Hate-crime case ‘fanning flames’ between Shomrim, Shmira in Crown Heights.
The pending extradition from Israel of a chasidic man, wanted in connection with the attack on a black teen in Crown Heights in 2008, stands to put a long-festering feud between rival Jewish patrol groups there back in the spotlight.
Suspect Yitzchak Shuchat is a member of the Shmira patrol group. The man who hired a private investigator to track him down in Israel acknowledges being the coordinator of the rival Shomrim.
The animosity between some members of the formerly unified groups is so fierce that blogs operated anonymously by patrol members and supporters routinely dish dirt against each other — often extremely personal — using language uncharacteristic of chasidim.
Shuchat is accused of assault as a hate crime in connection with an April 14, 2008 attack on Andrew Charles, then a 20-year-old college student, and the son of a high-ranking police officer. Charles was attacked on Carroll Street in an apparently coordinated attack by people identified by witnesses as chasidim, at a time when Jews in the area had been complaining about a long series of attacks by black assailants. A man at first sprayed mace at Charles before another man got out of an SUV and attacked him with a wooden club, according to police reports.
There was speculation that the attackers suspected Charles or his companions of a crime against Jews. No racial epithets were used during the attack on Charles and police said at the time they did not consider it a hate crime, though Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes disagreed.
The rival groups often trade charges that each group informs on the other to the police.
“This whole Charles thing really fanned the flames of all this,” said Matt Shaer, author of the recently published “Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vengeance and Vindication In Chasidic Crown Heights” (Wiley). The book deals extensively with the rivalry between the patrol groups and the legal action it has initiated. “It has to be the biggest flap so far,” Shaer said.
Hynes was so enraged by the case that he took the rare step of convening a grand jury — absent a suspect — to probe the case and in a Jewish Week interview at the time likened Shmira to violent inner-city gangs like the Crips and Bloods. (He later retracted that comparison.)
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly visited the neighborhood at the time and denounced the behavior of some of the volunteer patrol members, saying, “We need calm heads, cool heads. We don’t want people irrationally causing problems.”
The 2008 incident caused a spike in tensions in a community that has been the focus of extensive bridge-building efforts between the chasidic and black communities since the 1991 riots sparked by the death of a black child in an accident involving a chasidic driver in the motorcade of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Jewish community members complained after the 2008 incident that a spate of street attacks against Jews, some of them leading to serious injuries, were being treated less seriously by Hynes and the police than the incident involving Charles.
(After Kelly’s visit in May 2008, there was a visible increase in police presence, including the installation of observation towers and command posts on Eastern Parkway.)
But the case also stoked tensions between the patrols. It was Hynes’ grand jury inquiry that led to the identification of Shuchat as a suspect, though it is not publicly known who gave up his name. He fled first to Canada and then to Israel shortly afterward.
The coordinator of the Shomrim, Aron Hershkop, said in an interview Tuesday he hired a private investigator to track down Shuchat in Israel on suspicion that he was behind a series of calls to local, state and federal authorities that led to nuisance investigations of Hershkop. “He has an obsession with me,” said Hershkop. “You have to ask him why.”
He said he did not instruct the investigator to report Shuchat’s whereabouts to the authorities.
In a brief phone interview the investigator, Joe Levin, declined to comment on the case.
But a profile in The New York Times in July, with Levin as the primary source of information, reported that “Though Mr. Levin was hired by a member of a Hasidic volunteer crime patrol, he turned his information over to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which has requested Mr. Shuchat’s extradition.
The blog WhoIsShmira, which is vehemently critical of that patrol group, posted claims that Shuchat, from Israel, was sending information about Hershkop to the police, which Orthodox Jews call “mesira,” a term that literally means giving but implies informing to authorities.
Hershkop told The Jewish Week that reports of tensions between the two groups were overblown by the press. “They do their thing, we do ours,” he said.
But Shaer said the rivalry goes back to 1999 and a dispute over whether members of Shomrim were tied to an attempted burglary in Montreal (no link was proven) that caused supporters of those members to split off to take the name Shmira.
“The community leaders later issued a declaration saying Shmira is the official patrol and Shomrim is not,” he said.
Attempts to reach Shmira’s leader, Yanky Prager, were unsuccessful on Tuesday. A recording said his cellphone voice mail system was full and couldn’t accept messages.
A former Shmira administrator, Yossie Stein, declined to comment.
Sources said that Shuchat faces a sealed indictment and that it took a year for the U.S. State Department to process Hynes’ request for extradition and for Israeli authorities to process the request.
A spokesman for Hynes said Shuchat won’t be back in New York until the middle of next month, at the earliest.
“He has until Dec. 16 to decide whether to appeal” the extradition process, said the spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer.
Shaer said that while the acrimony between the groups would lead to some press coverage, “as soon as it fades from the news it goes back to the status quo because these patrols are very popular in the neighborhoods.”
The executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, Eli Cohen, declined to comment on the patrol rivalry but said, “We feel that the DA’s office is wrong about it being a bias crime. It’s clear that they were responding to a legitimate complaint on patrol. If something was done wrong that will eventually be figured out, but pursuing it as a bias crime — there is no evidence of that.”
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind has written a letter to Israeli justice minister Yuval Neeman calling the extradition “a potential miscarriage of justice.”
Barry Sugar, founder of the Jewish Leadership Council, a grassroots group in Crown Heights said “To me, the fact that the DA told [The Jewish Week] that he’d only called four [special] grand juries in his 22 year career, and he chose this case—a minor assault accusation—as his fifth time, is especially suspicious. There appears to be an interest in holding up Yitzhak’s prosecution as a trophy prize after a show-trial.”
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