Jews in blue

As a newbie Palo Alto police officer, Rebecca Rosenblatt suddenly found herself in the middle of a tense civil dispute, giving advice to a distressed woman older than her mother.

Then there was the time she came face to face with a hysterical woman who was talking wildly to a pack of surrounding pit bulls.

“You have to come in and take charge and fix problems that people haven’t been able to fix for years,” said Rosenblatt.

And if that weren’t tough enough, she also navigates the challenges of being a glaring minority among police officers: At 5’2″, she’s a petite 23-year-old — and Jewish.

Making up a very small percentage in one of the oldest professions, Jewish cops have more to confront than on-the-job grisly surprises and physical risks.

“You know Jewish parents want doctors and lawyers,” said Rosenblatt. Police work “is not what they were hoping for. My mom is not a big fan. She thinks it is too dangerous. But I’m trained to defend myself.

“I like the look on people’s faces when I tell them what I do. I’m huge in my own mind.”

Rosenblatt’s experience of having to confront resistance within her own family is not so unusual.

“Where you get the resistance is from the Jewish community itself, from Jews,” noted Art Krinsky, the president of Shomrim, a national organization of Jewish public safety officers. The typical question, he said, is: “What’s a nice Jewish boy doing being in law enforcement?”

That still makes Krinsky bristle. “It is a highly offensive remark that they think is funny and it is not.”

Louis Weiser, Shomrim executive vice president, estimated that Jews comprise 2 to 3 percent of the national population of public safety officers.

There are 20 Shomrim chapters throughout the country, though none in the Bay Area. Todd Silver of the Southern California Shomrim said there are 225 members in his chapter, and that 20 to 30 are from Northern California.

When Rosenblatt trained at the South Bay Regional Public Safety Training Consortium in San Mateo, she was one of only two Jews out of 40 trainees.

Rosenblatt, who grew up in Millbrae, said when her younger sister joined the Air Force, she “took the brunt of the shock” from their family.

“The [Jewish] community knows me and my sister are smart and good people. It almost changed their impression about what kind of people pursue military, security and police work,” she said. “The reality is that people have options and we want to be doing this.”

She is convinced she made the right choice. “Now more than ever you look at the world, the war and terrorism, and having good people that want to help the public is really important. There are a lot of bad people out there.”

Rosenblatt now works in her own back yard, for the Millbrae Police Department.

As a highway patrolman from Oakland, Dan Roisman once faced the gruesome task of retrieving a severed leg in the immediate aftermath of a freeway accident. Though he was calm and functional at the scene, that night the image kept him awake, he said.

Soon after, his grandfather died, and Roisman consulted with his rabbi about the death he was experiencing, both personally and professionally.

On average a person will see three dead bodies in their lifetime, said Roisman, while law enforcement professionals may see 15 in a year.

“It brought a lot of meaning to me being that close to death. There’s 3,000 years of [Jewish] tradition in how to deal with death.”

Roisman joined the highway patrol following his 1999 graduation from Oberlin College as philosophy major.

While many new college grads join the Peace Corps or Teach for America as a way to “be more exposed to the world,” Roisman opted to join the California Highway Patrol, where he stayed for more than two years.

It was a way to “get away from intellectual elitism,” he explained.

“It is a lot like joining the Israeli army. One idea behind it is that you put your life on the line for the society that you live in and believe in. Why should other people be the ones to put life on the line while I sit back with my big brain and enjoy the benefits of their risk?”

Asked if he perceived any workforce discrimination due to his religion, Roisman said he “could sense anti-Semitism out there,” mostly in the form of joke-telling.

However, “the anti-Semitism I felt was nothing to the racism” against officers of color, he said. “It didn’t affect me from doing my job. I think the racism would.”

Roisman recently left the force to pursue a career as an attorney. A student at Boalt Hall School of Law, he expects to graduate in 2007.

Aaron Hunger, a 38-year-old retired law enforcement officer living in Hayward, said he was one of the only Jews he knew of in law enforcement. Hunger claimed he was subjected to negative treatment when he worked in the sheriff’s office in Contra Costa County.

When he began working for the department, Hunger would ask for Friday evening off to celebrate Shabbat.

In response, “they give you the message,” he said.

“The message,” he explained, was in the form of undesirable work details and schedules.

On another occasion, he came to work wearing a Star of David around his neck. Two days later, he said, an interoffice memo circulated, indicating that jewelry would no longer be allowed. Yet “people had worn crucifixes before that,” he said.

Hunger never filed a report or confronted any of his superiors because “you just don’t mess with the sheriff.” But those types of incidents made him uncomfortable, he said.

A few years ago while debarking boats during a temporary job as a police diver, Hunger suffered a devastating Achilles’ injury that left him unable to walk for almost a year. That ended a career that he had dreamt of pursuing since childhood (his grandfather had been an Oakland police officer and active Jew whom Hunger had idolized).

“I was going to retire one way or another. In my mind this was God’s way of saying ‘you don’t have to put up with this,’ he said. “I felt blessed.”

Hunger is now in his senior year Cal State East Bay. He is majoring in political science, with a minor in criminal justice. He is considering pursuing a Ph.D. and then teaching criminal and international justice.

“I want to teach people what cops go through,” he said.

Joel Fay, an officer in the psychological unit of the San Rafael Police Department, helps both traumatized police officers — from those involved in a shooting, to an officer who is the first on the scene during a crib death — as well as mentally ill people who’ve entered the clinical justice system.

At 49, Fay has been an officer for 27 years — 18 of them with the San Rafael Police Department. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, he’s the only Jewish police officer he knows of on the force.

It was after being assigned to a case in which a 10-year-old girl was arrested for burglary that Fay decided to go back to school to study psychology. He did so, he explained, because he was at a loss for what to do.

“I was trying to understand how to help her and her family. I was so limited in what I could do.”

Joe Arone, 70, will never forget the eight years he spent walking the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

“Now you’ve got the gangs, and the druggers are still there. Before, when I started out, even the bad guys knew we had a job to do,” he reminisced.

A former milkman, Arone was happy with his work but hungry for adventure when he began his 25-year career as a police officer.

But it wasn’t all tough stuff. He recalled how elderly people would wait until he was on his shift to leave their homes and do their shopping. “They’d say, ‘Thank God you’re here.’ One guy kissed my hand. It is enough to make a blubbering mess out of a guy …

“When I left the beat I missed the warmth I felt from the people on the streets, from local drunks to elderly citizens living on a pension.”

Now retired and living in Palm Desert, Arone enjoys a far different way of life — finding satisfaction in such pursuits as golfing and serving as vice president of his synagogue.

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