Watching the Watchers
Members of Orthodox Jewish citizen-patrol group Shomrim sued for assault
Published: March 30, 2011
The local Jewish community patrol group Shomrim is described on the organization’s web site as the “eyes and ears” of the neighborhoods it serves. The word “shomrim” is, in fact, Hebrew for “watchers.” But a civil complaint currently pending in Circuit Court contends that on one occasion several men who appear to be prominent members of Shomrim did not take so kindly to being watched themselves. The suit, brought by former attorney and notorious gadfly Leonard Kerpelman, alleges that on Aug. 16, 2008, a group of men assaulted him as he was sitting in his car on a public street, videotaping the exterior of a synagogue, Northwest Baltimore’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah. Unrelated newspaper articles, public documents, and the account of an eyewitness who knows the men indicate that at least three of those named in the suit are members of Shomrim.
Once an organization with which few outside of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community were familiar, Shomrim has weathered controversy recently. Late last year member Eliyahu Eliezer Werdesheim was charged with assaulting an African-American teenager in Park Heights while out on patrol. The incident led to protests, with some in the black community calling for the dismantling of the patrol. (In January, State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein reduced a felony assault charge against Werdesheim to misdemeanor charges, a move that led to further protests. Werdesheim’s trial is set for May 2.) Meanwhile, Kerpelman’s lawsuit was percolating away, unnoticed. Shomrim is not mentioned anywhere in the Kerpelman suit, but City Paper has discovered that several of the defendants are prominent members. If Kerpelman wins, it could represent a black mark on the reputation of an organization that would likely prefer to fade back into obscurity.
Kerpelman, who filed suit in August 2009, has a talent for provoking people. A former constitutional lawyer who represented the atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case that resulted in the outlawing of mandatory prayer in public schools, he was disbarred in 1991 in part for defying a judge’s order regarding his courtroom behavior. He’s since made a number of vocal (and unsuccessful) runs for public office, and has been kicked out of at least one Board of Estimates meeting for filming the proceedings. Now in his 80s, Kerpelman devotes much of his free time to producing documentaries for Channel 75, Baltimore’s public access TV station. (According to a list he provided to City Paper, past titles include: “Female Yiddish Humorists,” “Faces at the Farmer’s Market,” and “Cat Watching Chickadees.”) On the day of the incident, he says, he decided to film those entering Shomrei Emunah because he found them colorful. “These people are a curiosity like the Amish are,” he says. “I was making a benign film.”
The video he took is often shaky and out of focus, but appears to be shot from a car across the street from the synagogue. Initial footage shows women with strollers and men in yarmulkes and black hats walking to and fro. Around the two-minute mark, a man in a suit appears at the car window and asks Kerpelman why he is filming. Kerpelman tells him he’s doing an “article” for “cable channel 75.” The man requests identification, and after initially refusing, Kerpelman provides what he says is a press pass. More men appear.
Around the four-minute mark, a man in a black hat appears in front of Kerpelman’s car, apparently blocking him from driving away. The man says he wants to see the video Kerpelman has shot. “I’m doing an article on the synagogue whether you like it or not,” Kerpelman says. “It’s an unauthorized article.” The man in the black hat approaches the driver’s-side window, saying, “I’m gonna take your video camera and shove it up your ass, whether you like it or not.”
The footage becomes jumbled, with the lens apparently pointing at Kerpelman’s bare forearm. A voice close to the camera, seemingly the man in the black hat, says “Don’t play with me. Do you understand?” Kerpelman contends that at this point the man in the black hat wrested a spare camera from his grip and left with it in his possession. (The suit alleges that Kerpelman “suffered physical bruising of his body” as a result.)
The video goes on for another 12 minutes, while other individuals attempt to calm Kerpelman and Kerpelman demands the return of his camera. The video cuts to a shot of a camera, which has apparently been returned. But Kerpelman claims it has been broken. The police are now on the scene. Near the end of the video, a man who identifies himself as “John Doe” implies that Kerpelman is filming the synagogue because he is a pedophile.
The suit names the congregation of Shomrei Emunah; a building fund affiliated with the synagogue; and more than 15 individuals, including the rabbi. (Jason Kerpelman, Leonard Kerpelman’s son and legal counsel, says they are casting a wide net because a comment in the video led them to suspect that someone of authority within the synagogue directed the men in the video to stop Kerpelman from filming.) The complaint accuses various defendants with six counts: criminal conspiracy, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery, and false imprisonment. Trial is scheduled to begin April 25.
