Blasting the Borough Park Shomrim

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One of the regular weekly features I write for Ami Magazine is a “News and Analysis” piece. Although I don’t usually post those offerings here on Cross-Currents (and even though Marvin Schick posted a fine piece on the subject here earlier this week), I thought I’d share my own take on the New York Jewish Week’s “expose” of Shomrim here as well.

According to the New York Jewish Week, “there are those both within the Orthodox community and law enforcement who are concerned that, for all their good intentions,” officials of the Brooklyn South Shomrim—the local Orthodox volunteer neighborhood community watch group that covers Borough Park—“are at times too independent.”

The Jewish Week, which describes itself as “the largest and most respected Jewish newspaper in America,” editorialized in its most recent issue about the murder of Leiby Kletzky, asserting that “the fact that the New York Police Department was not notified until several hours after young Leiby went missing is deeply troubling.” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly was quoted by The New York Times’ City Room as saying that his department was called “2-2 ½ hours” after Shomrim received a call from one of Leiby’s parents and had sprung into action.

Mr. Kelly, however, while he did say that “obviously we’d like to be notified at the same time as Shomrim,” praised the neighborhood watch group and asserted that he did not feel the delay in the police effort hampered the investigation in any way. In fact, within hours of receiving its call about Leiby’s disappearance, Shomrim had, in the Times’ words, fielded “a barrage of tips… helped marshal hundreds of civilians to look for Leiby… helped spot [his confessed murderer’s] gold car and… gave its license plate information to detectives” who had been seeking the vehicle.

Quoting “sources close to” the case, the editorial also criticizes the Borough Park Shomrim for allegedly maintaining a list of suspected criminals that “they do not share with police.”

The newspaper insists that while “the logic has been slow to take hold in some neighborhoods,” the first call any citizen should make “should be to the police.” It goes on to cite that some states have laws requiring such reporting and advocates similar legislation in New York.

The Jewish Week editorial was inspired by the lead article by Hella Winston in the same issue, headlined “Tragedy In Borough Park Puts Shomrim Under Scrutiny.” It claimed that, despite Commissioner Kelly’s public praise of Shomrim, “some close to the case question the public version of events in the case and what they see as problematic practices engaged in by the Shomrim, often with the approval or outright cooperation of the NYPD top brass.” The writer asserts that the Shomrim have been “criticized at times,” by unnamed critics, for “overzealousness bordering on vigilantism,” and quotes an unnamed “official” as complaining “Who are [Shomrim] accountable to?” and speculating that Shomrim “might have had a file on Leiby’s accused killer.”

“Some sources,” moreover, the article continued, “believe the police and Shomrim are not disclosing the possibility” that Leiby’s confessed murderer’s “violent tendencies… were known to people in the community who should have, but failed, to report him”—although no evidence for any such knowledge has been presented.

The article goes on to focus on halachic decisions from renowned authorities of Jewish law that permit Jews to inform on suspected child abusers to law enforcement authorities but require prior consultation with a rabbi experienced in abuse, to ascertain that there are indeed raglayim ladavar, or grounds for suspicion. It then quotes an activist who has harshly criticized those halacha decisors and their followers, who also accuses the Borough Park Shomrim of having “aggressively obstructed” two child abduction investigations in recent years to which he claimed to be privy, “by intimidating members of the victims’ families who wished to assist the NYPD in the investigation.” The children, the activist admitted, “were returned within hours,” but, he asserted, “the perpetrators were not caught.” No details about the alleged cases were provided.

ANALYSIS

The recent article and editorial in the New York Jewish Week do raise a disturbing issue—although not the one the newspaper intended. The issue, rather, is the periodical itself. More specifically: why it seems bent on viewing and portraying the charedi community with so jaundiced an eye.

While the Jewish Week’s stable holds some fine, unbiased columnists, its news reportage has long evidenced an inordinate amount of criticism, merited or not, of charedim and charedi institutions.

That the paper, a week after the terrible tragedy that visited Borough Park, would choose as its cover lead story not a report of the converging of Jews from all over to search for Leiby or an account of his funeral or his parents’ shiva, but, instead, an ostensible “exposé” of a much-respected (and rightly so) volunteer community group is particularly rancid icing on a moldy cake. And an editorial reprising the article, in case any reader somehow missed its large headline on the paper’s cover, provided sour sprinkles.

The article itself was a journalistic dud, basing its thesis—that a Shomrim group acts irresponsibly—entirely on anonymous sources and speculation. Nowhere in its 44 paragraphs did it even acknowledge the role Shomrim played in the search for Leiby Kletzky and in the location of his vehicle, preferring instead to offer speculation (based on, again, unnamed “sources in the community”) laced with condescension, about how Shomrim “operate—however well-intentioned—with little accountability, sometimes hindering the work of the police.”

The article’s abrupt digression into the halachic realm of mesira, or informing, on suspected pedophiles— especially with the dearth of any evidence thus far that Leiby’s confessed killer was known to be one or even was one, presents another reportorial lapse. It seemed a gratuitous seizing of an opportunity (a heinous murder, no less) to try to present a halachic decision in a negative light.

The report becomes even more troubling when seen in a larger perspective. For its writer seems to have been assigned the “charedi bad guys” beat at the Jewish Week. Practically every piece she has written for the newspaper has been about a personal or organizational scandal—real, asserted, or imagined—in the charedi community. She is in fact best known for a book she wrote several years ago that focused on young people raised in chassidic communities who abandoned their upbringings for more culturally American lives. The book, through the words of those unfortunates as well as the author, portrays communities like those in Borough Park and Williamsburg as constricting, suffocating environments. In 2006, she wrote a Pesach-time op-ed for The New York Times in which she recounted an unusual seder, whose participants were people who had “[broken] free of strictly Orthodox communities” and from the “myriad rules and regulations” that, in such places, “often [come] at the expense of the meaning of the holiday itself.” Passover, she wrote, “embodies how strict Orthodoxy has become little more than social control.”

And in the Winter 2006-2007 issue of the Jewish feminist publication Lilith, she wrote of the “rigid gender roles” in Orthodox communities, of regulations that “control… women’s bodies and their mobility,” and yeshivos, which she asserts “can become breeding grounds” for deviancy.

The writer, of course, is entitled if she wishes to accept the judgment of dropouts from Orthodoxy, even against the feelings of the vast majority of “strictly Orthodox” Jews who exult in observance and who live joyous, fulfilled lives. But if she makes that choice, she is—and should be considered—the last person who can be expected to report objectively and accurately about the Orthodox community.

There may (or may not) be room for improvement in the Borough Park Shomrim’s procedures and its cooperation with law enforcement authorities. Any fine-tuning of a clearly successful and responsible organization, however, is a matter for those authorities to raise privately, if they choose, with the group’s leaders. It is not a matter that deserves to be exploited by any reputable publication, and particularly not by assigning it to a reporter whose longstanding view of the Orthodox community is far from objective.

By having done that, the New York Jewish Week has revealed considerably more about itself than about its ostensible subject.

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