HONORING OUR SHOMRIM
[ PHOTOGRAPH OF TREE OF LIFE SURVIVORS HUGGING THEIR POLICE RESCUERS]
When I was a boy, my grandfather Robert would play a game with me that he called “Officer Clancy”. In the game, he behaved like the stereotypical—Irish—New York City policeman. I loved everything about playing with my grandfather, so I took it for granted that “Officer Clancy” was the epitome of New York’s finest. Only much later did I come to realize that the story of attaining diversity within the police force had a lot to say to our generation.
In many of the countries of our domicile, we had reason to avoid as much contact with policemen as possible. The cop on the beat in Russia at any time during the Tsarist reign was no friend of the Russian Jew, and during the era of pogroms, he absented himself while the Cossack mobs were smashing, raping and murdering our ancestors in the shtetl. American police weren’t that bad to us—their worst lapses were in the repression of African Americans—but their ranks were not open to Jews for quite a while.
When did Jews become NYC police officers? The answer, predictably, involved Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who established his reputation as a reformer during his two-year stint at the helm of that department.
“[After Asser Levy, who fought successfully to serve in the New Amsterdam militia,] New York would have to wait 250 years to have another heroic Jewish cop. He arrived during the time of Theodore Roosevelt, who reigned as police commissioner between 1895 and 1897. The Police Department had become an Irish bailiwick, its officers appointed by the politicians of Tammany Hall. Roosevelt hoped to end all this.
"The first fight I made was to keep politics absolutely out of the force," he wrote in "Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography." He was introduced, he went on, to a Jew named Otto Raphael, "a powerful fellow, with good-humored, intelligent face," who had rushed into a burning building to rescue several women and children. Raphael was an amateur boxer from the Lower East Side. Roosevelt invited him to take the policeman's exam. Raphael would rise to the rank of lieutenant and become Roosevelt's sparring partner and lifelong friend.”—(Jerome Charyn, “Officer Reilly He's Not”, New York Times, Sept. 19, 2004)
Levy was not the token Jew. Other members of the tribe joined the force during TR’s brief stint. New York’s Jewish population became greatly enamored of TR when he delivered a silent but effective rebuke to the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, who was visiting NYC. TR assigned the task of protecting Lueger to an all-Jewish contingent of policemen.
There has been only one notable lapse in the essentially positive story, that New York’s Jews could get fairness and protection from their police. In 1991, during the Dinkins administration, an Orthodox automobile driver accidentally killed Gavin Cato, an African American boy. Choosing to believe the worst, many African Americans responded with violence, rioting against Jews in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn. The police were inexcusably slow to restore order. The Jewish voters’ anger at that breach of the social contract helped to defeat Dinkins and elect Rudy Giuliani as mayor.
With that exception, the American Jew of the past half century has experienced the police as “Friend and Helper” (the phrase coined in the post-war Federal Republic of Germany, when it sought to distinguish its police from the Fascist force of the Nazi era.)
The photograph of Jewish survivors of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting hugging their police rescuers tells us how far we have come.
This year, with Veterans’ Day approaching, thank the men and women in the uniforms of our Armed Services for their sacrifice and their service. And thank the peace officers—police, fire-fighting, emergency responders—who likewise devote themselves to making our world safer.
Rabbi Michael Panitz