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An Ultra-Orthodox Shomrim Patrol Celebrates Five Years in an Unexpected Place: Israel

Even in the Jewish state, ultra-Orthodox Jews look first to their own, and not to secular authorities, for security

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Haim Rotter (center) outside the burned falafel shop. (Ben Hartman)
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As things stand, the Shomrim maintain a useful distance from the police, especially when it comes to the most sensitive crimes of all: sex abuse. Rotter gave me a flyer the Shomrim distributed in Bnei Brak recently, which describes “terrible, sinful people circling thorough our neighborhood recently bothering our children in the worst ways possible” and calls on people to report such offenders to the Shromrim. It’s a deeply complicated issue: In Israel as elsewhere, secular authorities often suspect ultra-Orthodox communities of hushing up sex crimes and harassing complainants. But that is slowly starting to change, in part because of efforts like Rotter’s to meet the community’s concerns. “We want to protect the public from these people, but also to protect them, so that he can still get married and his family isn’t destroyed,” Rotter told me earnestly. “If someone is arrested as a pedophile it can destroy their family, their chances to get married, their brothers’ chances.”

“It’s still in its baby steps, but we’re seeing more and more rabbis telling people to go to the police, or themselves bringing information to the police,” said Shabtai Gerberchik, a former journalist for the Haredi station Radio Kol Hai and the national religious newspaper Makor Rishon who in September became the first police spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox press. “They’ve started to realize that the only way to deal with it is through the police, we’re the only ones who can get these people off the street. The old way of the community just kicking them out would just send the problem to someone else’s neighborhood.”

***

“This is our war room,” Meni Mendelovitz joked, as he ate a piece of kugel at a small restaurant on Hazon Ish street at 2:30 a.m. Inside the cramped café, which has been closed for hours, a group of Shomrim guys sit and chat, discussing the recent sex-crimes case involving Israeli singer Eyal Golan, a conversation that during daylight hours would be trayf at a place like this.

A girl in halter top and a pink helmet came down Hazon Ish, a major thoroughfare, on a scooter. Mendelovitz pointed at her. “This is a major street; she’s just passing through, no big deal,” Mendelovitz said. “But take the Satmar neighborhood, it’s a closed off neighborhood, you don’t go in there unless you’re from there or you’re looking for something. A girl like that goes through there they’ll throw eggs on her, or they’ll call us right away so things don’t get out of hand.”

The boys joke around a lot, giving one another a hard time. A number of them have smart phones—highly controversial in the ultra-Orthodox world—and are out and about in the neighborhood at an hour that their more bookish peers in the yeshivas are either studying or long since asleep. They’re familiar with the common perception that the Shomrim and other organizations like it take young men who are not the most promising students—the belief being that if they were more promising yeshiva students they wouldn’t be here at all. “We don’t take yeshiva boys,” Mendelovitz told me. “We don’t want people to say, look at the Shomrim, they’re taking yeshiva boys and ruining them. For us, we think it’s more important that a yeshiva boy study than be out here with us.”

Just then, his radio crackled with a call of a blaze on the corner of Abuhatzeira and Jabotinsky. The volunteers scurried out of the restaurant and into their cars, rolling down to Jabotinsky to the same falafel stand they were at just a couple hours earlier, when the cops called for help dealing with the rowdy teens. A fire truck was battling the remnants of a suspected arson that left the building scorched and the ceiling caved in. Some of the Shomrim immediately suspected the same teenagers who were tossed out of the building earlier in the night.

At this junction Bnei Brak meets Pardes Katz, a poor neighborhood and the only one in Bnei Brak that is, for now, not majority ultra-Orthodox. Once a synonym for crime, Pardes Katz was the site of a bloody gang war in the 1980s and 1990s in which more than a dozen people were killed. It’s the uglier, rougher step-sister of Bnei Brak, and it still hasn’t managed to shake the stigma it earned decades ago. “Pardes Katz stays Pardes Katz,” one of the Shomrim said and flicked a cigarette in a pool of water collecting next to a fire truck.

It was around 4:30. Before long the sun would be up again, bringing the end to another night shift. The Shomrim went home, got some rest, and came back the next night to do it all over again.

***

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An Ultra-Orthodox Shomrim Patrol Celebrates Five Years in an Unexpected Place: Israel

Even in the Jewish state, ultra-Orthodox Jews look first to their own, and not to secular authorities, for security

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