In the basement of an Orthodox synagogue in Northwest Baltimore, men gather, not to pray but to fight crime.
They are members of the Northwest Citizens Patrol, cruising the Upper Park Heights community with signs on their cars announcing their presence to would-be criminals.
For the past decade, eight to 10 men have gathered at the synagogue for their nightly orders before fanning out into the community for three hours of patrol.
The Northwest Citizens Patrol -- with 500 volunteers from 22 synagogues taking turns cruising the streets -- has become the most sophisticated community-run crime fighting operation in Baltimore.
Their efforts, police say, have drastically reduced crime in a four-square mile area stretching from the intersection of Northern Parkway and Park Heights Avenue to the Baltimore County border and from Pimlico Road to Reisterstown Road.
Before the patrol began 11 years ago, the area averaged a purse snatching every three days -- now there are only one or two a month.
Besides fighting crime, the patrol keeps computerized records to track criminals through the courts. Members write letters to judges urging them to impose stiff penalties and they monitor convicts as they come up for parole.
Two city police officers are assigned full time to the patrol, one to monitor criminals after their arrests and another to ride with the citizen patrol each night.
The patrol is funded with donations from residences and businesses. It has a full-time staff director and a computerized data bank.
At a time when other Baltimore communities -- such as affluent Guilford -- are hiring private security patrols to augment the understaffed city Police Department, the residents of Upper Park Heights are doing it on their own.
"You don't need money or political people behind you. You just need a lot of committed people," said Rusty White, president of the Northwest Citizens Patrol.
"Our first year's budget was under $1,000. Now it's in the tens of thousands. But money does not make or break [such an operation]. All you need is a very committed community and good leadership," he said.
The patrol begins each night in the basement room lined with Hebrew prayer books, wanted posters, a two-way radio system and a map detailing the month's crimes.
The volunteers rotate so each man patrols once every seven weeks. Because Orthodox Jewish custom keeps men and women separate outside the home, women are not permitted in the program unless they are accompanying their husbands on patrol.
The volunteers patrol every night, except Friday -- the Jewish sabbath, when Orthodox Jews do not ride in cars.
Upon arrival at the synagogue, they are briefed by city police Agent Michael Maglia, who has been assigned to work full time for the past six years with the patrol.
Agent Maglia gives the men the latest news on crimes in the neighborhood, sometimes in minute detail so they'll know where even the smallest crimes occurred in the past few days.
He also gives them a running count of bicycle thefts -- 119 since March -- to remind them to lock up their children's bikes.
On one recent evening, he warned them about a suspicious man selling kosher candy to benefit a state hospital where no such candy drive existed.
"My function is in the old-time tradition of the foot patrolman. He's as essential to the neighborhood as the greengrocer," Agent Maglia said.
Each night, after briefing the volunteers, he rides along in the only car owned by the Northwest Citizens Patrol -- donated by a local automobile dealership.
At the end of the briefing the men test their walkie-talkies and head to their cars with roof-top signs and flashlights.
They also have a schedule of evening religious and community events in the neighborhood. A car will arrive at each meeting place when the session is over to make sure people get safely to their cars.
At the start of each patrol shift, the volunteers hope for a quiet night, and they usually get it.
The patrols rarely see crimes in progress, Mr. White said. Instead, the volunteers say they believe their presence has deterred crime.
"The neighborhood has gained a reputation that it's under watch," Mr. White said.
For the police department "it's a great benefit. It keeps down crime," Agent Maglia said.
The patrol was formed because "there was a perception that there were a lot of robberies and there was no organization tracking crime in the neighborhood," Mr. White said.
"The rabbis of the orthodox congregations had the idea for some sort of safety program as an outgrowth of the synagogue."
Today, Mr. White is quick to note that the patrol protects everybody, not just the orthodox Jews in Upper Park Heights.
"We feel a strong sensitivity to provide service to everybody, Jewish and non-Jewish. We bend over backward to help everybody. When I watch a black lady enter her house, I'm protecting my wife," Mr. White said.
He added that a biannual solicitation for donations brings financial support from throughout the community of 11,000 households.
He said the neighborhood is "70 percent white, 30 percent black. Among whites, 50 to 60 percent are Jewish."
The patrol expanded its operation three years ago to track the people arrested for serious crimes committed in the community. They have followed 70 people through the court system so far and have seen nearly a 100 percent conviction rate, said Mr. White.
The prison terms, he said, have also been particularly high after the community wrote letters to judges explaining the impact the crimes have on the residents.
The program also has gained a national reputation, as police departments and community groups have sought advice for forming citizen patrols from Houston to Chicago to Milwaukee.
On one recent evening Barry Schleifer, a 10-year veteran with the patrol, drove the lead car with Agent Maglia in the passenger seat.
As they drove off, Agent Maglia announced "we're wired" as he pointed out the walkie talkie, a police radio, a cellular telephone and a beeper.
They turned the car radio to Agent Maglia's favorite classical radio station to hear a Brahms concerto and to settle in for a quiet evening of watching people walk safely from their cars to their homes.
"Driving around for three hours is not the most exciting thing to do, but it gives you a sense of having a positive impact on the community. People know we're out there," said Mr. Schleifer, who is proud to say he's never missed a patrol.
After all, he noted, "our motto is 'We are our Brothers' Keepers.'"