Black, Jewish communities in Baltimore at odds over Shomrim volunteer unit

In Baltimore, more than 30 Shomrim volunteers man a year-round, 24/7 hotline, responding to 130-150 calls for help each month.
In Baltimore, more than 30 Shomrim volunteers man a year-round, 24/7 hotline, responding to 130-150 calls for help each month. (Shomrim)
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By Daniel Burke
Saturday, February 5, 2011

BALTIMORE

When Pauline Watson felt threatened by teenagers loitering outside her condominium in this city's Park Heights neighborhood, she didn't call the police. She called Shomrim.

"We were scared, okay?" said the 65-year-old African American, adding that most tenants in her building are elderly.

Police in this crime-ridden city have their hands full with more serious matters, Watson said, and often cannot respond quickly to non-emergency calls in her working-class neighborhood. Shomrim was on the scene within minutes, she said, and dispersed the teenagers peacefully.

Since 2005, Shomrim, an Orthodox Jewish volunteer unit, has added a layer of safety to this city, residents such as Watson say. Calling themselves additional "eyes and ears" for the police, more than 30 Shomrim volunteers man a year-round, 24/7 hotline, responding to 130-150 calls for help each month.

Maj. Johnny Delgado, commander of Baltimore City Police Department's Northwest District, where Shomrim patrols, calls the citizen squad "invaluable." But a recent violent encounter between Shomrim and a black teen sparked a larger confrontation between the city's black and Jewish communities, with both groups accusing the other of harassment and racial hostility.

In November, a black 15-year-old accused Baltimore Shomrim volunteers of accosting him on the street, striking him on the head with a radio and saying, "You don't belong around here" - a predominantly Jewish section of Park Heights.

Eliyalu Eliezer Werdesheim, 23, a Shomrim volunteer and former Israeli special forces soldier, and his brother Avi Werdesheim, 20, who does not work with Shomrim, have been charged with false imprisonment, second-degree assault and possession of a deadly weapon. Both are scheduled to be arraigned in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Feb. 16.

But Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein - the city's top prosecutor - decided to drop a more serious felony assault charge against the elder Werdesheim, enraging some members of the black community, who have protested outside Bernstein's office.

"What does this move say about how much city leaders value the lives and safety of black teenagers in Baltimore?" asked the Rev. Heber Brown, vice president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Brown is one of several black pastors calling on Shomrim to halt operations until the Werdesheim case is settled.

According to Brown, Shomrim is a "violent fringe group" that should diversify its volunteer corps or disband. Several other black pastors and community leaders have echoed that call.

Shomrim officials refused to comment on the record. Attorneys for the Werdesheims have said the brothers acted in self-defense after the teenager threatened them with a nail-studded wooden stick.


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