As New Yorkers mourned two fallen police officers ambushed Saturday as they sat in their patrol car in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and as tensions escalated between police unions and city officials, a 12-year veteran of the police force and four local teens sat around a table in another section of Brooklyn Monday night and drew pictures.
Officer Mathew Pierre and the four children — Emily, two Anthonys and Soshil — also viewed artwork by Israeli children, toured a replica of an Israeli bomb shelter and discussed what it means for them to feel angry or happy, emotions they depicted in their drawings.
One of the youngsters, 18-year-old Anthony, said it was a “shame” that children in southern Israel “have to live through” the trauma of rocket fire, while Pierre, 42, likened the experience to what urban police officers face every day.
The Israeli kids and cops begin each day without “knowing whether it might be your last,” said Pierre, a native of Haiti whose younger brother, also a policeman, serves in the same precinct as one of the murdered officers, Rafael Ramos. “A week earlier, he was sitting in the very same patrol car in the very same location.”
Pierre and the four children are all involved in the New York Police Department’s Law Enforcement Explorers, a program aimed at building trust between the NYPD and members of the community, and the bonds they’ve created offer a counterpoint to the troubles around them.
But just as noteworthy from a Jewish perspective is that the organization hosting them, The Bridge, is closely associated with the Jewish community. Founded by Mark Meyer Appel, a prominent Orthodox activist, the center is aimed at bringing together members of different racial, religious and ethnic groups in Midwood, where it’s based, and other parts of Brooklyn.
Moreover, the workshop in which the officer and teens participated is designed by Artists 4 Israel, a group that sends art therapists to Israel to work with children traumatized by rocket attacks. The group is now planning to conduct similar workshops in local schools to help inner-city children cope with the trauma in their lives, said Michelle Rousseau Laytner, an art therapist who has partnered with the program.
Monday’s workshop came as members of the Jewish community responded to last weekend’s killings, which were carried out by an emotionally disturbed man, Ismail Brinsley, who posted a comment on Facebook before the ambush, saying he would murder two cops to revenge the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
Garner and Brown were both black men killed by police in different localities — Garner on Staten Island, Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — under what many people believe were questionable circumstances. But grand juries in both cases decided not to issue any indictments, sparking days of protests and riots.
Even before Saturday’s tragedy, rhetoric over the Garner case heated up considerably, with Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, calling on members to request that Mayor Bill de Blasio stay away from their funeral in case they are killed in the line of duty. Among the NYPD’s critics, some protesters — including some at a march organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice — chanted about “racist police.” On Saturday, after the ambush, Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said in a statement that “the blood of these two officers” was on the mayor’s hands.
The rhetoric spurred one religious leader, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, to write an op-ed for the Daily News saying that calling all police officers bigots is akin to “pouring kerosene on the fire” and that it’s “equally unfair and counterproductive to dismiss our mayor and other leaders as enemies of the police.” Meanwhile, the mayor has implored protesters to refrain from holding any marches or rallies until after the two funerals, the first of which is this Saturday.
Agreeing with the cardinal, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, told The Jewish Week that everyone needs “to stop our verbal assaults on one another.” Moreover, he continued, “We need to listen to each other. More discourse and no more diatribes. This city needs to heal, and that won’t happen without talking to each other.”
The rabbi, who also serves as the Jewish chaplain of the city’s Fire Department, said he paid a visit Sunday to the 84th Police Precinct, where the two officers were killed. Everyone was “devastated,” he recalled, “but what they said is, ‘We’re family in the NYPD, and we’ll get through this because we’re family.”
Rabbi Potasnik also said that he and other interfaith leaders are planning an observance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday, Jan. 15, to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. The ceremony will include the mayor, as well as police officials, he said, adding that it’s bound to be “a unifying moment in the City of New York. People need to see us together.”
Elsewhere around the city, at least two vigils took place Monday under Jewish auspices to express solidarity with local police officers.
In the Bronx, about 100 people gathered at a precinct in Kingsbridge, near Riverdale, for a vigil organized by synagogues across the denominational spectrum and two Jewish day schools, according to Rabbi Ari Hart, associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
The rabbi said that many of the people at the vigil are concerned about “how the justice system works in New York,” but he added that everyone has to remember that the NYPD is a diverse force whose members risk their lives every day “to protect us.”
What happened in the Garner case is a terrible injustice, Rabbi Hart continued, adding that “some cops respond too aggressively or with excessive force” and that some cops are racist. Those issues need to be addressed, he said, but the solution rests with proposals like those offered by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that would allow his office, rather than county prosecutors, to handle cases like Eric Garner’s.
“To me,” he said, “that’s the solution. White people marching through the streets and calling black and Hispanic police officers racist is not the solution.”
The other vigil took place in Midtown Manhattan, where Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum led members of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to NYPD’s Traffic Control Division, located next door to the congregation’s future home.
Rabbi Kleinbaum said she sent a condolence letter to the division’s commander before the vigil, asking if congregants could gather in front of the building with a menorah and candles, and received a welcoming response.
The rabbi said she believes the vigil and her earlier participation in a protest against racial injustice are both connected. The lives of young blacks matter, she added, so, too, do the lives of police, who should be treated with dignity and respect.
As the vigils took place, organizations and leaders associated with the protests deplored the loss of life and said that violence against police officers is not what anyone had in mind.
“No one was calling for the murder of police officers, God forbid,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a national group that seeks to involve rabbis in calls for social justice. She added that the one “consistent message” throughout the movement is that demonstrations have to be peaceful and that all lives matter.
But Marjorie Dove Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, said the tragedy hasn’t caused any change in strategy on the part of her group.
JFREJ is now engaged in conversations over the best strategy for mobilizing and for pushing its message, Kent said. But the tragedy won’t affect “our longtime work to achieve justice for people of color,” she said. That strategy will continue to include civil disobedience, she said, calling it “a tool that could really keep this issue up front for white communities.”
Asked about the chants that have disturbed many people, including some who’ve attended the protests, Kent said that the movement has to continue pushing “the analysis that [bias] is part of the racist system as a whole. … It’s not about whether this cop or that cop is racist.”
One program that may contribute to healing the city is the NYPD Law Enforcement Explorers, which has close to 4,000 participants throughout the city.
Pierre, the program’s coordinator in his precinct, said he’s grown to love working with the children he’s advised and befriended through the program. Some, he said, are now studying to become police officers themselves, while others have entered the army or one of the helping professions.
Being involved in the program “stops the clock,” getting his mind off of whatever troubles are plaguing the city or world at the time, he said.