Watchmen: The Shomrim Who Patrol Orthodox Brooklyn
Shomrim—controversial Jewish neighborhood watch groups—patrol the Orthodox enclaves of Brooklyn, where safety’s battles are fought along exclusive ethnic and community lines
Joseph “Yossi” Pollack, the senior coordinator of the Williamsburg Shomrim, keeps his cell phone holstered to his belt like a handgun. A bus driver by occupation, he’s also been a member of the shomrim, or neighborhood watch, since its inception more than a quarter of a century ago. But in the yellow glow of a basement office on Heyward Street in the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg, New York, Pollack looks like a detective from a Robert Mitchum movie. Dressed in a white, short-sleeved shirt and black suspenders that keep his pants hanging at least two inches above his shoes, he keeps his brown eyes in a permanent squint and walks with a limp—the result of a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis. Pollack doesn’t speak so much as growl. “I can’t say that I know everybody in the community,” he says with a cough. “But I can say that everybody knows me.”
Scattered across the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of Flatbush, Borough Park, Crown Heights, and Williamsburg, the independent shomrim are ancient organizations trapped in a 21st-century game of tug of war. As a kind of shtetl police, the groups are devoted to protecting its streets, its secrets, and, ultimately, the Hasidim who share them. But as neighborhood watch groups, the shomrim must meet the legal and social demands of secular society. Caught in the middle are its patrol members—men by turns open and reserved, trusting and deeply paranoid. Despite a confluence of traditional indicators such as high unemployment and recession, national crime rates hover (puzzlingly) at their lowest in 40 years. Still, the shomrim continue to prove their unofficial value to the New York Police Department even as the relationship between the organizations can occasionally grow contentious. Just last week, the neighborhood watch in Crown Heights, also in Brooklyn, posted a complaint that they were victims of a targeted ticketing campaign, totaling over $3,000 in fines, by officers of the NYPD’s 71st Precinct. As New York plunges into another long, hot summer, the shomrim aren’t likely to cede much turf.
The word shomrim is derived from the Hebrew shomer, which means to guard, preserve, or protect. Founded in 1924 by Police Captain Jacob Kaminsky, the Shomrim Society of New York, like so many Jewish, social institutions of its time, was established to help preserve the group’s ethnic identity. According to its website, the organization was actually born of an anti-Semitic slur: Kaminsky was on patrol with a nightstick tucked under his arm when a city resident suggested he might feel more comfortable with a hunk of salami. By 1937, well over 400 salami-bearing officers were serving as shomrim across the city.
The Williamsburg Shomrim grew out of a purely Samaritan desire to do good for the local community, according to Pollack. The patrol started in 1977 when Moses Hoffman, a local rabbi, discovered a man lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood. After alerting the police to the attack, Hoffman returned to his Williamsburg apartment and began devising a plan for a neighborhood watch—one he would establish in his synagogue the following morning. “At that time, the crime rate in this area was practically double what it is now,” Pollack says. “Hoffman’s idea was to help protect the community. That meant everyone—black, Hispanic, or Hasidic.”
Today, the Williamsburg Shomrim employs more than 60 volunteers, at least half of whom make themselves available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. While the law prohibits them from carrying firearms, they can make citizens’ arrests. More important, their constant communication with the New York Police Department helps deter would-be assailants and accelerate the apprehension of suspected criminals.
The daily routine of the shomrim patrol is at once thrilling and banal. On any given day, they may be called upon to tail a suspected burglar down a narrow side street or pry open a bathroom door for a nervous mother whose child has locked himself inside, identify a mugger at the local precinct, or provide a makeshift pest control to an apartment owner with a squirrel scampering about his living room. “It’s rare that someone will get called more than three or four times a week, but he has to be ready—and for anything,” Pollack says. (The “he” here is instructive; while women occasionally work out of their living rooms as dispatchers, they are not allowed to patrol for the shomrim because some—though not all—Hasidic rabbis believe it is inappropriate for women to drive cars.) All members are required to take turns “rolling” in a privately owned car, each of which is equipped with a two-way radio that allows them to communicate with fellow volunteers of the neighborhood watch as well as an operator at the 90th Precinct.
Over the past year, the organization has had no shortage of reasons to call in. On December 7, 2010, a local CBS News affiliate ran the report: “Cops: Hispanic Teens Beat Up Hasidic Jews ‘For Fun,’ ” after 44-year-old Moshe Guttman was assaulted returning home from a Hanukkah party in Williamsburg earlier that evening. Two weeks before, the same assailants left Joel Weinberger, a 26-year-old teacher and father of four, with a broken leg and a jaw that needed to be wired shut. At the time of the incident, family spokesman Isaac Abraham told reporters: “All his religious articles—his hat, his jacket, his fringes—were ripped apart. I’m not the best investigator in the world, but what do you think would lead to a bias crime?”
Pollack, who has been with the patrol since the branch’s birth and has lived in Williamsburg his entire life, offers a more measured response. “I’d be reluctant to get the bias unit involved unless I saw something really flagrant, like a swastika spray-painted on the walls of a school,” he says. “I won’t say that anti-Semitism has completely disappeared, but the neighborhood has changed. And that’s a good thing.” Pollack leans back in his chair and stretches his long, bony arms like a scarecrow. His grin speaks not only to his pride in the work of the shomrim but to the greater diversity of the community it’s been assigned to protect.
