomrim alone will receive over $35,000 for the 2020 fiscal year), and many donated man hours from its volunteers.
In the 1920’s, a young Jewish man, Police Captain Jacob Kaminsky, was walking on patrol when he was subjected to an off the cuff racial slur alleging he should have a salami instead of a nightstick under his arm. Kaminsky’s response was to start a branch of the Shomrim Society of New York to help preserve and protect the Jewish identity within the police force. The Shomrim Society is still in affect today with affiliates across the country.
The Crown Heights Shomrim, who created their group after alleged ineffective policing in their neighborhood, credit an ancient group called the Maccabees for their lineal formational roots. Maccabee means “the hammer,” and the Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebel warriors in the Seleucid Empire who rose up against the king of Seleucid after he tried to eradicate them because of their religious beliefs.
In Williamsburg, the Shomrim began in the late 1970’s over more than a racial slur about hard salami or ancient affairs. When a local Rabbi, Moshe Hoffman, discovered a man lying in a pool of blood after being attacked on the street, the Rabbi was spurred to action. He spoke to his congregation the next morning, and with the aid of his community, he began a new branch of the Shomrim. Other groups, not affiliated, separately funded and each with their own methods and 24 hour hotlines, soon followed in other parts of Brooklyn.
“The Bakery Boys” were a group of young Jewish bakers who did late night deliveries throughout the Borough Park neighborhood. Borough Park was then experiencing higher crime. Racial tensions simmered between the Jewish and African American communities.
When Moshe Gutman, 53, a marketer from Borough Park was growing up, he said “we didn’t have a ‘if you see something say something policy,’ we had ‘if you see something CHAPTZEM!”
If you see something CHAPTZEM!”
Yelling “Chaptzem” was a siren call to help and meant that “you jumped out of the house and gave chase when someone had knocked a hat off or pulled a purse away” from an Orthodox person, Gutman said.
The neighborhoods have changed since the Bakery Boys heyday. Today, though, there is still trouble, and the point-to-point radios still chatter.
In 2013, Taj Patterson, a young black teenager walking through the Williamsburg neighborhood, testified that he was attacked by a group of Hasidic men, including, allegedly, members of the neighborhood watch group. The group mistakenly believed Patterson was vandalizing cars on the evening of the attack and a fight ensued. Patterson was brutally beaten and lost an eye in the altercation.
A 911 audio recording from a woman who witnessed the attack reported seeing “like 20 Jewish men and 1 black kid” in the assault and that “traffic had even been stopped.”
Ultimately, the charges were dropped because of a lack of evidence over conflicting accounts of the incident and the victim’s inability to identify his attackers. In court, Patterson’s legal team argued that “the political power of the Orthodox Jewish community, which established the patrol, allowed the patrol to operate outside the law with impunity.”
The “political power” and “NYPD favors” allegations have been brought up in mainstream media, and in the courts, when trying to understand how this private community patrol group operates.
Alec Lichtenstein, a former Shomrim supervisor, was convicted on federal bribery and conspiracy charges in 2016 and worked with corrupt NYPD officers to illegally sell gun permits.
This case was part of a scandal that included top commanders like Deputy Chief Eric Rodriguez, the former commander of the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge, and Deputy Inspector James Grant, of the 72nd Precinct in Sunset Park.
Lichtenstein was sentenced to 32 months in prison. Some thought this sentence was too lenient, after the judge took his work with the Shomrim as a “community service into consideration when imposing the prison term.”
This is part of their psychological orbit. That there are insiders and outsiders.”
“This is part of their psychological orbit. That there are insiders and outsiders,” says Michael Lesher, a Orthodox Jewish journalist and attorney who represented multiple children and their families in sexual abuse allegations against a Brooklyn rabbi who is currently a fugitive hiding in Israel.
“When you watch any institution, the more answerable they are, the better they work internally.”
Lesher, a member of the Orthodox Jewish community “by choice,” insists that the nature and makeup of these communities must be taken into account when trying to understand an institution like the Shomrim. As a whole, the Jewish community has many institutions covering many areas of social services for their community and the Shomrim is only one facet.
While the Shomrim are not responsible for the alleged sexual abuse actions of this particular rabbi, the “nature of the problem is silence,” according to Lesher. Lesher argues that there is a practice of keeping things hidden from the NYPD when it comes to certain crimes within the community.
Not all members of the community share Lesher’s perspective.
“I think a lot of this misperception comes because of how we are covered,” says Rabbi Motti Seligson, director of media relations at the Chabad Lubavitch, also known as “770,” in Crown Heights.
Seligson’s office is at 770 Eastern Parkway. Located in Crown Heights, the site of the headquarters for the Chabad Lubavitch is on the main thoroughfare through a tree-lined and brownstone-filled section of Crown Heights.
Seligson is dismissive of the idea that “the community has to speak up for itself” to not be mistakenly labeled outside their community with “misnomers by journalists” like Lesher. Seligson also softens his stance, acknowledging that “when the community gets attacked from the outside, especially this community, they hunker down.”
However, the Shomrim have been accused of not always working cooperatively with the NYPD.
A high profile example came from the three hour delay to call the NYPD when 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky vanished on his way home from day camp on a street in the Hasidic section of Borough Park.
The Shomrim helped organize a search party that was estimated at 5,000 members of the Orthodox Jewish community. Kletzky had been dismembered by a troubled member of the community and this event was what many in the Borough Park community considered to be “their 9/11.” While the Shomrim helped substantially in the search effort, their decision to delay bringing in the NYPD immediately brought controversy to the organization.
While the Flatbush Shomrim field over 4,000 calls to their hotline a year and help facilitate over 200 arrests, consisting of mostly package thefts and car break ins, Bob Moskowitz, the senior coordinator of the Flatbush Shomrim, admits that some members of the Jewish community would rather call Shomrim before they call the NYPD. Especially, he says, when dealing “with domestics” – issues involving domestic violence within families in their private homes.
Even though the Flatbush Shomrim send their volunteers to police academy training programs, they are not substitutes for the NYPD. While people in the community might turn to Moskowitz and company before going to the NYPD, Moskowitz is adamant against any misconceptions about the Shomrim’s authority.
For domestic violence related calls where it could be “spousal, husband, wife, it could be with kids, kids at risk, kids beating on parents,” Moskowitz and a trained team specifically prepared for these types of calls will respond as long as there are no signs of a violent situation.
“Obviously if we get there and it’s violent, immediately 911 is being called, or, if we see that there’s a potential for violence after we leave, it’s 911. 100 percent it’s our protocol,” Moskowitz said, “You cannot leave a situation like that without calling the police department because if in a half hour later it turns out that somebody stabbed the husband, stabbed the wife or vice versa, and the cops come and ‘Oh, Shomrim was here’.”
Moskowitz’s team ranges in ages from 20 to 65. When it comes to certain crimes committed in the community, Moskowitz and his team’s “greatest weapon is their finger” and these calls have 911 on the receiving end.
Like Moskowitz with his branch of Shomrim training protocols, Rabbi Motti Seligson is quick to point out the educational programs rolled out in the Crown Heights schools and synagogues to make the community better aware of how to report on domestic violence and sexual abuse. These protocols, they hope, might combat situations where certain crimes go unreported to the NYPD.
“We are civilians. We’re not the police department. This is where patrols can get into trouble,” Moskowitz said.
The problem is when they forget who they are. We know exactly who we are. Please appreciate that. Know your place and just be eyes and ears and everything will work out just fine.”