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The man behind the Jewish guardians of Stamford Hill

Almost a decade after the group launched in Stamford Hill, its president talks about security, antisemitism and intercommunal relations

    The attack came as the three Jewish men were standing outside a Stamford Hill wedding hall in early July, waiting to pick up guests as they left.

    “Dogs in England are better than Jewish,” Inieta Winiarski shouted as she whipped one of the men with a dog lead, before unsuccessfully attempting to set her own dog on the three victims. Her husband, Kasimiersz Winiarski, joined her in shoving and punching the men.

    The couple then fled the scene. But soon afterwards, their movements were being tracked by Stamford Hill’s Jewish voluntary security group, Shomrim. Later that evening, the Winiarskis were arrested by the police.

    Shomrim’s involvement in pursuing the offenders should not come as a surprise. Since launching in 2008, the group has become a fixture within the Jewish and wider community in the Hackney, Haringey and Stoke Newington areas of north-east London.

    Figures for 2016 show that Shomrim — the name means “guardians” in Hebrew — was involved in facilitating 136 arrests, 19 of which were for antisemitic offences, as well as helping to locate 31 missing people.

    Rabbi Herschel Gluck, the president of North-East London Shomrim, greets me warmly at his Stamford Hill home, where I am treated to coffee and danishes. The pastries, it transpires, are the family business — Rabbi Gluck owns the Parkway patisserie chain.

    Shomrim, he says, came into being “because it was felt that such an organisation would be very helpful, both in terms of general security issues which had in the past been the remit of the police, and also in helping the particular issues that affect the Jewish community here, as in antisemitism.

    “The police are overstretched. There are a lot of demands on their resources — funding is an issue, and therefore the police were not coping. And we were there to work with and help the police.”

    The group runs a hotline “which is available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for life-threatening emergencies,” says Rabbi Gluck.

    “We also have patrols during the week, which are very effective. We have 32 people who do patrols for us in Hackney and Haringey and the surrounding areas. They go through all the mandatory checks — anyone with any type of [criminal] record or who we feel has vigilante tendencies, we do not allow on board.

    “We are very proud of our volunteers and the time they put in — it’s not just on certain days of the week, its 24 hours a day, during the day, during the night. What is deeply impressive is that none of these people are paid at all. They do it all on a voluntary basis — they all have other jobs — and their level of commitment is truly amazing.”

    At first, he says, the police were “rather hesitant” to back Shomrim, “for obvious reasons”, meaning concerns that a bunch of vigilantes had arrived on their patch.

    But after the then-police chief in Hackney visited New York and saw how Shomrim operated on the ground there, attitudes changed.Ever since, North-East London Shomrim has worked closely with the police.

    “They said to us that they’ve never caught a burglar in situ”, the 59-year-old says. “By us it’s frequent — we frequently catch burglars when they’re coming out of the house, when they’re in the house, because we get there a lot quicker than the police.

    “Our function isn’t to replicate the police, it is to get to the scene, secure the scene, apprehend the perpetrator and wait for the police to come. They make the arrest.”

    (Getty Images)

    Earlier this year, Hackney borough commander Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Laurence heaped lavish praise on the group. “They have delivered some truly outstanding work and been an excellent support to the police at Hackney,” he told the Hackney Gazette.

    However, while the relationship with the police is warm, Rabbi Gluck has sterner words for the UK legal system.

    Inieta and Kasimiersz Winiarski, despite being respectively convicted of three counts of racially aggravated assault and two counts of assault by beating, received only a suspended prison sentence and an order to pay a small fine to their victims. Rabbi Gluck condemned the lenient sentencing at the time.

    “There certainly need to be stronger sentencing guidelines”, he says. “I don’t think the legal system is in step with the general attitudes towards antisemitic crime — and towards hate crime in general, where the same holds true. It’s not a luxury crime, it’s a real crime, one which society cannot and will not tolerate.”

