Oakland cop is go-to guy for Jewish community

Juxtapose the words “security” and “synagogue” in the same sentence, and one might conjure up the mental image of a lurking anti-Semite, kerosene can in hand.

But, sometimes, a threat can be much boxier.

Strolling through a Jewish institution that, mercifully, shall remain nameless, Lt. Ken Parris of the Oakland Police Department found the emergency exit door blocked by a mountain of old cardboard boxes. It wasn’t exactly a terrorist threat, but in a panic situation, it could have been every bit as deadly.

Following 9/11, Parris was officially appointed the police liaison to Oakland’s Jewish community. But his involvement predates that appointment.

It was Parris who helped nab a white supremacist junkie who had repeatedly stolen Beth Jacob Congregation’s security cameras. And Parris was at the scene following an arson fire at the shul in 2000.

Since then, he’s become the Oakland Jewish community’s go-to guy.

“He does a great deal of good physically, practically and psychologically at a time when there’s a lot of anxiety out there,” said Steve Astrachan, Beth Jacob’s volunteer security coordinator.

Parris is more than just a security blanket for the Jewish community. His suggestions have led to security upgrades at several Jewish institutions.

He also keeps the police abreast of Jewish holidays and makes sure to increase the force’s presence near synagogues during High Holy Days.

When Oakland saw a rash of aggressive panhandlers hassling passers-by in Beth Jacob’s vicinity two years ago, Parris realized that Orthodox congregants walking to shul with no money in their pockets might make for a problem. So, at his suggestion, congregants banded together in large groups for the walk.

Also, it’s no coincidence that police officers taking a break or writing a report often do so in the parking lot next to the Orthodox shul.

“The FBI identified Jewish institutions as potential soft targets. And we want to do everything we can to make them not soft targets, make them hardened targets,” said Parris, who has trained employees and volunteers of Jewish organizations how to react in emergency situations.

Parris isn’t the only liaison to the Jewish community in the Bay Area. In Berkeley, Sgt. Eric Upson holds a similar position, while, in the West Bay, the Jewish Community Relations Council hired security expert Allan Lavigne to serve as the go-between for the community and the police.

One of the major reasons such liaison positions exist is so the community can build up positive relationships with the police department instead of waiting until an emergency to make a cold call.

“It’s very reassuring for a lot of people to know the police have a little bit more of a personal concern,” noted Astrachan.

And Parris’ concern has grown personal. He often visits synagogues and office buildings on his own time. Last year he paid his own way to Israel for a 10-day trip to visit the Shurat HaDin law center in Petach Tikva. He enjoyed his trip to Israel enough that he plans to return as a tourist in March.

“Just knowing he’s here is really comforting,” said Kathy Hollander, an administrative assistant at Beth Jacob. “He’s a real friend of the community.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.