Among Righteous Men by Matthew Shaer

Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights BY Matthew Shaer. Wiley. Hardcover, 256 pages. $25.
The cover of Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights

The accusation that Jews are a backwards, self-isolating tribe is one of the oldest tropes in the history of anti-Semitism. The idea goes back to Hellenistic times, wends its way through centuries European Christendom, and now sneaks into contemporary debates about Israel. Ancient Greek historian Hecataeus of Abdera, characterized Judaism as “a misanthropic and inhospitable way of life,” and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, writes that “no group is more ethnocentric and more organized for their perceived interests than are Jews.” But vile as such pronouncements are, Orthodox Jewish separatism has not helped eliminate them. In North America, Jewish communities built and maintained their own organizations — schools, synagogues, museums, newspapers, and universities. These are admirable efforts, but some are less benign. In his engaging first book, Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights, journalist Matthew Shaer examines the extremities of self-reliance through the story of one Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn and its efforts to protect itself — usually from others; sometimes, from itself.

The Shomrim — literally “the guards” — of parts of Brooklyn neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Borough Park, Flatbush, and Williamsburg, are mostly harmless community-watch type organizations. They fix flat tires, summon emergency medical assistance (often from the Jewish ambulance service, Hatzalah), help old ladies with their groceries, and occasionally collaborate with local police on outreach projects. Because ultra-Orthodox Jews are reluctant to involve secular authorities in their affairs, the Shomrim are sometimes called upon to stand in for law enforcement. Equipped with walkie-talkies, blue uniforms, and cars sporting lights and sirens, it’s easy to see how they might take the law into their own hands, even if, as Shaer writes, they rarely get “an opportunity to barrel down an alley after some knife-wielding criminal.” Recently, the Shomrim of Borough Park got into trouble following the kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of eight-year-old Leiby Kletzy after it was revealed that they took at least two hours before calling police about the boy’s disappearance.

Shaer, a former staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, spent months in the Hasidic community of Crown Heights, trying to understand both “the type of Jew the Shomrim represented” (namely, “the Jew who fights back”) as well as the particular brand of dissension surrounding the organization. Though the internal politics of Hasidic communities are usually hidden from view, they can be fierce. “Build the walls high enough,” Shaer writes, and “after a while, the only person left to fight with is your neighbor.” This is why the Shomrim don’t only butt heads with the NYPD, or even with their non-Jewish neighbors. In Crown Heights the issue isn’t just that there is a Jewish security patrol — it’s that there are two of them, and they don’t get along.

In Crown Heights, where most Hasidic residents belong to the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, Orthodox infighting has a deep theological basis. Under the leadership of late leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad became a singular force in the Jewish world, opening religious centers around the globe to conduct outreach to fellow Jews to hasten the coming of the Messiah. As Shaer points out, all Orthodox Jews believe in the messianic age, but Chabad was particularly insistent on both its imminence and the sect’s own responsibility to bring non-religious Jews back to Judaism. (If you’ve ever been asked if you were Jewish by a young man with a scraggly beard wearing a black suit and black hat, it was a Chabadnik.) By the time Schneerson died in 1994, many of his followers believed that he was the Messiah. Though Shaer touches on scholarly accounts of the rift between Schneerson’s followers, the book focuses on how this apocalyptic tug-of-war has split the community, and how organizations such as the Shomrim and their rival, the Shmira, have come to embody that dispute.

At the heart of Shaer’s story is a brawl that took place in 2007 between the Shomrim and Shmira-friendly messianist students in a dormitory on Eastern Parkway, and the subsequent trial of six Shomrim members for charges including criminal possession of a weapon and gang assault. As the students told it, the Shomrim arrived to rough up those whom they considered religious fanatics. As Shomrim leader Aron Hershkop had it, they were called to resolve a dispute, set upon by a mob, and then blamed as aggressors in a plot orchestrated by the Shmira. Shaer writes,

The Crown Heights Shomrim had weathered a hell of a lot in the last ten years and after every disaster — after every brawl and restraining order and arrest warrant — the members had bounced back… But standing on the sidewalk outside of 749, listening to the saga of the brawl, [Hershkop] couldn’t suppress the sneaking suspicion that his brother and his friends had just stumbled into something very different….

Shaer’s account of the alleged assault, as well as the subsequent police investigation and trial, is fluid and fast-paced, though at times his true-crime style of reporting seems overheated for the scope of events. And though he shows considerable effort, his grasp of Orthodox Judaism, both its practice and vocabulary, is shaky. He characterizes the ecstatic devotional gathering known to Chabad Hasidim as a farbrengen as “a kind of group religious discussion” and when he stumbles across a term he can use, like davening (praying), he uses it inappropriately and repeatedly (“Organized resistance to him was just another kind of davening”). But to his credit, Shaer focuses on individuals, portraying Shomrim members more like volunteer fire fighters than Hells Angels. (Hershkop is described as “prickly, profane, and smart.”) He also succeeds in conveying the complex internal dynamics of a community like Chabad, where there is a wide spectrum of belief, no single authority, and where serious disagreements are rarely pursued in public, let alone in a criminal trial.

Along the way, Shaer delivers a compelling history of the Crown Heights Shomrim and its predecessor organizations, including their role in the long-running tensions and occasional violence between the Hasidic community and its black neighbors. These include the Crown Heights Riots of 1991, which are still considered a “pogrom” by many Jewish residents, and used to justify self-protective community force. Shaer also tells of Jewish violence against blacks, much of it committed by the Shomrim or similar organizations, and accepts the possibility that any kind of for-Jews, by-Jews security patrol is inherently chauvinist, if not outright racist. Over decades “locals regularly reported being stopped and asked for identification,” he claims. “Several men said they had been collared and shoved into the back of a squad car, for no discernible reason other than the fact that they were black.”

The problems within Chabad continue to fester, as do its quarrels with neighbors. But as times change, so do the challenges of remaining a community apart. For decades, they struggled to maintain its enclave in a predominantly black neighborhood while keeping control over their own internal frictions. Now, with the eastward creep of Brooklyn gentrification, the white population of Crown Heights is as likely to include hipsters as Hasidic Jews. Chabad won’t give up its closely-guarded institutions, but they may have to recalibrate its defensive stance toward its neighbors. Shaer’s book, by humanizing and demystifying Chabad even as it reveals its shortcomings, may help that happen.

Ezra Glinter is a staff writer at the Forward.