The truth about the Jewish vigilante group that patrols New York

In New York City, there's a group that prowls the streets, striving to keep people safe. And no, they are not the Avengers. They are the Shomrim — Hebrew for "guards" — an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood watch group, and their rivals, the Shmira, both of which have complicated relationships with the city, and have been accused of fueling racial tensions in Brooklyn.  

First, though some background: The Shomrim (and Shmira) mainly focus on areas in Brooklyn where there is a large Hasidic Jewish community, as the Daily Beast explains, though there are Shomrim groups in different cities across the world. All Shomrim groups operate on a volunteer basis. In many communities, they act as liaisons to the community, since they speak Yiddish. Some police forces, though, including the NYPD, feel that certain Shomrim overstep their bounds. This was the case with the Shmira. The New York Times reports a Black man, Andrew Charles, accused some Shmira members of assault in 2008. Charles said he was walking with a friend in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, when they had words with two white men, one of whom reportedly sprayed Charles with pepper spray. When he ran, a van pulled up, and another man got out and proceeded to beat Charles with a stick. 

The incident angered the Black community in Crown Heights. The Hasidic community also felt boxed in. Shmira claimed the whole thing was politicized, especially since Charles is the son of an NYPD officer, but the NYPD classified the attack as a hate crime.

The case goes on

The story didn't end there. The NYPD identified a man connected with Shmira as the man who beat up Charles, as explained by Times of Israel. However, the man fled to Israel in the middle of the investigation. In 2011, Israel agreed to send him back to New York for trial. The man pleaded guilty for assault in 2014, according to CrownHeights.info, and prosecutors tossed out the hate crime charge. 

While the Shmira case went extreme, this is not the first time that these ultra-Orthodox vigilante groups have been criticized. While some outside criticism of the Shomrim has, sadly, veered rather quickly into antisemitic dog whistles, internal criticism has occurred as well: in 2016, Michael Lesher wrote for the Forward, calling upon his fellow Orthdox Jews to speak out against the Shomrim, writing that, "For too long, we've allowed a system of Jewish-run patrols to dominate the heavily Orthodox Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn, usurping the role of the official police force (with key support from vote-hungry politicians), despite their record of violence toward non-Jews." The New York Times reports that Shomrim groups have been accused of bullying, intimidation, and bribing the police for gun permits. On the other hand, Shomrim groups also can serve as useful figures in their communities, doing tasks like pursuing burglars and finding missing Alzheimer's patients. 

In a city like New York, where people live so closely together, tensions often break. It's a delicate balance for everyone in the neighborhood to keep.