    A casual look at the North East London Shomrim Twitter feed will show the large number of antisemitic incidents they respond to. Antisemitic graffiti in the Stamford Hill area, home to Europe’s largest community of strictly Orthodox Jews, appears to be a regular occurrence, as do instances of verbal abuse.

    Examples of physical abuse motivated by antisemitism also occur, albeit less frequently.

    However, Rabbi Gluck is quick to oppose the contention, often made, that the number of antisemitic incidents in the area is rising.

    “We need to put things in historical context”, he says. “I would say that today the levels of antisemitism on the street are much lower than they were 30 years ago — without any shadow of a doubt. Has Moshiach come? No, sadly. There are still issues. But we need a little bit of context here.”

    A few decades ago, he says, UK Jews felt that “we are in a relatively safe country, no pogroms here, no killing us. So there is some antisemitism? That’s our lot, we need to accept it. We’re not happy with it, it’s not ideal, but, with a Jewish shrug of the shoulders, shoyn [OK].

    “Today, there is a different attitude, that there’s zero-tolerance for antisemitism.

    “If there’s zero-tolerance, the Jewish community is more prepared to say that we also have zero-tolerance of antisemitism. People feel — and I think this is a very positive development — that they have the right to speak out and that action should be taken.”

    Rabbi Gluck with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe
    Rabbi Gluck with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe

    As well as combating antisemitism, Shomrim serves, entirely inadvertently, to combat another stereotype aimed at strictly Orthodox Jews.

    The Charedi community in Stamford Hill is seen by many — including a large percentage of other UK Jews — as being parochial and unwilling to mix with the outside world.

    Organisations such as Hatzolah, the Jewish ambulance service, and Shomrim, show a different side to the story.

    “Shomrim has never been insular — we don’t just care about our own community,” Rabbi Gluck says. “Sixty-four percent of matters we pursue relate to the security of the general population, from all backgrounds, and that has also led to a much better understanding between the communities.”

    Rabbi Gluck is also a founder of the Muslim-Jewish Forum, dedicated to strengthening ties between the two communities, and received an OBE in 2013 for his efforts.

    “I prefer the term ‘intercommunal’ to interfaith”, he says. “Because it’s not about sitting down and discussing theology; it’s about us being neighbours, that we reside and work in the same city, we are all British citizens, and it’s important that we should be good neighbours.

    He speaks with particular pride about the “tremendous amount of interaction” between the two communities in Stamford Hill.

    “I think perhaps, other areas of London could learn from our model, about how to have a constructive association with members of other communities”, he says.

    “When the first Muslims came to the neighbourhood in the late ’60s, early ’70s, it was actually Jewish people who welcomed them and helped them. And this in turn helped to an appreciation, to a positive memory, of relations with Jewish people, and an appreciation of what the Jewish people did for Muslim individuals. I think constructive engagement generally pays very good dividends.

    “It’s been a real partnership. Both communities work equally together for the common good and for each other. I’m very, very heartened by the attitudes and by the actions of our Muslim partners in this area, and I am aware that that sentiment is shared by the Muslim community, that they see in the Jewish community people who really look out for them.”

    Of course, occasionally there are divisions — invariably caused by the subject of Israel.

    “During Cast Lead in Gaza there were various noises among the Muslim community saying ‘hang on a second. How come we are meeting with Jews when Muslim children are being murdered in Gaza’,” Rabbi Gluck says.

    “So of course the situation was very complex, and they said we need to call a meeting. I said, sure.

    The meeting went ahead, with the head of planning for Hackney Council in attendance.

    Rabbi Gluck says: “First, we discussed local planning issues which affect both communities. And we dealt with them in a way that was beneficial to both communities.

    “Then we spoke about coroner issues [issues about the treatment of dead bodies] which impacts on both communities.

    “And then we dealt with the situation in the Holy Land.

    “If we would have started with Gaza and if that had been seen as the only issue, we would have never been able to come to an agreement.

    “But then when we spoke about Gaza, we decided to agree to disagree.

    “To achieve that, our relationship had to be seen in a much wider context. When you have a relationship in a wider context, then you can, even on very sensitive issues, agree to disagree.”

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