Rescue and recovery

The NY Times does it again, true to form.

Larry Gordon

OpEds Larry Gordon
Larry Gordon

The New York Times, as usual, never misses an opportunity to cast aspersions on the Jewish community or any aspect of it, big or small.

This past Shabbos morning, the Times called into question in a rather expansive way the nature and inner workings of private Jewish security patrols in Brooklyn. The Times headline asked the question at the outset: “Private Jewish Patrols: Protectors or Bullies?”

Of course, as is the case with any group that assists police in patrolling streets, acting as their eyes and ears in the fight against crime, there are going to be incidents. That these things occur is unfortunate, and perhaps unavoidable for the most part, but not something on which to judge the entire citywide community effort.

And that is the case here, as it is with any generally beneficial entity that miscalculates or sometimes demonstrates poor judgment. These errant episodes, however, should not be used to determine the total value of the group or its mission—in this case, providing extra security for a community in trying times.

But this is the usual Times agenda, that is to make the Jewish community—and especially the Torah-observant community that adheres to a higher halakhic standard—appear as prone to error and even corruption as any other group.

The idea of members of a Jewish community organizing and helping police patrol the streets is not a new one. It must be more than half a century old in this country. It started long ago in Brooklyn neighborhoods and was probably spurred on originally by Rabbi Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League long before he or the group became players in Israel’s political arena.

At first it was about protecting Jews in changing neighborhoods. Kahane was most likely inspired by Jewish defenselessness back in Europe, where whole communities were persecuted, isolated, and attacked, with many Jews being murdered. And though many decades have now passed, it seems that the motivations are still very much the same.

There is...a common theme, if only on an elementary level, between a Boro Park or Williamsburg security patrol like Shomrim and the Israeli military defending Jews in Israel.
There is a sense—especially in the densely populated frum neighborhoods in and around Brooklyn—that our communities are vulnerable, are sometimes targeted, and are considered easy prey. The fact is that for Jews to defend themselves or even fight back is still considered a strange phenomenon by the outside world. Even today, the international community is still extremely uncomfortable, for example, with the superiority and effectiveness of the Israel Defense Forces. And as disconnected the two might seem, this mindset trickles down to everyday life in our New York neighborhoods.

These are disparate and very different entities, but there is nevertheless a common theme, if only on an elementary level, between a Boro Park or Williamsburg security patrol like Shomrim and the Israeli military defending Jews in Israel.

Among the things they have in common might be the suggestion that they are simply too strong and too efficient, as silly as that idea might be. And to a great extent it is the news media—particularly with stories like that in the Times—that perpetuate the perception that Jews standing up for ourselves and triumphing over those seeking to harm us, as opposed to being content with our status as victims, is an anomaly.

Here in the Far Rockaway–Five Towns area, there is also a 24-hour security patrol, which the directors say operates and functions somewhat differently than the Shomrim and is thereby perhaps less prone to controversy. “We work hand in hand with the local police precinct,” say Shulem Klein, one of the senior members of the Rockaway Nassau Safety Patrol (RNSP). “We do not engage possible suspects, but rather if our members observe something suspicious, we alert police and they respond,” Klein said. A policy of this nature means that there will be fewer incidents—or actually no incidents—where anyone can claim that the patrol members acted outside their mandate.

About a year ago, I rode with the patrol for about an hour one evening; it was fascinating to watch and encouraging to know that neighbors are watching out for each other in this fashion. While crime is down nationally, in communities like ours there is no room for crime. The community residents demand zero tolerance, and that is what the police out here along with the RNSP endeavor to deliver.

The dynamic on the streets of Brooklyn might be somewhat different, as the dense population of that urban setting unfortunately lends itself to unavoidable incidents, for lack of a better word. Out here in suburbia, or the closest thing we have to it, the streets are more tree-lined and the houses are generally further apart, at least on the Nassau County side, and dark stretches with poor or limited lighting can create cover for those looking to indulge in criminality.

In speaking to Shulem Klein and Shmuli Kassover of RNSP, our conversation turned in a different direction after our discussion about what is going on out there on the streets. Both Shmuli and Shulem related to me that they had quite a harrowing week as the news on Shavuos came across their radios that an Atlantic Beach man was missing and a search-and-rescue operation needed to be launched.

On Sunday this week, when I first texted Kassover, he responded that he could not talk at the moment because he was at the funeral of Gary Turkel, the 41-year-old husband, a father of three young children, who went missing after going into the water at the beach with a paddleboard.

The seas were particularly rough that first Sunday, Klein says. Turkel apparently launched himself into the water and rough seas immediately began pulling him out. “I went out to shul to learn the first night of yom tov,” Klein says, “and I did not come back home except for a shower and a change of clothes until Friday, when Turkel’s body was found some 30 miles off Atlantic Beach.”

As soon as word got out and police were notified, the RNSP personnel sprang into action. In addition to the police boats and aircraft, RNSP used its numerous contacts to recruit the services of others who operate boats, helicopters, and airplanes to broaden the search area. Marinas and fishing-boat areas were visited by volunteers who handed out flyers to boaters, asking them to be on the lookout for Turkel or any of his equipment while they were out at sea.

Both Kassover and Klein say that they urged the authorities to not just keep looking but to intensify the search to whatever extent they could. The Harbor Police and the other marine authorities wanted to quickly revert the matter to a recovery rather than a rescue mission. The RNSP went ahead and recruited more private planes and boats with a sense that it was still possible to rescue Mr. Turkel from somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean.

On Friday morning, a fishing boat came across a blue paddle floating about 30 miles off the coast. The boaters alerted the authorities, and Gary Turkel’s lifeless body was located still tethered to his board.

The unsung heroes here are the members of the RNSP. Many of the men did not go to work all week but either worked with volunteers distributing flyers at marinas or helped coordinate the search with police while keeping family members updated throughout.

There was no mention of the RNSP’s role in the search that was perfectly coordinated with police. Was that because it was executed and conducted so seamlessly and professionally? In the Times story about the Shomrim, one gets the feeling that any good things mentioned were meant merely as a setup to illustrate how the Shomrim volunteers exceed their role in reducing crime on the streets of Brooklyn.

It was not unusual New York Times coverage of the Jewish community. It was par for the course. Little was mentioned of all the good that gets done out on the streets—or that at the end of the day the people are safer than before any of these groups existed. 

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