Police Get Lessons on Jewish Observance
“Why do Jewish men wear those side curls?” asks the policewoman with the short, slicked-back hair and serious manner. Neal Shapiro and his brother-in-law, Sheldon Altman, explain as Wilshire Division Officer Terri Utley listens intently.
About 20 officers have just heard Shapiro and Altman discuss safety issues of particular concern during the High Holidays in the Orthodox Jewish community during the 2 p.m. roll call at the Venice and La Brea station. The citywide program was instituted several years ago by the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee at the request of a police officer. About 250 officers at six police stations attend the briefings, says program chair Larry Blaumenstein, who helped design the program and gives many of the talks himself.
Altman, bearded and casually dressed, explains to the uniformed men and women how most Jews will be in shul all day on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “A lot of [criminals] know that and they target their homes,” he says. “If you’re able to have extra patrol on these days, it will be helpful.”
“Are these the days they will be in church all day?” asks the tall sergeant with the shiny shaved pate, noting the shaded holidays marked on a calendar in a stapled handout the officers have received. “Well, some people go home in the afternoon,” explains Altman. On Sukkot, he continues, the officers may notice Jews building “little shacks” in their yards. “You may see them carrying palm fronds in cases that could look like concealed weapons.”
The handout contains discussions of customs and dress and lists of synagogues and institutions. “As observant families walk home after Holy Day services and meals, there is genuine fear and concern about being ‘walking targets’ for hate incidents and crimes,” the handout explains. “During the Sabbath and Holy Days, people have shouted racial and anti-Semitic slurs from cars. Uninstigated attacks have been made against individuals, often while walking to or from synagogues or home.”
Other customs are discussed: the care unrelated men and women take not to touch; the fact that observant Jews generally don’t drive, write or carry wallets with identification or money on the holidays; that some immigrants from countries where police are feared may be uncomfortable in their presence.
Shapiro cites an example of a Jew who was rushing to shul on Shabbat and jaywalked. When he was stopped by a police officer, he at first denied he had done it, then had difficulty explaining to the officer why he couldn’t sign the ticket. “Besides giving out information to the police, rabbis or executive directors [at the synagogues] should let their congregants know that they still have to abide by the law,” Shapiro said.
The Wilshire Division, which covers the area from La Cienega Boulevard east to Normandie Avenue, and from Beverly Boulevard to the Santa Monica Freeway (including the Fairfax area), has the densest Jewish population in the city. “I don’t think there is a division anywhere in the state that has a bigger Jewish population than this one,” Sgt. John McMahon says. Yet there are 21-year-old officers from the suburbs that have probably never encountered an observant Jew before.
The talk is helpful, says Officer Utley afterward. She says that since Los Angeles is such a diverse, multicultural place, it’s difficult to know sometimes what the taboos and customs are in different groups. “Our goal is to serve, cooperate and not offend,” she says.