LostMessiah, April 18, 2016
With the arrest today of one Shomrim member for allegedly dealing in arms, perhaps it should not surprise us that history foresaw things to come. The following excerpts are from an article regarding the Shomrim, money and sexual abuse, cover-ups and failed good intentions.
On Wednesday, September 7, 2011, Nick Pinto wrote an article for the Village Voice entitled:
“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.”
“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 themikveh 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.”
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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.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.
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.
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?
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.”