NEW YORK — Save for the small sign taped to the brown brick apartment building imploring Americans to “Keep Fighting, Black Lives Matter,” it’s hard to tell that just a few days ago protesters were marching down Eastern Parkway, the main thoroughfare in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, demanding justice for George Floyd. The 46-year-old black man was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into the handcuffed man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Yet, while the protests might have wound down, calls to defund police departments have ramped up nation wide. Here in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has already vowed to redirect some of the police department’s $6 billion budget to other areas, including initiatives focused on mental health and homelessness.
It’s a promise that has some Jewish residents involved in public safety and law enforcement concerned. Although they decry the killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, they also fully support the NYPD.
However, if cuts were eventually approved, it could mean more work for Jewish neighborhood watch groups, called Shomrim. Hebrew for “guards” or “watchers,” Shomrim are a decades-old volunteer organization located in predominantly Orthodox neighborhoods such as Crown Heights, Flatbush, parts of Staten Island, and Borough Park.
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Thanking all our Vol's for their great work tonight alongside @NYPD71pct ensuring that the protest route through Crown Heights was clear and everything proceeded without incident. #ItsWhatWeDo #collaboration #EyesAndEars
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The nonprofit groups view their mission as safeguarding Orthodox communities as well as helping the NYPD navigate areas where residents primarily speak Yiddish. This coordination with New York’s finest is a point of pride.
“I am outraged by George Floyd’s murder. I am disgusted,” said Yaacov Behrman, chair of the Crown Heights Community Board 9 Public Safety Committee. “Clearly cops like those in Minneapolis should be fired, and maybe you need stricter accountability, and maybe better recruitment. But you could be disgusted by the murder of George Floyd and still be supportive of the police.”
You could be disgusted by the murder of George Floyd and still be supportive of the police
Behrman, who stressed that he spoke to The Times of Israel as a resident and not on behalf of the safety committee he heads, strongly opposes budget cuts.
“Where are they going to cut it from?” he said. “All New Yorkers should be concerned. The United Nations is headquartered here; we have major events and conferences in New York. The NYPD is responsible for intelligence, counterterrorism and community engagement. I don’t think money should come from the police department for other programs.”
“If there are cuts I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Crown Heights Shomrim and people from the African American community join together and do patrols for both our communities,” Behrman said.
Members of the Crown Heights Shomrim declined to speak on the record, however Bob Moskovitz, executive coordinator for the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol, agreed to speak to The Times of Israel.
He also roundly condemned what happened in Minneapolis and in other cities across the country.
“I do sensitivity training with the police department and what I tell them every year is there are no bad cops, but we do have bad people who should never have become cops,” Moskovitz said.
Like Behrman, he opposes cutting the police budget.
There are no bad cops, but we do have bad people who should never have become cops
“As for defunding the police, if that means less officers on the streets, we don’t support that. We have the NYPD’s back and support them fully. I’m not a politician but there is plenty of money in the budget and they should find those funds elsewhere,” he said.
To underscore their point, the Flatbush Shomrim recently released a video “We’ve Got Your Back” showing their support for the NYPD.
Nevertheless, should there be budget cuts, Moskovitz, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, said his Shomrim and others across the city stand ready to help their neighbors.
“Our community knows we are public service oriented,” he said. “We predominately get calls from within the [Orthodox] community, but a car doesn’t have a yarmulka [religious head covering] on it, and so when it’s 2 a.m. and you see someone trying to break into a car, you respond. And when you try to find the owner of the car, it often turns out it’s someone who isn’t Jewish. Very often they’re more appreciative than a Jewish person would be.”
Whether in Borough Park, Staten Island, or Crown Heights, the unarmed volunteers patrol the streets on foot or in their own vehicles.
Armed with two-way radios and cell phones, the Shomrim keep on the lookout for trespassers and vandals. They help people who might be locked out of their apartments, help find missing persons, respond to car accidents, and try to stop porch pirates.
They also run food drives, bicycle registrations, and do traffic control when there are public Jewish processions. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, they deliver oxygen to homebound people and help keep people physically distant during outdoor funerals.
But many are critical of the groups. They have been accused of taking the law into their own hands, violently beating suspects, and failing to notify the NYPD of crimes — either as they attempt to deal with them on their own, or in order to avoid police involvement in matters they prefer to keep inside the ultra-Orthodox community, such as domestic abuse and child molestation.
In 2018, Jacob Daskal, a founder of the Borough Park Shomrim, was charged with raping a teenage girl.
In Crown Heights, residents familiar with the Shomrim said they feel lucky to have such an established group of volunteers in the neighborhood.
“We are blessed to have an organization like this, including the local Hatzalah and Chaverim. They all help this community and come to the aid of people in various difficult times,” said one Crown Heights resident, who didn’t want to use his name out of deference to friends who work with the local Shomrim.
Hatzalah is a Jewish-run volunteer emergency medical service, and Chaverim offers emergency roadside assistance.
Leaning in and leaning on volunteers
This kind of volunteer work is essential in Orthodox neighborhoods, said Devorah Halberstam.
Halberstam, who has lived in Crown Heights most of her life, is an authority on anti-Semitism and terrorism. It’s a role she stepped into after the 1994 murder of her 16-year-old son Ari, who was gunned down by Lebanese-born Rashid Baz, who opened fire with a fully automatic pistol on a van carrying 15 Orthodox students. Three other high schoolers were injured in the attack.
First classified as an act of road rage, Halberstam worked relentlessly for nearly a decade to get the shooting murder classified as an act of terrorism. In 2009 the FBI’s New York Division bestowed her with the Director’s Community Leadership Award for her successful efforts.
An honorary member of the 71st Precinct Community, Halberstam made history when she became the first person named Honorary Safety Commissioner for Community Safety from NYPD. She’s also the first woman to receive the Honorary Commissioner title from the department.
After lunch in her Crown Heights brownstone, Halberstam took this reporter for a drive around the neighborhood. While she drove (both she and this reporter wore masks), she spoke about the events of recent days.
Just days ago the streets around the neighborhood were packed with protesters. While the Orthodox community didn’t join the protesters as a collective group, many handed out masks and water.
“It’s a very individual decision to protest. If people wanted to protest, that was perfectly fine. We respect people’s right to do that. In the neighborhood, people’s concerns were only about looting. We just wanted people to be safe,” she said.
A few blocks from the Chabad International Headquarters on Eastern Parkway, where there is a strong NYPD presence, sits the Crown Heights Mobile Command Center, its lettering and color scheme strikingly similar to those owned by the NYPD.
After driving up usually bustling Utica Avenue, now somewhat muted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Halberstam pulled up in front of the Jewish Children’s Museum, which is dedicated to Ari.
A 30-foot mosaic mural made up of 1,408 children’s faces covers nearly half of the facade. The art is a celebration of diversity and unity — ideas that are key to keep Crown Heights and the city moving forward, said Halberstam, who also serves as the museum’s executive director.
“We are a work in progress. We are a neighborhood. It’s not them and us. It’s not us and them,” Halberstam said.