Beards and the NYPD

Observant Jews in the New York City police force find ways to cope with the constraints of their religion and the call of duty.

ray kelly 521 (photo credit: Anna Hiatt)
ray kelly 521
(photo credit: Anna Hiatt)
The New York City Police Department had a particularly festive holiday season this year, as did Alvin Kass, the chief Jewish chaplain of the NYPD. After recently celebrating the first day on record without a single violent crime – in a city of over eight million people, no one was recorded shot, stabbed, or slashed on November 26 – Kass stepped into the jovial, packed lobby of One Police Plaza to preside over the lighting of the department’s Hanukka menora.
“The transformation of New York City is perhaps the greatest miracle of them all,” Kass tells the mass of uniforms, families and clergy of other faiths, who were attending in a show of support. “It is now the safest large city in the world.”
Addressing the crowd, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly equates Jewish values with the code of the force. “We continue to gather intelligence and stop terrorist attempts,” Kelly says. Since entering office in 2002, his tenure has been dominated by post-9/11 traumatic response. “The bright lights of this menora inspire us … it is a symbol of religious freedom.”
Not the common ambition of young Jewish men in New York – or of their parents – there is nevertheless a significant number who heed the call to serve their city. “There are prejudices within the Jewish community against people taking this job,” says Kass.
“It’s that saying, ‘not in my back yard.’ Let someone else be a police officer, but not my kid.”
To many Jews of the NYPD, joining the force has an almost religious quality: their work on duty is treated as an extension of their faith. And while that duty sometimes requires the compromising of doctrinal religious principles, the department, for its part, has made a significant effort to protect the religious freedoms of those in their ranks.
Kelly tells The Jerusalem Report that while the NYPD cannot officially ask officers about their religious affiliation, they have been able to gauge numbers unofficially by monitoring total membership in fraternal organizations, accounting for death notifications, and keeping track of religious servicemen actively engaging with Rabbi Kass. “Religion is such an important part of the lives of so many of our officers, and it goes along with the beards, the head wraps, the holidays and so forth,” Kelly notes. “But the public has a certain image of the police officer, and we need to maintain that philosophy. So balance is the goal, and we try our best to accommodate.”
Kass estimates that roughly 2,500 to 3,000 uniformed police officers out of a total 35,000 are Jewish – a number that has grown significantly since 9/11, he says, when motivation to enlist reached a peak. Kass felt the same sacred call of duty at the time, he says, and will never forget attending a particularly historic menora lighting ceremony that year among the ruins of the Twin Towers. “You had just the light of the menora and the light of the Christmas tree, and everything else was totally dark and bleak,” Kass recalls. “It was almost as if that little bit of light was our source of hope about the future. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, as they say.”
Kass had already been a member of the NYPD for 35 years by that time. And as he witnessed New York change – in no small part due to the department’s work – he also waged a successful campaign to have the force formally recognize the religious right of Jews to observe the Sabbath. From when he joined in 1966 until the mid-1980s, when Ed Koch was mayor, Kass gradually applied pressure for formal recognition. “And today it’s official,” he says. “Today, under Commissioner Kelly, the right of a Jewish police officer to observe the Sabbath is a fixed right – and that’s a marvelous development.”
Theoretically, that development left religious Jews with no barriers to entry. But some officers still struggle with how literally to interpret the ancient biblical principle of pikuach nefesh – that saving a life supersedes other commandments. It is that internal debate over how to balance duty and faith that continues to challenge the modern American Jewish cop.
Spencer Strauss is a New Yorker who traces his family’s presence in the city back to the 1840s. He claims that the Strauss line from which he descends includes retailers at the founding of Macy’s, Atlantic shipping men and even one of the passengers who perished on the Titanic. But he is also, above all, a Lubavitch Orthodox Jew. Strauss’s mother put him through rabbinical college – his great grandfather, who first immigrated to America, was a rabbi – and prayed that the baby of her three boys would be the one to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps.
Yet Strauss heard a call to service at an early age that would ultimately complicate his mother’s plans. When he was 17, he began volunteering for the NYPD as an auxiliary reservist. And after 9/11, it became clear to him that the auxiliary fix would not be enough. He quit his job at the B&H camera store in Manhattan, and began taking steps to enter the force in earnest. “He did what he needed to do,” his mother says, as the Orthodox minyan empties out from her home’s basement on a Shabbat morning. She tugs off her black headscarf and relaxes at the dinner table. “It becomes a workable situation, with compromise.”
Strauss’s compromise was especially dramatic.
