Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ocean County cops, Orthodox Jews bridge gap over bagels 

Imagine flagging down a police officer on the street and asking him or her to come to your home because you're having a problem. Now let's say that problem was that you needed a light switch flipped or an air conditioner turned on because your faith doesn't allow you to do that during your Sabbath.

For the more than 60,000 Orthodox Jews of Lakewood, these seemingly simple tasks can be violation of the rules of their faith. How police are being taught to address these customs was one of a number of issues addressed Thursday during the Ocean County Prosecutor's third Bagels, Lox & Cops event at Lake Terrace in Lakewood.

"It's very important that we understand various people's cultures and their religion," Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said. "It's important that we're able to communicate with people. We need to do more of this."

Coronato was among a number of Ocean County police organizations that was attended the event, which included members of the Lakewood and Brick police. The event, along with efforts made by Lakewood police, have helped foster a cooperative relationship between the Orthodox community, which makes up more than half the city's population, and the police.

"They've made the officers much more culturally sensitive to the customs and practices of the Orthodox citizens of Lakewood," Lakewood Police Chief Robert Lawson said. "There could be something involving an arrest situation, or a where we have victims involved, they'll do things differently and they will be very accommodating to the Orthodox population because of those things."

The event addressed how Orthodox community strictly adheres to the rules of the Jewish faith including rules for keeping food kosher, observing the Sabbath along with well-known Jewish holidays such as Passover and Hanukah, as well as addressing the potential handling of a body at a crime scene or during an autopsy. The strict adherence to these rules can turn simple tasks such as driving home into awkward situations for police officers who do not understand the culture.

"If you're stuck driving on the highway [at sundown on Friday], an individual will pull his vehicle to the side of the highway and not go any farther," Lakewood mayor Rabbi Menashe Miller said.

Orthodox Jews cannot drive a car — save for cases of life and death — during the 25 hours of the Sabbath, which begins at sundown every Friday and lasts until one hour after sundown on Saturday. Often, members of the Orthodox community have called police in order to handle seemingly routine tasks such as changing batteries in hearing aids and turning lights on and off because it is akin to starting or extinguishing a fire, which the rules of the Sabbath prohibit.

"He cannot transgress in the violations that we have for the Sabbath," Miller, a chaplain in the Air Force, said. "I'll never forget being in Lakewood Township and being in front of an officer and someone flags him down and asks 'could you come to my house and turn on my light switch? He says 'turn on your light switch? I'm a police officer' and of course we rectified that. It just took a little sensitivity."

In Lakewood, the police department has taken the step of training its officers for special situations such as this. Lawson said that the members of the Orthodox community will help train officers.

"I encourage community policing where if they're riding around during a holiday or during the Sabbath and someone is requesting to give them assistance, I encourage officers to do that," Lawson, the city's top cop since 2003, said. "Whether it be turning on a light switch, an air conditioner, or going to a drug store to get medicine for a young child that's sick.

That's the kind of community services that I encourage the officers to assist with," he said. Lawson joined the department in 1981 and has seen Lakewood change considerably in the last 33 years with the growth of the Orthodox community and has seen the area adapt to the shift.

"As chief, I've tried to change the culture of the police department to be more friendly," Lawson said. "Not only to the Orthodox community, but the various cultures in Lakewood, whether it be Latinos, African-Americans and I've reached out to leaders of those communities and built relationships with them."

Lawson said that while there has been training for the officers, which included members of the NAACP, the city has never had a program on the scale of Bagels, Lox & Cops, at least not yet.

"I've reached out to leaders of those communities and I've established relationships with them," he added, "and I've had them come in and give talks to these officers and sensitize them to the issues of all the ethnicities and races in Lakewood."

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