By Alessia Pirolo
Six members of the Orthodox Jewish patrol Shomrim were back in the Brooklyn Supreme Court yesterday, on trial for allegedly attacking yeshiva students in Crown Heights two years ago.
But among the spectators were those from the ultra-Orthodox community who believed that it was one of their victims who instead should have been on trial – for making his accusation public.
Joshua Gur, known as Shuki, had a long black beard that made him look like older than his 23 years. He wore a skullcap emblazoned, in Hebrew, with the words — “Long life to Rebbe Messiah, he never left the world.” Gur is among those Lubavitcher Hasidim – which is based in Crown Heights – who believe that their late Rebbe, or spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheneerson, who died in 1994, was, in fact, the Messiah. Believers keep an eternal vigil at his grave.
It was the question of the Rebbe’s sacred place that apparently led to a December 2007 fight in a yeshiva dormitory at 749 Eastern Parkway. The Shomrim were summoned to break up the melee. But, argued assistant district attorney David Weiss, they only worsened the violence, beating the students “indiscriminately.” Several Meshichists were taken to the hospital. One suffered a broken eye socket, another a broken finger.
During yesterday’s testimony, one of the defense attorneys, Israel Fried, asked Gur to watch a video shot during the alleged attack. One of the Shomim could be heard saying, “I’m trying to mediate with you.”
“So Shomrim came to calm things down?” Fried asked.
“I don’t think so,” Gur replied.
Among the spectators was Yosef Lifshitz, father of the defendant Benjamin Lifshitz. “He is lying, he is lying,” he said. The seats, in fact, appeared filled with friends and supporters of the defendants; a handful of Gur’s supporters sat together, off to the side, a small pocket of support in a room filled primarily with those who saw his testimony as a betrayal.
“We are not allowed to bring a dispute in a secular court,” said Lifshitz. The matter, argue the defendants’ supporters, should have been taken to a religious court, a Bet Din. In fact, he argued, in ancient times a Jew who testified publicly against a fellow Jew did so at the risk of his own life. “It’s even allowed to kill him,” Lifshitz said. “But we live in this world and of course we don’t do it.”
He was not alone in his disapproval of Gur’s testimony.
“This guy is not even part of the community, they come form the outside,” said Mayer Hershkop, whose three sons are among the defendants.
The risk of being exiled from the community has apparently given several other potential witnesses pause. On Sunday the yeshiva students came before rabbinical authorities in Crown Heights and agreed to not testify. Last Monday, at the opening of the trial, the prosecution asked to the judge to warn the defendants against tampering with the witnesses.
Meanwhile, Hershkop, mixing Yiddish and English words, said that he wished that the case could have been heard by a Bet Din.
But in criminal court, the defendants, if convicted, face up to15 years in prison.
In Crown Heights, the punishment for the witness could be banishment.