Top Jewish career-cops beat the odds

At the conclusion of Israel’s Six-Day War, Bob Wasserman, a police lieutenant in the city of Montebello at the time, walked into the department locker room to cheering from his fellow officers.

He was the only Jew on the force in the Southern California city, and the sensitivity and support of his colleagues made a strong impression on him — even to this day.

Wasserman spent 40 years in law enforcement and excelled in his career. He served as chief of police in three cities, including San Carlos and Fremont in the Bay Area.

At 71, he is now the mayor of Fremont.

Wasserman believes that his Jewish upbringing in the diverse and working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights grounded him, providing a background of tolerance and acceptance that would prove instrumental throughout his career. Located just east of Los Angeles, Boyle Heights was a gateway community for Jews and other immigrant groups from the 1920s through ’50s.

He recalled the integration of East Palo Alto high school students as one of the larger challenges he faced as chief of police for the city of San Carlos.

“Moving kids around was a very traumatic thing. We provided a lot of police presence, and it was a big challenge to make it work,” he said. “We worked hard to prevent violence.”

While his father was thrilled with his son’s career decision, Wasserman said, “Most people thought, ‘you’re crazy. A Jewish kid’s not going to go anywhere.'”

That didn’t bother him. “I just wanted to be a cop,” he said.

Pursuing law enforcement “is an area that is not explored as often by Jews but is just as rewarding” as many other careers, noted Morris Tabak, deputy chief of the Investigative Bureau of the San Francisco Police Department.

To his knowledge Tabak is the highest-ranking Jewish member ever in the SFPD. The 51-year-old is in the 27th year of his career.

“I feel that my Jewish heritage has allowed me to have empathy and compassion for victims of bias-motivated crimes that I may not have had otherwise,” Tabak said, referring to his position managing the hate-crime unit. “I feel that I can sense the victim’s pain more.”

Tabak’s department is the only one in the nation to participate in the Climate of Trust, a program that instructs ex-Soviet countries on how to develop their own hate-crimes unit.

Former SFPD officer Susan Manheimer, now chief of police for the city of San Mateo, believes her Jewish upbringing and her family’s interest in social justice led her straight to the path of law enforcement.

“The idea of tzedakah is exactly what we’re doing in law enforcement,” said Manheimer, who grew up in New York. Her father was a city councilman with many friends who were police officers. “The pride my dad took being able to help others carried down to me,” she said.

Manheimer, 48, is engaged in a lengthy list of projects with her department that she hopes will build a healthier and safer community — from the launch of a Tongan community interfaith group to a diversion program for at-risk youth.

In the late 1990s when she was with the SFPD Manheimer worked on revitalizing the Jewish chaplaincy and organizing an informal group of Jewish members.

“Everyone has their own challenges being in a minority,” she said. “Those who are successful take the challenges and make them opportunities.”

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