For many in Baltimore’s Jewish community, a call to Shomrim precedes even a call to police when someone spots suspicious activity.
The community watch group — one of at least three dedicated to protecting the bulk of the Jewish community in Northwest Baltimore — is growing.
“The organization is growing both in profile and community outreach,” said Nate Willner, a lawyer and Shomrim member.
Easily identified by their jackets and response cars, nearly every Orthodox community in the country, and more around the world, has a Shomrim affiliate, and some cities, such as London and New York, even have two or three.
Baltimore’s Shomrim — literally “watchers” in Hebrew — was founded in 2005 after a spike in burglaries in the Pikesville/Park Heights area put neighborhood residents on edge. Despite a highly publicized incident in 2010 in which a Shomrim member and his brother were charged, and later cleared, of assaulting and kidnapping a black teen who was walking through the neighborhood, the group has managed to recover and even thrive over the past four years, members say.
“It’s sort of a citizen’s patrol group on steroids,” said Willner.
With some 150 to 200 calls per month, Willner said, the need in the community is huge. Today’s calls involve mostly stolen bikes and car break-ins, but Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History, said groups such as Shomrim have deep roots in the Jewish community, both in the United States and abroad.
Today’s Jewish community watch groups were preceded by the Jewish Defense League, said Sarna. The JDL was founded in New York City in 1968 in the midst of the city’s racially charged tension over the teachers’ union strikes, when many alleged the local police were not adequately protecting the Jewish community. As time went on, the organization switched its focus to the Soviet Union and influencing Soviet groups in America to pressure their government back home to begin allowing Jewish immigration to Israel.
After a series of attacks, the Jewish community distanced itself from the group, and the JDL has since been placed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of extremist organizations.
But other groups have taken the torch of protecting the Jewish community.
“I think that you would find that they were influenced, really, by some of the efforts in the Holocaust,” said Sarna. “Jews were very proud when Warsaw Ghetto Jews defended themselves and armed themselves — Mordechai Anilevitch and others — to fight the Nazis.”
While private organizations designed to patrol communities have long been branded by some as vigilantes, the United States has a long history of pride in self-defense. And recent anti-Semitic events in other parts of the world have helped to solidify the community’s support for such groups. Though the problems facing the American Jewish community are far less pressing than those being felt by Jews in Europe, he said, community watch organizations still serve a vital role in American Jewish society.
“The events in Europe, they legitimate the formation of these new groups now,” said Sarna.
And protecting the community against any potential terror plots is indeed a major focus of Shomrim and other community patrols.
“That’s an area that, unfortunately, we have to look at,” said Willner.
In addition to responding to missing persons calls, break-ins and reports of stolen bicycles, Shomrim also spends a great deal of time and energy emphasizing to residents the importance of being on the lookout for “things that look out of place,” Willner said. Members, he said, are looking “through a different kind of lens these days.”
Community members are instructed today to be mindful of anyone hanging around synagogues and Jewish communal buildings, possibly watching the comings and goings or taking photos or videos. Shomrim relies on the ability of neighbors to know when something or someone looks out of place on their block and recently asked local synagogues to recruit drivers for the organization.
But distinguishing what and who looks out of place is cause for concern among some in Baltimore. Shomrim in the past has been criticized for posting notices on Facebook that some have felt were racially tinged.
As groups like Shomrim or any other neighborhood patrol grow, the need for proper training of volunteers increases as well. Rev. Heber Brown III, a local pastor and community organizer, who was critical of Shomrim after the 2010 incident, said he is hopeful that the city’s neighborhood patrol groups have learned that the actions of even one volunteer can tarnish the reputation of any organization.
“With those groups that have greater connections with city leaders and police department heads, I think it’s incumbent of those kinds of organizations to kind of go above and beyond the basic requirement,” he said. “I think that Shomrim is one of the more sophisticated groups.”
Lt. Jim Perez is a veteran police officer in Fairfield, Conn., where he also teaches community groups how to organize neighborhood patrols and effectively protect their own communities. Through the National Crime Prevention Council, he trains neighborhood groups around the country how to operate both safely and effectively to protect their neighborhoods.
The relationship between community groups and local police is vital to the effectiveness of both groups, he said.
For example, one of the first things Perez said he teaches community members is how to “speak the language” of police and emergency responders. Being articulate and specific can have a direct effect on the length of time is takes for an officer to arrive at a call. Additionally, it establishes the neighborhood watch group’s credibility with the department. This is a lesson Willner said Shomrim members are taught early on.
The best advice for groups looking to protect their own community, Perez said, is to be suspicious of everyone and everything.
He hears often from people who tell him that they don’t want to “bother” the police with something that could end up a nonissue. But the key to successful police-community relations, he insists, is a public that doesn’t hesitate to call the police with its concerns.
“You’re paying taxes.” he said. “That’s our job: to respond to you.”
Perez is fond of using the example of the Times Square bomb plot that was foiled in 2013 after a couple of street vendors noticed a suspicious car idling in the tourist center of New York as a depiction of the important role any one person’s instincts can play.
“‘Not normal.’ That’s a great phrase,” he said. “Everyone needs to know what’s not normal and then report not normal.”
For Shomrim, operating in the largely Orthodox neighborhoods of Northwest Baltimore, Willner believes members are uniquely qualified to identify “not normal.”
It is not uncommon for Shomrim to get calls on Friday evening about observant Jews who may be stuck in traffic and, in an effort to avoid driving on Shabbat, leave their car on the side of a road and begin walking to their destination.
While that same call to the police department might be met first with a series of questions about why the driver chose to leave his or her car, Shomrim’s process is expedited by the fact that members already understand the aspects of Orthodox life that make the community unique. The learning curve is eliminated, said Willner.
However, he stressed, the existence of the watch does not eliminate the need for police in the area.
“We’re happy to see police cars,” he said.
And the city’s police department insists it is happy to work with any citizen or group of citizens that wants to take a more active role in protecting his or her neighborhood.
“We are strong believers in the concept of community policing and making sure that we have healthy, safe neighborhoods,” said Eric Kowalczyk, a media relations officer for the Baltimore Police Department. “We’re not going to be in a position to restrict a neighborhood group or a neighborhood association.”
Security is a concern in every neighborhood, he said, and the police department is encouraged by groups that want to work with them. “I think that the real tribute here is the fact that people care enough about their neighborhood and city that they’re willing to sacrifice their own time to come together to be
active partners with the police department, and that’s a really truly wonderful thing.”