After 75 years, the Jewish cops and firefighters who make up the local chapter of Shomrim still gather for monthly meetings and social events. But their ranks have thinned — and aged — considerably in recent years.
Jeffrey Rabinovitch used to attend Shomrim meetings with his father, Howard, who spent his career in the civil service.
The organization, made up mostly of Jewish cops and firefighters, met at least once a month, often in front of a spread of lox and bagels.
On Sundays, they played softball games against other ethnic social groups. The Jewish officers insisted on all-beef hot dogs. Their families would come watch and picnic. When the younger Rabinovitch became a cop in 1998 — he’s now a sergeant in the Philadelphia Police Department — and was able to join as a full member, he recalls how excited he was. But now, at 44, Rabinovitch is an unusual sight at the organization’s meetings, held monthly, at the Klein JCC.
The middle-aged law-enforcement official is one of the very few officers from his generation or younger to join Shomrim. Attendance at the meetings is scarce, making it hard to attract interesting guest speakers. It is facing the same membership problems as organizations like Custodes Pacis, the Italian law enforcement group.
As Shomrim celebrates its 75th year, the Philadelphia and Delaware Valley chapter currently counts about 120 members, half of what it was 15 years ago, with the drop-off over the past five years especially steep. Even as leaders now have to face the strong possibility that the declining membership may soon be a cold case, a problem that can’t be solved, the group’s new — and first female — president, Judi Buch, isn’t ready to close the books on the matter just yet. She said that longtime members are highly energized about trying different ways — contacting synagogues, increasing recruiting efforts among district attorneys — to increase membership. Jewish men and women who work in public safety — “basically anyone who has a badge,” Buch said — are eligible to join Shomrim as full members; others can join as associate members.
In addition to their own meetings, the Jewish officers attend other ethnic groups’ events and they always try to have a presence at any and all memorial services for fallen police officers. In June, many local Shomrim members traveled to Manhattan to march along with that city’s Jewish officers in the Salute to Israel Parade.
Shomrim veterans attribute the decline in part to the fact that fewer Jewish young people are joining police and fire departments, and among those who do, in fact, join, many are not interested in joining an ethnic group. When Howard Rabinovitch joined Shomrim in the early 1980s — he was then a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture inspector — meetings were often standing-room-only, he said.
“You try to groom younger people to come in and take over the organization, and they don’t have the same zest to come in and do that,” said Rabinovitch, 67, who retired as an emergency response coordinator for the Food and Drug Administration.
For President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Rabinovitch handled security for the production and transport of Vice President Joe Biden’s favorite hoagies from a Delaware restaurant to Washington.
Howard Lebofsky, a Philadelphia police officer-turned-attorney, listed a number of reasons why he thinks fewer Jews are entering law enforcement, and why those who do are less likely to join Shomrim than earlier generations. He said a significant number of Jewish veterans entered the field after serving in the Vietnam War and some earlier wars. When applying to enter the police department, those who had served in the armed forces were given preference over others.
With no military draft, the natural path to law enforcement doesn’t exist. There is also greater protection against discrimination and harassment in the work place today than there was 30 years ago, so an ethnic organization that advocates for its members isn’t as crucial, Lebofsky said.
“I think it’s a shame” that fewer Jews are joining the police force, said Lebofsky, who grew up in Oxford Circle, a safe community where police cruisers were so rare that neighbors gossiped for weeks when one was parked on the street. “The police work led me from a very sheltered life to a much broader set of experiences.”
For her part, Buch, a 59-year-old probation and parole supervisor in Bucks County, said she joined Shomrim because there were not many Jews in her field and the organization provided camaraderie.
Seven years ago, she Googled “Jews and law enforcement” and found Shomrim.
Speaking at the group’s annual banquet last week at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, she tried to rally the group as a four-piece jazz band played a mixture of oldies and Jewish tunes; at one point, a dance circle formed during “Hava Nagila.” As the members took their seats, Buch approached the microphone and spoke about how tough the last year has been for many of the area’s ethnic organizations.
“It’s not all peaches and cream,” Buch said in a separate interview. “We’ve struggled at recruiting members, but even after all these years in law enforcement, I’m optimistic, and I think the organization will continue.”