The Shomrim, ultra-Orthodox anti-crime patrols, trace their roots to 1964 Crown Heights, when refugees from Poland refused to cede their blocks
Last month, a court in Israel approved the extradition to the United States of Yitzchak Shuchat, a 28-year-old Lubavitcher Hasid, who is wanted by the New York Police Department for the 2008 assault of a black resident of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, more than three years ago Shuchat approached Andrew Charles, the son of an NYPD officer, and attacked him with a nightstick and pepper spray. Charles sustained wounds to the head and arms, while Shuchat reportedly fled to Canada and then across the Atlantic, to a suburb of Tel Aviv, where he lives now with his wife and children.
The pending extradition has attracted plenty of media attention, both for the obvious reasons—there are echoes of the 1991 Crown Heights riots—and the more surprising: Shuchat, it turns out, was a member of the Shmira, a private anti-crime patrol comprised entirely of Hasidic men.
The ultra-Orthodox community has a proud history of vigilantism. There are Shmira or Shomrim—“watchers” in Hebrew—units in every Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, including Williamsburg, Flatbush, and Borough Park. (Shomrim groups are also active in Baltimore and Miami and in Hasidic enclaves in London and Melbourne.)
Most of the time, the members, all volunteers, help direct traffic and fix tires. More rarely, they track down muggers and purse-snatchers. Most wear uniforms and carry walkie-talkies. Some Shomrim units, like the one in Borough Park, operate large fleets of police vehicles, including riot vans and radio cars. The Shomrim do not have the legal authority to make arrests, but they often hold suspects until the police arrive.
For the most part, the patrols are viewed as a benevolent presence—they are seen as “guardians,” in one formulation, there to keep the peace. It is no accident that Esther Kletzky, the mother of Leiby Kletzky, the Borough Park boy murdered in July by a member of the community, phoned the Shomrim before the NYPD when her son went missing. Not so for the black community, which has, from the beginning, tended to view the Shomrim as aggressors. (A string of alleged assaults, of which the Charles case is only the most recent example, has not helped the Shomrim and Shmira in this regard.)
So, how did these Hasidic crime-fighters get their start? All modern Shomrim and Shmira can trace their heritage to one man: Samuel Schrage. A Lubavitcher rabbi, Schrage founded a group called the Crown Heights Maccabees in 1964. Schrage, who typically appeared in public wearing a sleek black suit—his dark beard neatly combed, his hair painstakingly lacquered—did not set out to fight crime. He was a teacher, a man of God, and the administrator of the United Lubavitcher Yeshiva, a large school on the north side of Eastern Parkway.
A decade earlier, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, had fled Warsaw and established a small Lubavitch court in Crown Heights. Schneersohn’s Crown Heights was quiet, mostly peaceable, and populated by “alrightniks”: middle-class Jewish émigrés who settled in the brick mansions on President Street. By comparison, the Crown Heights of his successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who served as Lubavitcher rebbe from 1951 until his death in 1994, was a dangerous place, increasingly rife with the street crime and violence that characterized Brooklyn during the 1960s and ’70s.
The Lubavitch Hasidim, who had consolidated in a 16-square-block radius around Kingston Avenue, saw themselves as victims, under assault by the much larger black populations to the north and south. Black leaders, in turn, complained that the situation in Crown Heights was akin to apartheid, wherein an influential minority was controlling the state, soaking up government funds, and elbowing blacks out of local real estate.
In April 1964, four Hasidic students leaving a yeshiva on the north side of Eastern Parkway were provoked and allegedly assaulted by at least 50 black youths. Two weeks later, a black man broke into a Crown Heights home and attempted to rape the wife of a popular Lubavitcher rabbi. The woman managed to beat back her assailant; in the process, she received slashes across the face and the neck. Both crimes were touted as proof that Jews were no longer safe in Crown Heights.
Schrage’s choice of the name Maccabees for the patrol formed in response was not accidental. It evoked the spirit of ancient Jewish strength, of protest in the face of a vast and fearsome enemy army. Judah Maccabee, the hero of the Hanukkah story, had once used guerrilla warfare to reclaim Jerusalem. Schrage hoped to use guerrilla warfare to reclaim Crown Heights. For those who scoffed at the mention of the long-dead Maccabees, Schrage unearthed modern precedents for his cause: the paramilitary organizations that had battled the Bolsheviks in Russia, and the Hashomer, a Jewish defense group founded in Palestine in the early 20th century.
The Lubavitch movement had survived the trials of life in the Pale of Settlement, the perils of the Russian Revolution, and the incomprehensible horror of the Holocaust. They had not made it to Brooklyn, Schrage and others argued, only to lose their kingdom on a hill to a bunch of hoodlums.
In late April 1964, Schrage convened a meeting of 500 Jewish residents of Crown Heights, including the heads of all the yeshivas there, and asked that the Maccabees be formally recognized by the community. His argument—which he would reiterate many times in coming years—was simple: Jews should not be afraid to walk the streets of their own neighborhood because of muggers and rapists. And because the NYPD seemed unable to manage the job, the Lubavitchers would have to defend themselves.
The vote was nearly unanimous. The next week, Schrage rented a musty former corset shop at 459 Albany Ave. and converted the first floor into a dispatch office. With help from a few wealthy donors, he purchased four squad cars, four two-way radios, and a hulking metal base unit. He bought maps and telephones and first-aid kits. He trained his men in rudimentary self-defense and in the art of the capture; he demonstrated how to drive a fleeing assailant to the ground and how to keep him there.
When an 81-year-old novelist sued to become the first Jew in Israel officially labeled “without religion,” he didn’t realize he would start a movement