As an observant Jew, Steve Harris dons tefillin every morning to pray. Sometimes it requires he remove his tactical helmet, roll up the sleeve of his SWAT uniform and ignore the stares of fellow cops.
Harris is a tough-as-lead 21-year veteran with the Special Weapons and Tactics team of the Richmond Police Department. A paramedic-turned-cop, he has taken part in plenty of hair-raising busts in the gritty East Bay city, but these days he applies his know-how mostly by teaching his fellow officers “tactical medicine” — how to deliver medical care in what he calls “the worst possible scenarios.”
He might be the Bay Area’s only Orthodox Jewish SWAT officer. And while that might sound like the premise of a good HBO series, Harris knows well the isolation of being a Jew in blue.
“We only have a few other Jewish police officers at Richmond P.D.,” he says, “and they [prefer to keep] totally under cover. I’m observant. [The other Jewish officers] see me donning tefillin, but they don’t want to suffer from anti-Semitism.”
Fighting anti-Semitism on the force is one reason why Harris and a growing number of Bay Area Jewish law enforcement officials have joined the Northern California chapter of Shomrim.
Named after the Hebrew term for “guardian,” Shomrim is a nonprofit fraternal organization of Jewish law enforcement personnel, launched in New York in 1924. It has two dozen chapters across the country.
The local chapter, which boasts approximately 35 members, has been up and running since 2007. Like all Shomrim chapters it provides a social network, public training seminars and opportunities to shmooze.
Berkeley police officer Jerome Cobert, 47, co-founded NorCal Shomrim because, he says, “I wasn’t getting enough of my people. I started wondering what other Jewish cops I know. We are very few and far between, but there are more of us than I thought.”
Shomrim meetings take place at least once a month. Guest speakers usually come to discuss law enforcement issues, but most meetings involve a few hours of kibbitizing cops.
“It’s wonderful,” says Cobert, who lives in Sebastapol. “We connect one-on-one. It’s about developing relationships and friendships. We will sometimes talk about Jewish issues, such as: When does the Torah say it’s OK to use lethal force?”
Alexander Anolik of Tiburon echoes the sentiment. The commander of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department horse-mounted unit and a travel security expert, Anolik says it puts a smile on his face to belong to a Jewish police officer’s association.
“Going to a meeting will never cease to amaze me,” he says. “We have a woman from [the Department of the] Treasury, an FBI guy, a CIA guy, the guy in charge of sex crimes. We have an ability to get together and discuss things we won’t hear at our departments.”
Cobert notes the glaring contrast — between Jewish men’s stereotypical career paths vs. muscular cops prepared to lay down the law.
“It sounds very elitist,” he says. “The culture, the heritage, the tradition of Jewish families is that you go into the bookworm professions. That comes down from the Torah. Judaism has a high regard for education, and that relates to career paths. Traditionally you can’t be an observant Jew and work weekends.”
Cobert can quickly sum up the reason there are relatively few Jewish cops: Jewish mothers.
He didn’t tell his mom about enrolling in the police academy until after he graduated because “I truly thought she would sabotage me to keep me safe,” he says.
Harris, meanwhile, says he grew up with Jewish “role models being intellectuals, not athletes or people who stood up in a more aggressive manner.” But when he turned 16, his father sent him to Israel.
“Seeing Jewish men in the role of the Israeli soldier shed new light on Jewish male potential for me,” Harris remembers. “It exposed me to a different form.”
Cobert also had a transformative experience as a college student, when he served as a National Park Service Ranger for three summers. The Southern California native had long dreamed of a career in law enforcement, a dream that caught fire after a mentor at the Petaluma Police Department further inspired him to pursue the badge.
He worked for the Berkeley P.D. as a marine officer, then served eight years in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office before returning to Berkeley in 2007.
Cobert is eager to blend Jewish and law enforcement values into the Shomrim mission. He has met with Akiva Tor, the S.F.-based Consulate General of Israel, to look into exporting Alive at 25, a teen driving safety program he teaches, to Israel.
Similarly, travel security expert Anolik, 72, says he wears his “Jewish hat” whenever he addresses Jewish groups about Second Amendment issues.
“Jews need to know what protection is,” Anolik notes. “I’m a strong believer that everyone should [own guns]. I have a ranch and shooting range [where] I train Jewish groups, everyone from yeshiva bochers on.”
As a trainer and lecturer, Anolik does not often get to wear a uniform, but he proudly dons his white Stetson and vintage cowboy necktie when his unit joins St. Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day parades.
Riding high on his horse, he looks every inch the all-American crime fighter. But Anolik knows that behind the scenes, anti-Jewish sentiment still lingers in society. He knows because he’s experienced it.
“There’s hardly a place more liberal than San Francisco, but in this beautiful city you have the bastion of anti-Semitic clubs. At San Francisco State, I tried to have the first Zionist Organization of America club, and we weren’t allowed to.”
The prejudice can be worse for Jewish cops. Just ask Shomrim member Pete Herley of San Rafael. Following a 21-year tenure with the Torrance P.D. in Southern California, he served as chief of the Tiburon Police Department — but the stellar resume doesn’t mean he didn’t experience anti-Semitism on the force.
