NEW YORK – When an 8-year-old boy from an insulated, ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn failed to make it home from day camp, his parents' first call was not to the police, but to the Shomrim patrol, a local volunteer group whose name means guardians in Hebrew.
Hasidic areas like Borough Park, where a Shomrim-organized search party looked for little Leiby Kletzky, are worlds unto themselves. Their members are identifiable by their distinctive appearance — wigs and modest dresses for the women, beards and side curls for the men. Community members send their children to Jewish schools, speak Yiddish as a first language and shun modern distractions like television.
Yet another distinction is the patrols, which residents turn to first because "they know the community, they speak the language, they have the trust of the entire community," said Isaac Abraham, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section.
The search party for Leiby grew to as many as 5,000 people and served as a window into the tradition in these ultra-Orthodox communities of relying on each other, which stems in part from a history of persecution against Jews in Eastern Europe.
"We've always come together," said Shmuel Eckstein, a friend of the Kletzkys who was praying with the family Thursday. "It's what we've always done, historically."
Neighbors looking for the boy stopped knocking on doors Wednesday when his remains were found and police arrested Levi Aron, a 35-year-old hardware supply clerk who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he killed Leiby and dismembered him.
Despite the endeavor's tragic end, the search was a powerful example of the value of Shomrim and similar patrols to their communities, said state Sen. Eric Adams, a retired NYPD captain who represents a neighboring Brooklyn district.
"The community patrols have the manpower that can immediately go into the crevices of a community that police may not even be aware of," he said. "The deployment of the community patrol allows the police to go further in their search because the community group was on the ground."
Shomrim members have been credited with helping police make arrests, even while placing themselves in danger. Four patrol members were wounded in Brooklyn last September as they were tailing a man they suspected of exposing himself to young girls.
And residents rely on Shomrim because police don't have the resources to check out minor issues like a noise in the backyard but Shomrim does, said Jacob Daskal, a coordinator and founder of the Borough Park Shomrim patrol.
He said the group has 150 members who are all required to volunteer at least one night a month. Dispatchers take hotline calls and send out patrols. Volunteers pay for their own gas. Expenses like office rent and two-way radios are funded by donations with some support from local elected officials.
Patrol members cooperate with the police and wear jackets or vests issued by the department.
Shomrim groups have also arisen in other cities with large communities of observant Jews, but the groups are not without their own challenges. While Shomrim members say the volunteers work tirelessly to keep their neighborhoods safe, critics have accused some of being vigilantes who target blacks.
Two Shomrim members in Baltimore were charged with assaulting a black teenager last November and telling him, "You don't belong around here, get outta here!" Charges against them are pending. In a 1996 case in Brooklyn, several Crown Heights Shomrim members were accused of beating a black man whose nephew they suspected of bike theft.
Adams, who is black, is well aware that critics have accused Shomrim members of targeting black New Yorkers. He said the group doesn't bar minorities or non-Jews from participating.
"People can't be sitting on the sidelines complaining about those who volunteer," Adams said.
Daskal said his group has no non-Jewish members "because no one applied." He said blacks and other non-Jews would be welcome if they passed background checks.
Asked about Shomrim this week, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly praised the group and said he understands that there is a tradition in the Hasidic community of notifying the citizen patrols first.
But Kelly said he wished the Kletzky family had called 911 at the same time, not two to 2½ hours later. He did not say a quick call to 911 could have saved Leiby.
"But make no mistake about it, we want to be notified right away; we don't think it's a good idea to lag in notifications to the police," he said. "I think also that notifications to Shomrim — the community relies on them, they do a good job, we think that is totally appropriate."
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik, Jennifer Peltz and Tom Hays contributed to this report.
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