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Among Righteous Men

In Brooklyn, a battle pits Jew against Jew.

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Among Righteous Men:
A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights
By Matthew Shaer
John Wiley & Sons
256 pp.

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In the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, some residents dial 911 to report a crime in progress. Others call a Jew.

That's unusual enough. But the fact that Crown Heights boasts a Jewish security patrol – complete with police cars, a riot van and fast fists – is just the beginning of the remarkable story of one the most insular communities in the United States. Crown Heights actually has two Jewish security forces, the product of a cleft in a sect of Hasidic Judaism that's obsessed with the impending arrival of the messiah.

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Tensions between the two security forces, each devoted to keeping the peace, degenerated into a violent clash in 2007. The bloody confrontation deepened Jew-vs.-Jew tensions and culminated in a bitter courtroom battle.

The whole complicated, convoluted and captivating saga unfolds in the smart and perceptive Among Righteous Men: A Tale of Vigilantes and Vindication in Hasidic Crown Heights. The book is by former Christian Science Monitor staff reporter Matthew Shaer, who embedded himself in a Brooklyn enclave united by men in beards and black hats but torn by religious conflict.

Crown Heights has a tangled history of racial tension and religious fervor featuring Lubavitcher Jews. They believe that the messiah will arrive soon or – in the case of a splinter group inside the sect – that the messiah already showed up in the person of a Brooklyn rabbi who died in 1994.

In the 1990s and earlier, the Lubavitcher Jews in Crown Heights and their local Jewish security force focused on violence from blacks as the neighborhood became "Exhibit A in the race wars," as Shaer puts it.

Over time, however, the threat of crime lessens. Meanwhile, the sect-within-a-sect grows in numbers after the death of the rabbi; believers say he's the messiah and will return from the dead.

Now, Shaer writes, "any spat in Crown Heights was at least as likely to be between two Jews as between a Jew and a black man."

In December 2007, a fight breaks out at a decrepit and overcrowded dormitory for young men who follow the late rabbi and want to become rabbis themselves.

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The security force of the not-so-messianic Lubavitcher faction responds before the police. In moments, a small room is full of violence, some of it caught on camera. Soon, a half dozen alleged instigators – the Shomrim Six, named after their security force – would find themselves in an American legal system they consider to be almost a foreign land.

As Shaer explains, Lubavitcher Jews of all stripes isolate themselves into their 16-block territory of Crown Heights, the "only world that matters." Even though they make up only about a third of Crown Heights residents, they boast their own rabbinical court system, their own ambulances and security forces, and their own dress code.

Even the young are isolated. While they "browse the Web and watch TV and bicker with alacrity about the latest headlines," Schaer writes, the decades-old words of a local rabbi about the Crown Heights territory remain true: "eight blocks away was the end of the world."

Shaer, a stranger in this land, is a rare neutral observer in the detached world of Lubavitcher Jews and seems to have gained trust on both sides. His prose is carefully balanced and respectful but still peppered with gems of wordsmithery.

On one side are the "old-school" Lubavitcher Jews, who are appalled by their fellow Jews who seem even more filled with the spirit than they are. The super-sized fervor is "somehow disgraceful, even here, among the ritually fervent," Shaer writes. These traditional types consider their more messianic brethren to be dirty, smelly, pushy, standoffish. Shaer notes the irony of Jews – ever the target of anti-Semetism – slurring each other with such stereotypes, just as some secular Jews do to Hasidic Jews.

On the other side, the true believers, especially the young, fill their bedrooms with photographs of the late rabbi and spread the word about him through stickers and fliers.

Now both factions would find themselves facing each other in American court, just about the last place any self-respecting Lubavitcher Jew would want to go.

The community's perspective after the trial, Shaer writes, was something like this: "Were there not holy laws in place preventing one Jew from sullying the reputation of another Jew before a goyish judge?"

The reality was that the isolated enclave inside Crown Heights had sprung a devastating leak. And not, for once, because of outsiders.

The trial, full of many characters with many motives, is a bit hard to follow and almost entirely populated by men. (Readers may wish they could learn more about the women in the Lubavitcher community, who wear wigs, jewelry, and fashionable boots.)

Still, the journey from a vicious dormitory fight to a harshly lit courtroom is a fascinating one. In "Among Righteous Men," Schaer proves himself a worthy guide through a maelstrom in a world-within-a-world.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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