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Tough Jews

The Shomrim, ultra-Orthodox anti-crime patrols, trace their roots to 1964 Crown Heights, when refugees from Poland refused to cede their blocks

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Samuel Schrage, at center, on patrol in Brooklyn, June 1, 1964. (Marvin Lichtner/Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Schrage carved up the neighborhood into numbered districts and gave every volunteer a call sign. He saw Crown Heights as a checkerboard and the members of his patrol as the plastic pieces. During the height of the summer of 1964, while crime rates across New York corkscrewed upward, he had four cars working the neighborhood on a grid pattern, criss-crossing east to west on Eastern Parkway and Crown Street and north to south on Utica, Kingston, and New York Avenues. Schrage bragged that no block in Crown Heights ever went unsurveilled for more than two minutes. He said that all of Crown Heights knew the name of the Maccabees and that the word of the patrol was enough to make a hardened criminal quiver in his sneakers.

That year, the New York Herald Tribune carried on its front page a three-column photograph of two men, sitting together on the front bench of what appeared to be a police cruiser. One was idly fingering a police radio; both wore yarmulkes. Over their shoulders, the Herald Tribune photographer had captured a gritty urban landscape—a sun-splashed boulevard, a pedestrian waiting for a light, rows of faded apartment buildings that appeared to recede into infinity. The caption identified the two men as Sidney Gordon and Rabbi Schrage, both Maccabees members. “When Greeks and Syrians oppressed them in Pre-Christian days, the Jews struck back through the Maccabees, a vigilante-type group of warriors,” the caption read. “Now, with the crime rate rising in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community has formed a band of modern-day Maccabees, unarmed but equipped with roaming patrol cars and two-way radios.”

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Over the next two years, the number of Maccabees volunteers swelled. A dozen, then two dozen, then a hundred. They came from Crown Heights but also from Bedford-Stuyvesant and Flatbush and even from Park Slope. The majority of them were married, with families of their own; others were young and brash and looking for a fight. Schrage warned every recruit that the work of a Crown Heights Maccabee would often be mundane. One day, a member might be walking an old woman home from the supermarket. The next, he might be driving for hours across central Brooklyn. Only rarely would he be afforded an opportunity to barrel down an alley after some knife-wielding criminal.

Officially, Schrage said he abhorred the word vigilante. He said he did not condone violence. Publicly, he promised that the Maccabees would always notify the police before pursuing a criminal. He handed out fliers and magnets and stickers adorned with the logo and the number of the Crown Heights Maccabees: Slocum 6-5100. He urged residents to call dispatch whenever they were in danger, no matter the time of day. Privately, he told his troops that they would sometimes have to take matters into their own hands—nothing less than the fate of Crown Heights Jewry was at stake.

In the fall of 1964, as Schrage’s star rose, producers from a short-lived television news program called Survival arrived in Crown Heights to profile the Maccabees. The segment was largely positive. In one clearly posed shot, Schrage stood in the living room of his Montgomery Street home, cradling his baby and davening under prayer shawl. The narrator, James Whitmore, explained that “the cities of America are under attack. Crime is on the increase, in some cases overwhelming the resources of law enforcement agencies. While sociologists and politicians ponder the causes, one group of victims fights back. This is the story of a neighborhood under attack—a story of survival.” The melodramatic string score surged.

Attack! Victims! Survival! The phrasing was dramatic, indelible: Americans were fighting against persecution, and they were fighting well. In fact, the Survival segment featured only two opposing views, one from a black woman who seemed baffled by the very existence of an all-Jewish security organization. “I don’t see how you can just draft a lot of people and say you’re just going to patrol areas,” the woman said. “Because after a while you’re going to get to the point where the white people say, ‘You’re not going to come into my neighborhood,’ and the Negroes are going to say, ‘You can’t come into my neighborhood,’ so you’re still going to have race violence, and you’re still going to breed more trouble or discontent.”

The next dissenter was a young black lawyer, who stood in front of a Bed-Stuy law firm clad in a suit and spectacles. Someone has to be responsible for the actions for the Maccabees, he told the camera. “Who’s going to control individuals in these groups?” he asked. “Even with the police department, you see, we have individuals who creep in and who may not be balanced, and there’s trouble between the police and the people. I’m afraid of any group, whether there are Negroes in it or not, which is not controlled for all of the people by all of the people.”

Much of the black community agreed. In the late months of 1964, scores of black leaders—including most preachers and reverends from Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights—used every available opportunity to excoriate Schrage and his “Jew police.”

The black leadership did not disagree that crime had risen in Crown Heights, nor did they believe that the NYPD was doing enough to tamp down the criminals. But to allow a bunch of untrained, unvetted patrolmen to take to the streets—well, that was injudicious at best. There was simply not enough oversight. Moreover, critics believed that by recruiting exclusively from the ranks of the Lubavitch community, Schrage was helping to cement the racial barriers that divided Crown Heights.

By the late 1960s, Crown Heights had become a majority black neighborhood. Under considerable political pressure, Schrage and the Maccabees agreed to disband. Schrage remained a renowned figure in the ultra-Orthodox community, and he occasionally advised Mayor John Lindsay on policing and crime issues. Later, he served as the vice secretary of the youth council of New York City. In 1976, he suffered a heart attack in the shower and died en route to the hospital. He was 43.

Schrage’s death, of course, was by no means the end of the Maccabees, who reformed in the late 1970s under the name Shmira. For the following two decades, as similar groups sprang up in Williamsburg and Borough Park, the Shmira patrolled the streets of Crown Heights, sometimes in squad cars and sometimes on foot. In an odd historical twist, in the late 1990s, infighting consumed the Crown Heights Shmira, which eventually splintered into two separate groups: the Shomrim and the Shmira.

Both groups now keep separate dispatch centers on opposite sides of Crown Heights. And both claim to be true heirs to the mantle of the Maccabees. The neighborhood, of course, has changed a good deal since the 1960s. Crime rates are down. The streets are safer. And the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, united in the days of the Maccabees, has weathered an uncertain ideological aftermath of the passing of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh—and likely the last—Lubavitcher rebbe. But as evidenced by the ongoing case of Yitzchak Shuchat, the Hasidic anti-crime patrols see their role as unchanged: protect the bounds of the Jewish settlement, at any cost.

Adapted from Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights by Matthew Shaer. Copyright © 2011 by Matthew Shaer. Used with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.

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Eugene Kravis says:

I was born in Brooklyn,raised in Flatbush. The Smirah/Shomrim had their roots further back than the Crown Heights Lubavitchers described in the above article. No discussion is complete without Rabbi Kahana and the Jewish Defense League. The JDL was formed to escort elderly Jews to Synagogue. They were so tough that some ended in jail for their behavior. I knew a couple of them. They could watch my back anytime!

But even the JDL had historical roots to follow. I am proud to say that the first battles by the Americans against the Nazis
were won by Jewish tough guys against the American Nazi Bundists. The bloody walloping that these prohibition/Eastside
mob connected Jews,in 1937-1939, drove the Bundists out of New York and New Jersey. Where were the cops? Ha! Read Robert Rockaway’s book,But,”They Were Good to Their Mothers”,and find out.

Douglas says:

It is not true that “[t]he Shomrim do not have the legal authority to make arrests, but they often hold suspects until the police arrive.” Under New York law, they can make a citizen’s arrest either for a crime committed in their presence, or for a felony. See Pugach v. Klein, 193 F. Supp. 630, 636 (S.D.N.Y. 19610.

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Tough Jews

The Shomrim, ultra-Orthodox anti-crime patrols, trace their roots to 1964 Crown Heights, when refugees from Poland refused to cede their blocks

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