Curtis Sliwa is an anti-crime activist who founded the Guardian Angels and pledged to support the Jewish community at a time when Jews are facing an ugly resurgence of violent anti-semitism.
Curtis was born in Canarsie, Brooklyn in 1954 to a Catholic family. He grew up in a neighborhood with many Orthodox Jews, and not knowing any better, had negative misconceptions about them. That changed one day when he was attacked on the street by a mugger, and two students from a nearby yeshiva (Jewish school) rushed to his defense. That moment changed his opinion of Jews, and awakened in him a desire to be a force for good for others.
A mischievous boy, Curtis was kicked out of Jesuit high school and instead attended public school. After graduating, he started working as night manager of a McDonald’s in Brooklyn. It was the late 1970’s, and New York City was experiencing a wave of violent crime. The city was bankrupt and unable to effectively police the streets and protect citizens. It says in the Talmud, “Where there is no man, be the man.” Curtis saw that New Yorkers were scared and suffering, and elected officials seemed helpless. Inspired by the yeshiva boys who helped out when he was mugged, Curtis decided to “be the man” and do something about the crime wave in New York.
In May 1977, Curtis created the “Magnificent 13” – a small group of brave New Yorkers trained in self-defense who took it upon themselves to protect people. To their surprise, the idea instantly took off as many other volunteers joined their ranks and they became folk heroes to New Yorkers sick of being terrorized by violent thugs, and city leaders unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
In 1979 the group was renamed the Guardian Angels, and debuted their signature uniform: a red beret, white insignia t-shirt, and red satin jacket. Their motto was “We dare to care” and Curtis described their philosophy as “We Not I.” They patrol the streets and subways of New York, often deterring crime by their presence, and other times stopping crimes underway.
Curtis himself has been the target of multiple violent crimes. In 1992 he was kidnapped by the John Gotti crime mob and shot multiple times. The most recent attack was in 2018 when a teenager recognized him in Penn Station and sucker-punched him in the face, knocking out one of his front teeth.
The Guardian Angels have chapters in 13 countries and 130 cities around the world, with thousands of members. They are also involved in youth outreach, helping kids at risk with school tutoring, nutritious meals, and opportunities to affect their community in a positive way. The Junior Guardian Angels are girls and boys 6-15 years old who learn martial arts, discipline, and the importance of service. The Guardian Angels introduced a new program in 2017 called “Perv Patrol” featuring women who go ofter a longtime problem in New York – men who expose themselves and violate women on the subway.
In recent days, Curtis and the Guardian Angels have become heroes to the Jewish community. Amid a terrifying upsurge of violent and sometimes deadly attacks on Jews in the New York area, Curtis announced that the Guardian Angels would be patrolling Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn such as Wiliamsburg and Boro Park, where many of the now-daily attacks are occurring. “We’re a visual deterrence in our red berets and our red satin jackets. Nobody’s going to commit an attack when we’re around,” he said.
For leading a worldwide movement to be a force for good, we honor Curtis Sliwa as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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