A criminology major who entered the force and worked narcotics and sex crimes, Herley got his first clue into entrenched prejudice after passing his sergeant’s exam. Actually, he aced it, yet was sent back out as a patrol officer. Eventually he made sergeant and lieutenant, but his troubles had just begun.
First, came the Jewish jokes.
“I’d never been faced with prejudice like that,” Herley recalls. “It’s easy to tell when somebody is telling a joke to demean you or to be humorous. And I do not like it when people use my religion to demean me.”
After testifying against a fellow officer in a police misconduct case, life at the stationhouse grew far more tense for Herley.
Swastikas were etched into his locker. His car windows were smashed and tires slashed. “No one” saw anything.
The last straw came late in his tenure in Torrance. Herley took the captain’s exam and came out with the highest score. Yet he did not get the job.
“I was pissed,” he says. “Finally I went to my boss and said, what the hell’s going on?. He said, ‘I don’t feel this way, but you’re not getting promoted. In some people’s mind it’s your religion.’ Finally, someone had enough guts to say it. I said ‘Thank you for making a decision for me I couldn’t make myself: I’m outta here.’ ”
The native of Santa Monica — and the son of a Holocaust survivor — decided to take a job in Tiburon for less pay, and in 1987 he became that city’s first Jewish police chief. “The Jews in Tiburon thought it was the greatest thing,” he says.
Now retired from active police work, Herley enjoys meeting up with fellow Jewish police officers through Shomrim, an organization that would have seemed unthinkable during his days with the Torrance P.D.
“That would have been a slap in their face,” he says about his fellow officers probable reaction to a Jewish fraternal police organization. “There are a lot of small-minded people, very prejudiced. Not just against Jews, but against minorities.”
Coffee and donuts are on one side of an auditorium at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. A table piled high with Shomrim gear (caps, T-shirts and tote bags) rests on the other side. And in the middle, hundreds of cops.
This is a room full of muscle.
Shomrim had organized a two-day seminar on counterterrorism and counter-surveillance, open to all law enforcement. Local cops from Santa Clara to Concord turned out, notepads in hand.
Attendees heard from FBI agent Steven Merrill who witnessed the horrendous Islamic terror attack in Mumbai, India, in November 2008.
He explained how the terrorists’ handlers watched their attack unfold on live television, feeding information to the killers in real time. He rattled off the types of weaponry used in the attack that killed 164, including a Chabad rabbi and his wife.
The underlying message: Don’t let it happen here.
Shomrim president Cobert watched the proceedings with pride, pleased that a Jewish organization offers useful events such as the conference. It’s part of Shomrim’s parallel purpose of community outreach.
“The greatest reward I have is the network, the connecting, he says. “This conference would have never happened without Shomrim.”
One of those Shomrim members, Vadim Rotberg, is a special agent for the Department of Justice. He attended the security conference in the hopes of learning something, and shmoozing with other law enforcement personnel. He touts the “professional and social connections” as his reason for joining Shomrim.
“On more than one occasion, I was surprised,” he says of the experience of meeting fellow Jewish cops. “Anyone in law enforcement is in a unique position. You do work that few others do. There is definitely a fraternity, whether you’re Jewish or not.”
As for Richmond SWAT officer Harris, the Jewish aspect of Shomrim is perhaps more important than the police aspect.
He didn’t grow up Orthodox, but moved toward observance as he got older. He credits Berkeley Chabad Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, whom he first met as a Cal undergrad years ago, for helping lead him deeper into Jewish spirituality.
One watershed moment came eight years ago after a brutal home invasion robbery, during which two Jewish couples celebrating Shabbat were assaulted, and one of the women was raped. Harris and his team were called out on the case.
“I was troubled by that,” he remembers. “I went to [Ferris] and said I didn’t want to betray her trust but I was concerned for her and the families. He said the words that constantly resonate till this day. He said, ‘What am I, God? Ask God.’ That was his way of telling me that we have answers in [Jewish] literature, but all her decisions are between her and God.”
The robbers were caught and later convicted.
Harris continues to deepen his spiritual practice. “There’s a whole ruach [spirit] in the Orthodox world I don’t see in any other form of Judaism,” he says. “I really enjoy it. I enjoy the nature of study. It speaks to me.”
He is still one tough cop, though he warns that normal life on a SWAT team is nothing like the escapades depicted on TV cop shows.
“Most of it is boring,” he says. “There are months of planning which go into being prepared for situations. When they arise, they are usually resolved with negotiations or by the person surrendering or committing suicide. It is rare we do the TV style of SWAT.”
Like Herley, Harris has seen his share of anti-Semitism in the force, but it’s never been much a problem. After all, who wants to mess with a SWAT officer?
“Most people make comments because they anticipate a response of the stereotypical Jewish man who will turn the other cheek,” he says. “That’s not what I do. A guy once said to me, ‘So, your people killed Jesus.’ I said it was me and me alone, and if you have a problem with that you deal with me.”
Herley says Shomrim serves a vital function for Jewish cops, who often feel very alone on the force.
“They’re so much in a minority,” the San Rafael resident says. “There can be an underlying feeling in some who may not come out [as Jews] and say how they really feel. It’s nice to know there are others who have been through the same thing.”
photo | norm levin
From left, Eric Thomson, Vincent Van Hoven, Steve Harris, Alexander Anolik and Jerome Cobert are local members of Shomrim, a national fraternal organization for Jewish law enforcement officers.