It's not every Jew who gets to be pope. Twice. But then, Stan Newman and the rest of the volunteers on the Yasham (Yehidat Shotrim Mitnadvim, or Special Police Volunteer Unit) in Jerusalem aren't any ordinary Jews.
Whether handling illegal parking on the capital's pedestrian mall or keeping back a crowd after a bombing, the unit performs more mundane police work to free other officers for more important duty, but can never tell what a shift will bring. "By doing the boring patrol business, we free them up for more pressing tasks," says Ch.-Supt. Bob Mountwitten, originally from Sydney, as his men prepared for a recent four-hour night shift.
"We usually do boring patrols or guarding hitchhiking spots where soldiers catch lifts, because there has been a lot of intelligence information about kidnappings or running-down of soldiers at such spots," he says. "We check for suspicious parcels, people or vehicles, and if we find anything, we're supposed to neutralize the area and let the other units deal with it."
Mountwitten still remembers handling one bombing in Zion Square: "Bits and pieces and clothing and bags and shoes strewn all over the place. My first thought was to keep the public back, in case there's another bomb, and prevent the evidence to be messed up by civilians. It's upsetting, but you get used to it."
Whether on Rehov Emek Refaim or the Rehov Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, volunteers like Chief Warrant Officer Stan Newman, nearing 80 and an ex-Bronx native, and his partner Sgt. Mike Williams, 63, who served as a policeman in the Oakland, California, area for 21 years before immigrating, walk a beat on a summer's night, giving tourists directions, asking people to move their illegally parked cars, but also keeping their eyes open for anything suspicious.
Even ahead of their patrol, there's a strong sense of camaraderie as the guys celebrate two birthdays, one of them that of Mordechai Reich, 56, a psychologist from New York, who jokingly says he joined the volunteers "because he needed the uniform to keep my marriage fresh."
And before they head out on the job, Supt. Bezalel Jacobowitz, who hails from Hillcrest in Queens, always intones the famous line from Hill Street Blues: "And hey - let's be careful out there."
"As you guard us, so should He guard you," says one store owner on Rehov Ben-Yehuda as Newman and Williams patrol on a warm summer evening. "It's like police work in the States - 99 percent of the time you have doldrums, and 1 percent of the time it's exciting," says Williams. Indeed, every so often, something special happens, like a pope coming to town.
From his window in French Hill, Newman - a retired professor emeritus of anthropology at Northeast Illinois University in Chicago who missed being one of New York's finest when the Korean War interrupted - can see the Hadassah-University Medical Center helipad used for the papal landings by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. And he knew exactly how the pontiffs felt when they landed, because he and his fellow volunteers had played their part to perfection.
"Twice I've been involved with the pope," Newman, who still hardly misses a shift, says. "Back when pope John Paul II came, they took us out at 10 at night until 2 in the morning. The helicopter came down, and they us marched on like in Noah's ark - two by two. And they were timing us: Walk on, sit down, be belted in, unbelted, walk off.
"Actually, one of us said; 'You have all these young guys, why us?' They simply wanted to time how long it would take for the pope's entourage to get in and out of the helicopter, and they explained: 'You're closest in age to the pope.' A month ago we did it again, during the day - the same exercise. Which indicates we're useful for something, but also how precise Israel is when you get someone like that. You don't want to make any mistakes. So that's right - I'm certainly one of the only Jews to play two different popes."
Handling popes isn't the only special kind of action the unit handles. Fully trained as police officers, they also answer any call they might get during the night, like the one First-Sgt. Joe Lew, 32, answered.
"I was finishing my shift early and as we were leaving, we got a report that there was a shootout at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav. We were the second or third unit to show up at the scene. We heard the shooting, but another couple of cops who didn't know how to handle the situation didn't let us enter. I stayed outside and heard all the shooting, but couldn't do anything."
Still, he's satisfied with his volunteer work. "It makes me feel good knowing I donate my time as a part of charity to the community."
The tourists they serve, like Jerry Goldberg of Flatbush, enjoying a rest stop at a coffee shop with his family, appreciate the unit's efforts. "I think it's a great idea because if I'd gotten ripped off, which has happened to me in other places, it would ruin my whole vacation," says Goldberg as Williams and Newman walk by. "It makes me feel safer, knowing that I don't have to worry about someone grabbing my wallet."
Indeed, Newman served as a lure to nab pickpockets back when he first joined the unit 15 years ago, operating out of the Old City's Kishle station. "Given our age, our English, our accent, nobody took us for cops," he says with a laugh. "The detectives would wire us, and as soon as we felt a tug on our wallets, we'd notify them and they'd arrest the pickpockets."
Today's problems are a bit different, he explains, as we walk past young people on the pedestrian mall. "Sometimes there are problems with excess drinking or drugs, sometimes even kids from yeshivot. You develop relationships with the guards in the area, with the beggars, so we have many additional sets of eyes. They know us and frequently will tell us they saw somebody suspicious."
Moments later a shop owner gives Williams a description of a guy wandering around bothering female tourists. "A normal day is giving out a lot of information, but there have been times where there's a high alert and that changes the whole atmosphere," says Newman. As an anthropologist, he also notices the difference in the way Israelis and Americans treat policemen. In America, he says, you "argue with a policeman at your own peril," while here "everything is negotiable."
Reich was inspired to join when he saw two young Arabs on a public bus carrying knapsacks, "and there were wires they had put there, and they were playing with the wires and making people feel uncomfortable. I felt helpless as a civilian, so I decided to join the force." He recalls helping a lost child on Ben-Yehuda be reunited with her mother, who'd gone shopping. He also provides tourists with restaurant reviews; he says they "are surprised to have someone speak English, and it's very helpful."
However, Reich still rues losing the hostage in "a hostage situation." "A young man stopped me in the middle of the street and said that I must stop three teenagers. I said: 'Why?' And he said: 'Because they have a turkey and they're going to kill it.' So I went with him across the street, and he insisted that we liberate the turkey. He was a vegan and I respected him. He called his lawyer and I called my commander, who put me back in touch with reality, and we had to let them go, because they'd purchased that turkey. So we lost the hostage."
To join the unit, call Bob Mountwitten at (050) 563-3121.