Highlights From: A Shtetl Divided By Matthew Shaer
One damp day in November 2009, I took the subway to the Brooklyn Supreme Courthouse, where six members of the Crown Heights Shomrim were on trial for gang assault. Proceedings were scheduled to commence at 10:00 a.m., but by 10:30 the judge had not yet appeared, and I found a seat at the back of the gallery, next to a young Hasidic attorney named Isaac Tamir. Around us, the Lubavitchers in attendance chattered anxiously—the men worrying the fringes of their ritual undergarments and the women clutching Gucci handbags and working the touchscreens of their BlackBerries.
“You know, I’m always looking for reporters to cover my cases,” Tamir whispered to me. “Maybe we can work something out.” He was wearing a stained tie knotted loosely around his neck; his suit looked a size too big. He said he’d once worked as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, and I asked him whether he thought the jury would understand the complexities of the Shomrim case.
“They don’t have to understand everything,” he said. “They just have to understand what the whole thing is really about.”
“What is it really about?”
“The feud, of course.” He opened his blue eyes wide. I had shown my ignorance. “Without the feud, there wouldn’t have been the brawl. Without the feud, the Shomrim would never have been charged. The feud is the reason six Jewish boys are on trial.”
Two years earlier, Shomrim dispatch had received a call about a disturbance at the yeshiva dormitory at 749 Eastern Parkway. Witnesses later reported seeing six Shomrim punch, strangle, and kick their way through a crowd of rabbinical students. The Shomrim claimed to have been ambushed. A video recorded by one of the students seemed to back this up: on the tape, the Shomrim are trapped, hemmed in on all sides by a mass of black hats and coats.
Had it not been for the efforts of a Lubavitch lawyer named Levi Huebner, the police probably would have been content to issue a few desk-appearance tickets for misdemeanor assault. But Huebner, who is himself a member of the Crown Heights Shmira, had relentlessly pushed the city to go after the Shomrim; he was also pursuing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit on behalf of the rabbinical students. A source at the D.A.’s office told me that Huebner was providing essential aid to the prosecution—translating for the victims, producing witnesses, identifying Shomrim. Without Huebner, there would be no trial. I asked Tamir whether people were angry with Huebner. “Why?” he said. I suggested that, historically, internal Jewish disputes had been settled by Jewish courts. He shrugged. “It’s not like that anymore. People go to secular courts all the time.”
That was essentially true— Lubavitchers, like all Americans, have become ever more litigious in recent years—but I later learned that many people were furious at Huebner. They believed that because he is aligned with the messianist camp in Crown Heights, Huebner had both religious and political reasons to go after the Shomrim, a group composed mostly of moderate, non-messianist Lubavitchers.
“What will happen to the Shomrim?” I asked Tamir. He didn’t know. “I have to go visit a client.” He pressed a business card emblazoned with his head shot into my hand. “Call me,” he said.