Black and blue

Meet Yair Lew, a Satmar Hassid - and a member of the city's police volunteer unit.

hassidic cop 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
hassidic cop 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Joir (Yair) Lew is probably the last person you would think of as a uniformed volunteer in the Israel Police. It's not because of his age (he's only 31), or his state of health (he's obviously hale and hearty), or even the fact that he is a new immigrant (he speaks Hebrew fluently). But because he is a Satmar Hassid - a member of a haredi sect known for its opposition to secular, political Zionism and the State of Israel, as well as being vehemently against serving in the Israeli army. So what is Lew doing as a member of Jerusalem's special uniformed volunteer police unit? "I was brought up in England to be openminded and to love my fellow Jews," explains Lew, who was educated in a Satmar yeshiva and made aliya from London with his wife in 2002. "Just as I want people to respect me as a human being, so I respect others. I hate the fact that people in Israel break Jews down into categories. All Jews are brothers whether religious or secular, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Russian, Moroccan, or the like. I joined the police because I want to serve my fellow Jews." In April 2006, Lew, who was unemployed at the time (he has since started working in a kibbutz factory near Jerusalem), was walking in downtown Jerusalem when he saw police officers recruiting for Yasham (the Hebrew acronym for police volunteer unit). "The officers were really nice," Lew recalls. "And I was looking for something to do. So I took the information and called the unit. I went for the interview, filled out the forms, passed the background check and was accepted." Naturally, before joining the unit Lew consulted both his father in England and a rabbi. "I asked if joining would be a problem," he says. "Both the rabbi and my father said essentially the same thing: There is a difference between serving the citizens of this country and serving the State of Israel. Serving Jews as a police officer is okay; serving the State of Israel as a soldier is not." To some this may seems to be splitting hairs but to Lew it was the answer he needed to join Yasham. Satmar Hassidim, who originated in an area on the Hungarian-Romanian border, base their opposition to the state on their belief that the creation of a Jewish state by Jews runs counter to God's will. However, they are taught to love the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. Today, the majority of Satmars live in the US. Only about 900 families live in Israel, mainly in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Because of their opposition to political Zionism, they do not serve in the army and refrain from taking money from the State of Israel. "During the Second Lebanon War, our rabbi, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, told us to say tehilim [psalms] for Jewish soldiers fighting and being injured," Lew relates. "We said them for Jews not Israelis. All over the world, Satmars prayed for the health and peace of our brothers." Yasham is a unique Jerusalem phenomenon and is the only police volunteer unit not part of the Civil Guard (Mishmar Ezrahi). Set up five years before the Civil Guard in 1969, to answer Jerusalem's special needs, Yasham currently has about 120 volunteers. This is down from some 250 at the height of the second intifada, but recent months have seen an upswing in interest and recruiting. "The Yasham attracts volunteers from all walks of life - we have in our unit doctors, lawyers and professors, as well as street cleaners," says Yasham's chief operations officer, Maj. Robert Mountwitten. "But Lew is our only Satmar. In fact, he is currently the only haredi in the unit, although we now have another haredi volunteer who is in the vetting process." Volunteers range in age from 18 to 65, and include both men and women. They must pass a security check, cannot have a criminal record and must be in good health. "Those in our unit have to do at least 16 hours a month or four hours every week of volunteering," Mountwitten explains. "In the Civil Guard, volunteers usually do one shift a month. We are in uniform and armed. The unit operates in accordance with the powers extended to police officers by the Knesset. We do patrols, roadblocks, ticketing, etc. We basically have the same authority as regular police officers." "The Yasham is important in that it gives a lot of extra man-hours to the police and fills in the gaps," he continues. "All of us feel that we are doing something for the security of this city and its people. And if bombs are not going off, it just shows that what the police and the army are doing is working." Lew is proud of his service, which generally concentrates on security issues. "But we can and do stop vehicles if we feel that the way the driver is driving or something else could be harmful to the public," he says. In the course of his service, he admits to encountering a few genuine humdingers. "I once pulled over a van that was driving on a main Jerusalem road at night without lights," Lew recalls. "The driver turned out to be a Palestinian who did not have a driving license, did not have an Israeli ID, did not have a registration for the vehicle and was transporting 10 illegal Palestinians in the van. This was a free man in a free world. I couldn't believe that he was driving an overloaded van filled with illegals, without a driving license, registration or ID and was dumb enough not to put his lights on." On another occasion, Lew stopped a car that seemed too heavy and overcrowded. "The driver thought the whole thing was very amusing. But I was really serious. The man had a car full of children - there were five in the back seat. But when I had him open the truck, I was amazed to discover he had two more children in there. He said that if there wasn't an engine under the hood, he would have put some more children there." Lew was on patrol in Mea She'arim and Geula during the protests preceding the gay pride parade. "I was driving in my car with the police light on top," Lew recounts. "I had garbage and rocks thrown at me. If I had been foolish enough to get out, I would have been beaten. The fact that I am a haredi man would not have helped. These protesters did not care. But once they were arrested, they quickly started to ask for a frum officer. "When they were throwing stones, they didn't care if I was a frum cop or not. However, I don't think I can criticize them because once I was part of these demonstrations. When I was studying in yeshiva, I used to join all the protests, no matter what - no autopsies, no Shabbos traffic, modesty, etc. But I was never violent or threw stones." On protest-free days Lew says he gets an entirely different reception on the streets of the city's haredi neighborhoods. "When I drive through on duty, in uniform, people stop and tell me how proud they are to see a haredi officer. They often ask how they can join the police." Lew, who is fluent in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, understands German and speaks a little Hungarian, Romanian and French, has started learning Arabic. "I assume it will help me with my police work," he says. As an Englishman, used to police traditionally armed with nightsticks, Lew is glad that he has never had to draw his gun. "I sincerely hope that I never will have an occasion to use it. And one day, I hope that police in Israel will not need weapons either," he says. For more information on Yasham, call 050-563-3121.