He says he chose the NYPD over the federal track because 9/11 was an attack on his city, and because he refused to disconnect from his community. Yet disconnecting from his Crown Heights neighbors proved much simpler than he had anticipated, because as he went through the police academy, it became clear that he would have to trim his beard. “It was definitely unsettling, but you know that you’re doing the right thing for the greater good of what you want to accomplish,” Strauss says. “You compromise, but you don’t compromise your faith. Does having a shorter beard make me less of a Jew? I don’t think so.”
His Orthodox peers disagreed, and let it be known not only through whispers: some of them used blogs and website forums to slam what they deemed a sacrilegious act. Strauss spent many of these early months in the office of Kass seeking support, and perhaps affirmation that what he had done was justified.
“The [word] uniform means one form – we’re all supposed to look alike,” says Kass.
“The effort is to try to create one service. We do allow a certain amount of hair growth.
We’ve consulted Orthodox rabbinic authorities, and we were told that one millimeter of hair growth would be sufficient to satisfy the religious requirements.” It is not an unknown dilemma in the NYPD – this past summer, a Hassidic recruit was fired from the force for refusing to trim just a month before he was to claim his shield.
Looking around the classic Eastern Parkway Saturday morning service, Strauss stands out in his own basement, surrounded by heavyset men and rambunctious children. He has the shortest beard by at least two inches, with the exception of one other young man: a medic for the city’s fire department.
On patrol, he has rarely been asked to work on the Sabbath, though he remembers walking from Crown Heights to midtown Manhattan for a Friday assignment – roughly 10 miles – during a harsh winter period. When “Superstorm Sandy” hit, he spent 18-hour days delivering emergency food and medicine to those running out of supplies in lower Manhattan, and helping to evacuate patients from the devastated hospital building of New York University down dark flights of stairs into ambulances. He was prepared to show up for duty on Saturday morning, five days in to the hurricane nightmare; his lieutenant called him the evening before to give him the Sabbath off.
As Strauss’s wife places the Shabbat meal on the table, his mother explains that pikuach nefesh should be taken as literally as any other commandment. “It says pretty clearly that saving a life is saving a life,” she says.
“I’ve seen a lot of things that have challenged my faith – that have shaken me, and my beliefs,” Spencer says. “God does things sometimes that we can’t question, even if we can’t personally accept.”
Unlike Strauss ’s family, the parents of Isaac Franco, 31, never wanted their son to become a rabbi. Like police work, it just wasn’t in the cards. Over at Gravesend in Brooklyn, the young president of the NYPD’s Shomrim Society prays in the newly renovated Sephardi synagogue. Franco, fresh-faced with a thick local accent, has been going here with his father since he was seven years old.
He was in his early twenties when he told his sister Wendy in private that after 12 years of yeshiva and a year in Israel, he planned on joining the New York police force. “He said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and I asked if he had told our parents and he said no,” she says with a laugh. “But how much more New York can you get than the NYPD?” When citing his greatest motivating factors in joining, Franco actually puts his Judaism high on the list – and 9/11, of course.
“I wasn’t sure how the department operated, and how the Sabbath would work,” he says.
“But I had to make it on my own. I had to go out there and do something. Everybody thought I was nuts, and asked me why I was taking that job.”
As president of Shomrim, Franco’s favorite word is tolerance. The NYPD fraternal organization aims to bring together modern Orthodox Jews such as Franco and Lubavitchers like Strauss with Reform Jews, as well as Jews with virtually no spiritual interest whatsoever.
“People talk about fragmentation within the Jewish community, but within the ranks of the NYPD, we make a real effort to bring people together,” says Kass. “All these denominations are respected and honored, but we also try to create bridges. It seems to me that officers of Jewish background hold forth the possibility that that can happen.”
Franco insists those bridges extend beyond the small world of Judaism. In addition to Shomrim events held for the Jewish community, they organize an annual Shabbat service for all members, a Passover drive on the Lower East Side, and lead the march in the Israel Day Parade as a show of support from the NYPD. They also hold barbecues with other fraternal organizations in the force, such as the Holy Name and the Muslim Officers societies.
Shomrim and the Muslim Officers even ventured to Israel together in 2009.
“An Egyptian colleague of mine invited me to his Muslim wedding, and I invited him to mine two years ago,” Franco notes. “He couldn’t make it, but he sent me a ‘Mazel Tov’ text that day.”
But Franco says they rarely talk politics.
Asked if he and his Egyptian colleague ever discussed the Associated Press report on NYPD surveillance of Muslim communities, he quickly stonewalled. “We all wear the uniform,” says Franco. “We’re all blue.”