By Larry Gordon
This is about selfless individuals who quietly make a dramatic difference in a community. They are the dedicated young men and women of the Far Rockaway Shomrim, the RCSP–Rockaway Citizens Safety Patrol–who patrol the streets of the geographically jagged terrain of Queens that includes the mostly Jewish-populated areas of Reads Lane and parts of Bayswater.
On occasion I hear from Jason Shtundel, a 27-year-old teacher who resides in Bayswater who decided to organize a patrol of this nature after his car was repeatedly burglarized several years ago. Jonathan sent me some information and we spoke over the phone so that I could develop an understanding of what the Shomrim patrol is all about.
On Sunday, I told him that we could talk about the many aspects of his and his associates’ undertaking, but I would not have a clear understanding of what they were doing unless I rode with them for a little while.
Let me just say by way of background that about 40 or so years ago, as a teenager, I rode three nights a week in a car with a partner patrolling the streets of Crown Heights. In those days, there was funding for that kind of project because of the constant increase in crime, which allowed us some minimal remuneration for our crime-fighting efforts. Today’s Shomrim–here in Far Rockaway, anyway–is entirely made up of volunteers and, as one can immediately observe, it is a sincere and comprehensive effort.
Unlike the patrols of yesteryear–which were organized as an urgent reaction to out-of-control crime sprees–today’s patrols are largely focused on keeping our areas safe even from routine crime. Police resources are limited and the cops simply cannot be everywhere. It is not our place to criticize them but rather to assist them. If you see something, say something, and don’t just complain.
This area of New York, including our sliver of Long Island, presents a unique challenge to law enforcement. While our neighborhoods are, by and large, safe and people walk freely on the streets late at night, there have been incidents and it is heartening that there are those focused on keeping the area safe. The safer parts of Far Rockaway are bordered by some high-crime areas, and that is probably the primary function of the Shomrim–to limit the spillover from those areas to here.
Back in those old days just mentioned in Brooklyn, people criticized patrols like these as being symptomatic of an increasing crime rate, and that had a negative impact on real-estate values. But that is probably old thinking. Places like Boro Park and Williamsburg, where such patrols are proficient and effective, are seeing real-estate values ever increasing. The same is true in Far Rockaway.
So it is about 9 p.m. on Sunday night and Jason and his partner, Sholom Klein, are waiting for me in front of my home. It’s an innocuous plain car with tinted windows. Inside the vehicle, it is a somewhat different story. Sholom has a sophisticated radio that allows him to monitor the interactions between the other units on the street. He also has the vehicle outfitted with a siren and brilliant lights for when he has to respond to an emergency and needs traffic to yield.
Lately there has been a rash of car break-ins, so the men have increased the hours of the street patrol until 5 a.m. (At that point, even the petty thieves probably have enough and call it a day, or a night, as the case may be.) The patrol works seven days a week. The Friday-night and Saturday patrols are done by civic-minded non-Jews who reside in the areas and who, like all fair and good citizens, want to keep their homes and neighborhoods safe.
So I am in the car, which looks more like an airplane cockpit with all the switches and gadgets. We are slowly rolling down the mostly deserted streets that intersect Reads Lane. It’s quiet; there is nary a soul on the street. Both Sholom and Jason relate to me that the night before, on Saturday night, they were instrumental in two arrests in the area for car burglary. “For the criminals, this is where and how they shop.” Sholom says that criminals walk gingerly from car to car, looking for valuables inside and searching for unlocked doors. Often they find valuable things like cell phones, iPads, and women’s handbags inadvertently left in a car overnight. They say that sometimes, in the summer, after children finish riding their bicycles, they leave the garage door wide open, which is a bonanza for thieves casing the area.
In any event, with two arrests made on Saturday night, what were the odds that there was going to be any action this early in the evening the next night? As I considered that, a call came across the car radio that a homeowner saw a suspicious person in their backyard near Jarvis Avenue. The homeowner flicked on his back-porch light and the suspect took off.
He was described as a tall black man, about 6-feet to 6-feet, 2-inches tall, wearing a gray sweatshirt, blue jeans, and white sneakers. Sholom and Jason–at this point riding along Empire Avenue away from Reads–made a quick Uâ€‘turn to head down Reads. Other units are also headed in the same direction. The objective was to identify the suspect’s location, what block he was walking on, or where he was trying to hide–if he hadn’t fled, as he apparently did–and then to alert the police at the 101st precinct.
Shomrim members aren’t armed. The police insist that, for identity purposes, they wear uniforms and carry with them some minimal equipment, like a flashlight and so on. We got down to the bottom of Reads and two other Shomrim volunteers were out of their vehicles searching the periphery of the high grass and swampland in the area. Every few minutes, they radioed back that the area was clear and that they did not see anyone.
Sholom Klein says that they know that those looking to rob cars come from further up on Seagirt Boulevard. He adds that in the two years that Shomrim has been operating in Far Rockaway, incidents have dropped almost 50 percent.
Aside from keeping the streets safe and monitoring activity out there, perhaps Shomrim’s greatest moments were a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Their relationship with the Shomrim groups from other areas made them a conduit for bringing food and medications to people stuck in their homes and unable to leave. The Far Rockaway Shomrim was also instrumental in salvaging the Torah scrolls that would have otherwise been submerged in the floodwaters that inundated Congregation Ohab Zedek in Belle Harbor.
For his part, as Sholom Klein slowly moved his car along the streets looking in driveways and the areas between homes, he responded to my inquiry about his involvement in the response to the recent, still-unsolved murder of Williamsburg businessman Menachem Stark. Sholom, 35, says that he was born and raised in Williamsburg, and that his father was one of the original members of that community’s Shomrim group. “So I guess you can say that I grew up with Shomrim and what we mean to a Jewish community,” he says.
Shtundel and Klein noted that another favorite tactic of the criminal element is to abscond with packages that are left by UPS at people’s doors. The last person they chased and pursued for stealing a UPS package, a few weeks ago, was out on parole after serving a sentence for murder. Another recent situation they recalled involved a man trying to sell the contents of a car he had burglarized to a few students at a local yeshiva.
The Shomrim folks know where the people in the community have security cameras on their property. When there is an incident, they are able to cull the footage from a combination of systems to identify the perpetrator.
Don’t get the wrong impression; this part of Far Rockaway is a very attractive location to live. Realtors say that the demand is great and that the only problem is that there are virtually no homes available for sale. But even though crime statistics are down in New York, even a little bit of crime is too much for communities like these.
The men tell me that, all told, they have 150 volunteers within their ranks. There is an emergency number (917-727-7306) that can be called 24/7, to which there will be an instant response.
The bottom line is that it is so impressive and comforting that these selfless individuals are out there watching out to keep us and our families safe. We can certainly be more at ease and confident with people like Jason and Sholom and their associates discreetly patrolling our streets night after night.
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