While the basic mission of the neighborhood watch has remained the same for the past 30 years, the ethnic make-up of the community it patrols continues to evolve. In 2000, more than 160,000 people lived in Brooklyn Community District 1, which consists of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Of that number, about 40 percent identify as Hasidic Jewish. The vast majority of the Hasidic population belongs to the Satmar sect, an immigrant movement comprised almost entirely of Romanian and Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have inherited a complicated relationship with authority. “The Shomrim has always served as a kind of liaison between the community and the police,” Pollack says. “The older generation is still afraid of police uniforms, and they pass this fear, phobia, whatever you want to call it, to their children. We have to explain that the NYPD is there to help.”
Almost by default, the Shomrim is an exclusive club: The Yiddish barrier all but guarantees that the organization is composed entirely of Hasidic Jewish men, and its elaborate screening process tries to ensure that only the most trusted and valued members of the community can join. According to Pollack, the Williamsburg Shomrim recently accepted three new members only after weeks of investigation.
Perhaps no one is more familiar with the organization’s membership policies than Jacob Hoffman, a Satmar school administrator and the eldest son of the Williamsburg Shomrim’s founding father, Moses Hoffman. Despite a healthy paunch and an electric red beard that hangs below his Adam’s apple, he looks at least a decade younger than his 53 years. While Pollack wanders toward a screen displaying a live feed from the front door surveillance camera, Hoffman assumes a seat adjacent to me at the office’s Formica table. His eyes are set very close to one another, and his gaze is unblinking. If Pollack has revealed himself as a kind of gregarious good cop, Hoffman seems primed to play the part of the bad cop. When asked what kind of patrol member he typically recruits, he says bluntly, “Someone prepared to leave his family on the Sabbath to go look for a lost child.”
As the organization’s vice-president, Hoffman is responsible for hiring new recruits, organizing the Shomrim’s patrol schedule, and arranging its biennial training regimen at 1 Police Plaza, the NYPD headquarters. Hoffman sees volunteering his time and money to the neighborhood watch as a family obligation. If he harbors any feelings of resentment toward his father for the burden he’s inherited, he refuses to reveal them. “It’s a question of honor,” he says, as if explaining a simple math equation to a child. “We honor those who give back to our community.”
Pollack is reluctant to discuss any specific cases, but he admits that the neighborhood watch sometimes acts as a buffer between the police and the Hasidic community. If, for example, a Hasidic person commits a crime against a fellow Hasid, he or another member of the Shomrim might take it upon himself to convince the offended party not to press charges. Pollack insists that the Shomrim file a police report for every crime that’s reported, but that’s as much as he’s willing to concede. “If I told you anything more, I’d be finished on the street,” he says. “No one in the community would ever speak to me again.”
In February, administrators at the Crown Heights neighborhood watch posted a message on the organization’s Facebook page inviting members of the local community to a dinner marking the first anniversary of the death of its coordinator Reb. Isaac Zellermaier. After my calls to the Shomrim headquarters went unreturned, I decided to attend.
Ateres Miriam Simcha Hall, the site of the event, is tucked away in the basement of an unassuming row house on Carroll Street in Brooklyn, a scant few blocks from the central headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. When I stepped into the harsh glow of the dining hall, the conversation—a merry mélange of English and Yiddish—dropped to a low murmur.
“Can I help you?” inquired a man in his thirties, his face a mess of pockmarks and frizzy, red hair.
Knowing the answer, I asked if this was the meeting of the Crown Heights Shomrim.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, his features suddenly brightening. After guiding me gently to an open seat at the table closest to the dining hall’s exit, the host waved his hand at a tight-faced young man wearing a stylish set of black eyeglasses and a gray pullover. But for the thick nest of hair lining his cheeks and neck, he looked like the captain of a high school debate team.
He introduced himself as Ben Lifshitz, head of media relations. “You really shouldn’t be here,” the 24-year-old warned in a voice that sounded a pitch too high for someone trying to impose authority. Lifshitz works as a freelance photographer when he’s not managing the publicity requests of the Crown Heights Shomrim. (“The New York Post, the New York Times, they’ve all tried to talk to us at one time or another,” he said.) On this evening, he was engaged in both occupations. After grudgingly agreeing to let me stay for the memorial service, he hopped up from his chair and walked briskly across the room toward a tripod set up against the opposite wall. Lifshitz swiveled the camera’s lens toward the end of the U-shaped table, where a trio of rabbis sat in silence.
A hush fell over the dining hall and Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky, a weary-looking septuagenarian with a thick pair of eyeglasses and a sagacious white beard to match, cleared his throat. What followed was a fable about the importance of giving back to the community, with a few tortuous detours about exiles and the redemptive power of a loving and supportive wife. Then Shloime Zellermaier rose from the seat adjacent to Bogomilsky and added some brief but pointed words about his father, the late coordinator: “It was Hashem that guided him and Hashem that helped him pull his people out of jail when he needed to. My father always believed that if you do kindness to a fellow Jew, God will do kindness to you.”
President Obama’s Middle East diplomacy seems to eschew symbolic triumphs in favor of a pragmatic vision that keeps all sides guessing. Israel could have a lot to gain by signing on.