Robert Bouse, who represents all but two of the defendants, says common sense alone could exonerate them, though there are plenty of other arguments in their favor. “The fact of the matter is a guy who no one knew was filming these young children going in and out of the congregation and they come over and inquire,” he says. “If you’ve seen the video, I don’t think there was much of a confrontation there until Mr. Kerpelman started it.” The defendants’ answer to the civil complaint makes much the same point: “As a self designated film-maker who seeks to ‘preserve naturalness by not information [sic] the subjects of his film of his intentions’ [sic] . . . Plaintiff waived the right to assume that his ‘subjects’ would not draw negative connotations or impressions as to his activities,” it reads in part.
Barry Schleifer—who does not belong to Shomrim—is one of the men named in the suit. He says it’s understandable that he and his companions were worried about the fact that someone was filming the synagogue. “A lot of the Jewish institutions and schools were filmed by people of Middle Eastern descent, and we were concerned about issues of terrorism,” he says. “When I found out [Kerpelman’s] name, I knew enough about him to know that he was just a harmless wacko.”
But Kerpelman says what he was doing was perfectly legal. After the Shomrei Emunah incident, he requested a letter from City Solicitor George Nilson on the subject of filming in public. It reads in part: “The cases consistently hold that there is no invasion of privacy when the person photographed or videotaped is doing something that can be observed by the general public and passersby. . . . It would be different if you were to approach a window of the synagogue and take video footage of those inside.”
After obtaining the names of those who appear in the video through a prolonged discovery process, Kerpelman also filed a criminal complaint against seven of the men who appear in the video. But in September 2010, the State’s Attorney’s office downgraded the felony assault and robbery charges to misdemeanors, and because the statute of limitations for misdemeanor charges had passed, they were then automatically dismissed. “It’s an absolute scandal,” Jason Kerpelman says of the decision. “They pursue cases against people who have a little bit of marijuana in their pocket and they’re gonna throw this case away?” (The State’s Attorney’s office did not respond with a comment on the matter by press time.)
The word “Shomrim” appears nowhere in the case files of the civil suit, and Robert Bouse says none of his clients belong to the group. “They have nothing to do with them whatsoever,” he says. But sources—including tax records—indicate that Danny Harris, one of those identified in the video and named in the suit, was president of Shomrim at the time of the confrontation and remains president now. Baltimore Jewish Times Executive Editor Phil Jacobs—then a Shomrim member—happened to be present when the incident occurred. He confirms that Danny Harris is president, and that at least two others in the video are Shomrim members. Jacobs is not a member of the congregation, but was attending a bar mitzvah that day for the son of Ron Rosenbluth, Shomrim’s vice president. The man in the black hat who allegedly stole Kerpelman’s camera is identified as Avi Rosenbluth in criminal charging documents, and according to a 2005 article from local Jewish monthly Where, What, When, Ron and Avi Rosenbluth are brothers.
The Rosenbluths are also among the co-founders of Shomrim, according to the article. Those wishing to volunteer with the patrol group are directed to call Avi Rosenbluth, whose phone number is listed. Reached for comment, Avi Rosenbluth confirmed that he was being sued by Kerpelman and that he currently has no legal representation, but when asked about his connection to Shomrim, ended the conversation. “I don’t wish to answer any more questions,” he said. “Thank you.” (Calls to several others named in the suit—Danny Harris, Jason Broth, and Azriel Rosenblum—were not returned by press time.)
Jacobs was so upset by the Shomrei Emunah incident that he wrote an e-mail to the Shomrim leadership afterward, voicing his disapproval and threatening to quit. “I don’t agree necessarily with everything Leonard has to say or do,” he says, “but I do think he was wronged with his camera . . . I don’t blame him at all for feeling that they stepped over the line when it came to his personal rights.” Jacobs says he acted as peacemaker that day, and personally retrieved Kerpelman’s camera after it was taken. Following the incident, he was convinced to remain on with Shomrim in a reduced capacity, solely to help with missing-person cases. But after Werdesheim was charged with assault last November, Jacobs quit outright. “That for me was the clincher,” Jacobs says. “By and large, they do a lot of good things, and I’d say overwhelmingly they do a lot of good things, but this to me was exactly what Shomrim didn’t stand for.”
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