The Jewish community shares the pain of the Kletzky family in the wake of the tragic death of eight-year-old Leiby. The fact that so many people put aside their daily concerns to join the search for the youngster last week is but one sign of the solidarity and compassion that was evident throughout the painful ordeal.
Like many Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, the Kletzkys turned first in an emergency to the local Shomrim (Hebrew for “guardians”), the neighborhood watch groups trusted for their quick response and concern for their own. But there are those both within the Orthodox community and law enforcement who are concerned that, for all their good intentions, Shomrim officials are at times too independent in their efforts to protect their tight-knit community. (See story, page 1.)
The fact that the NYPD was not notified until several hours after young Leiby went missing is deeply troubling, and several police officials and communal leaders have expressed frustration with the protocol of some Shomrim groups.
“Who are they accountable to?” asked one NYPD official with close contacts in the Orthodox community.
The head of one Brooklyn Shomrim group said that in cases of missing children, elderly or mentally ill people, his volunteers are instructed to call 911 immediately. But there is no consensus among the groups, and each has its own internal rules.
In addition, sources close to this case question the fact that the Brooklyn South Shomrim group (which covers Borough Park) maintains a list of suspected molesters, including photographs and other information about alleged perpetrators – a list they do not share with police. The reason offered is that “the rabbis” don’t permit Jews to inform on fellow Jews to secular authorities.
While many rabbinic authorities encourage their constituents to contact police immediately in cases of suspected abuse, molestation or other crises, there is still a stigma in some Orthodox communities to seek help from the authorities.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, has often noted that when your house is on fire, you call the fire department, not your rabbi. Similarly, he maintains, when there is a suspected crime, the first call should be to the police.
But that logic has been slow to take hold in some neighborhoods, sometimes with unfortunate results.
In the meantime, attention should be focused on strengthening legislation for mandated reporting in New York to emulate states like New Jersey, where any person having reasonable cause to suspect abuse is required to report. Such legal action would prevent neighborhood watchdog groups from withholding from the police potentially vital information about suspects. This is particularly timely in light of reports that several neighbors of the accused killer say he had tried to abduct other boys in the neighborhood. Such incidents need to be reported.
The Leiby Kletzky case is heartbreaking for all concerned. But if efforts are taken within the community and through legislation to protect citizens more professionally, there will be an element of comfort in preventing the next Leiby from becoming a victim.