Cops and Chassids

Rachmiel Steinberg is a “Bostoner” Chassid, but, he quips, he is also the Los Angeles Police Department’s “show-and-tell rabbi.” That’s because the Yavneh Hebrew Academy teacher has taken on some unusual students lately: officers of the LAPD’s Wilshire Division.

Steinberg attends roll-call sessions as a representative of the area’s significant, diverse Orthodox community; there are approximately 5,500 families and 16 synagogues in the areas served by the Wilshire and Hollywood divisions. Some congregants have experienced a culture clash with the LAPD, the rabbi says.

A typical incident took place on a Saturday afternoon not long ago. A teen-age boy, en route to the Chabad yeshiva, stepped off the curb just as the light at Melrose Avenue and Poinsettia Place changed. Hollywood Division officers stopped him and required that he sign a jaywalking ticket. But the frightened teen insisted that it was the Sabbath and that he could not sign. The officers then told him that he was under arrest and that he must ride in the squad car until they checked out his story — forcing him to violate the Sabbath.

“I was hearing about so many of these incidents that I realized there was just confusion about what an observant Jew can and cannot do,” says Steinberg, who also has attended law school and earned master’s degrees in archaeology and Jewish education.

And, so, several months ago, he teamed up with Orthodox activists Stanley Treitel and Howard Winkler. Together, they devised an LAPD seminar (you could call it “Orthodoxy 101”) and approached Wilshire Division Capt. John Mutz. Before long, they had scheduled two training sessions for officers and detectives, sponsored by the Community Research & Information Center.

At the most recent session, this summer, the activists explained that “work” on the Sabbath is construed differently than “work” in the common culture, that observant Jews cannot write or carry anything or drive a car. No, they replied to an officer’s question, Orthodox Jews don’t carry ID on the Sabbath. And, yes, Orthodox Jews will waive Sabbath prohibitions if the situation is one of life and death.

The some 70 officers keenly watched as Steinberg, who arrived in his black frock coat, made the switch from his round black hat to his Shabbat shtreimel, “to show what a Chassidic Jew looks like.” They were impressed when he offered to create for the LAPD’s community-relations department a web site that will describe not only the Orthodox Jewish community but all the diverse communities of Los Angeles.

From now on, officers will sign any tickets issued to observant Jews on the Sabbath, and they will deposit the tickets at convenient drop-off sites, Steinberg says.

“We’re focusing on finding practical solutions to common problems,” he says.