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.
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.”
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.
Matthew Shaer is the author, most recently, of The Sinking of the Bounty: The True Story of a Tragic Shipwreck and its Aftermath. He Tweets at @MatthewShaer.
Matthew Shaer is the author, most recently, ofThe Sinking of the Bounty: The True Story of a Tragic Shipwreck and its Aftermath. He Tweets at @MatthewShaer.