June 7, 2007
Muggings in Pico-Robertson raise concern in Orthodox community
Carry some cash? Carry a gun? Ask the rabbi!
Fifteen years ago, Mordechai Naor walked to Congregation Shaarei Tefila in the Fairfax district with a handgun as his companion. Six years after moving to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood and leaving those fears of mugging behind, Naor is considering re-kindling an old relationship.
"Since we moved over here, I always felt safe," said Naor, 60. "It's not extreme to go armed again, but I never even thought to worry about who was walking behind me."
His new sense of vulnerability stems from a recent spate of attacks against Jews in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
As dusk turned to dark on the first night of Shavuot, one rabbi, who asked not to be named, was mugged at knifepoint on Rodeo Drive near Olympic Boulevard as he was walking home after services. Eight hours later, five Orthodox men were walking down Pico Boulevard near Sherbourne Drive when a van pulled up and two men jumped out waving handguns. Less than a week later, another Jewish man was mugged in Beverlywood.
"All we want to do is be left alone and be able to go to shul and spend time with our families," said Cliff Alsberg, who handles security at Aish Los Angeles. "But these people are coming in and disrupting our lives."
Los Angeles police have attributed 11 robberies of about 30 people -- including many non-Jews -- to three teams of suspects. Five people, comprising two of the teams, have been arrested and charged; three men believed to be members of the third team have been arrested but not yet charged.
"The Jewish community was not the intended target," said Lt. Ray Lombardo of the West L.A. station. "They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when these suspects drove by."
But the apparently connected robberies have heightened fears throughout the Orthodox community. Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss organized two meetings in the past three weeks with Jewish leaders and police. Synagogues responded with blast e-mails telling members to be more cautious when traveling to shul; to pay attention to their surroundings, whether during the day or at night, and to walk in groups.
"But I'm not stopping any of my activities," said the mother of a 17-year-old boy who was jumped at gunpoint while walking home from a Friday night celebration of a newborn boy -- known as a shalom zachor -- in March. "And when my son went to another shalom zachor, he still walked home, but he went with a neighbor."
The robberies have evoked memories of what Naor and his family witnessed when they lived in the Fairfax District in the early 1990s. Observant Jews were targeted as easy marks, because they walked at night, sometimes alone, and even though they didn't carry cash, they often wore expensive jewelry.
"It was like an epidemic," said Isaac Naor, Mordechai's son. "Every week, somebody else was getting mugged. Everybody was walking to shul with a gun."
Among those attacked was the then-president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen, who also was the leader of the Naor's synagogue.
On Shabbat, Cohen was walking near his home with his son when two strangers approached, one asking for directions.
"Before I knew what was going on," Cohen said, "he put me in a stranglehold and started banging my right arm across the sidewalk. Just kept smashing it and snapped it."
The attack, which Cohen thinks was aggravated by the fact he had nothing to give the men, sent a shockwave through the community. People were afraid to go to synagogue without protection Cohen said. Shalom zachors were rescheduled from Friday nights to afternoons.
"I really didn't want to go out at night anymore," said Cohen, now the spiritual leader of Aitz Chaim in West Palm Beach, Fla. "People who really wanted me to be at their home for a celebration at night, they would send a guard to escort me."
Carrying a gun on Shabbat is problematic for a few reasons.
"I've always had the feeling that the people with guns don't know how to use them," Cohen said. "I always felt that they would probably shoot themselves."
There also are nonreligious legal qualms about Jews carrying weapons to shul.
Except for the few people who qualify for a concealed weapon permit, carrying a gun is illegal.
"If people are carrying them, they are doing so at their own peril, because it is against the law," Alsberg said. "But one of these days, they are going to rob the wrong person, and it will cost them their lives, and that will be the end of the crime spree."
Another suggestion, posited before, would be for Jews to stuff a small amount of cash in their sock or hatband, with which they could appease a mugger. The late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said this would not violate the Sabbath.
"He had ruled that one would be permitted to carry on the Sabbath things which normally would be forbidden to carry," said Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. "This being a case of life or death, that would be permissible."
But Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School, said it would be better for Jews to travel to shul in large groups or simply stay home than to carry money or a gun.
"There are other ways for making sure people aren't as easy marks, rather than looking as first recourse for ways of bending the laws of Shabbat," he said.
Already, the frequency of street robberies has fallen.
"We don't live in a dangerous neighborhood, thank God, and we have to be very careful before we project that it is a panic situation," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City.
"You don't want to create public hysteria."