Jewish religion and culture place great value on helping others, on social justice and on the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. In fact, Jewish law not only encourages an observer to engage in kindness and good deeds, but requires it.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the professions stereotypically linked to Jews – medicine and law – are based on the philosophy of helping others and promoting justice and morality.
Yet, when it comes to law enforcement careers – ones that include justice, keeping the peace and protecting citizens – Jews are highly under-represented in these roles.
Sgt. Lawrence Sager, who recently celebrated 25 years with the Toronto Police Service (TPS), recalled his experience when he decided on a career chosen by so few members of his community.
Sager, who started his career working as a first responder and in public security as part of Montreal Police Service’s civilian staff before being recruited by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in 1987, said that when he reported to the RCMP Training Academy’s depot division, he felt like the odd man out.
“When I went through Regina, those guys hadn’t seen a Jewish policeman or a Jewish recruit ever. I don’t know if I was the first – I probably wasn’t – but there had been so few that they couldn’t even remember the last time,” Sager said.
“When I left for the RCMP, the Canadian Jewish News did an article… because it was so unusual for a Jewish person to be a policeman. At that time, only one other Jewish person that I knew of was in the Montreal Police Service.”
He said the fact that he was a member of such a small minority made him nervous.
“I didn’t want to be a pioneer, and let’s face it, it was very much a Christian organization then. We didn’t have too many minorities. It wasn’t officially Christian, but when 90 some per cent are white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant or Catholic, as a Jewish person, you’re going in there and you’re kind of breaking down barriers that some people may not necessarily want broken.”
Having grown up in Cote-St. Luc, a Montreal suburb Sager described as a “ghettoized” town highly populated by Jews, he wasn’t used to standing out as the only Jew in a group.
“I was the first one that they’d ever met.
That was a big shock to me. But I was able to relate to them quick enough.”
After spending two years in Sudbury doing undercover work for the RCMP drug squad, Sager decided he wanted to do uniform work for the TPS and requested that he be placed in 32 Division – bordered by Steeles and Lawrence avenues, and by the CN Rail line (near Dufferin Street) and Bayview Avenue – because of its large Jewish community.
But despite the large Jewish community 32 Division served, Sager said that when he joined the TPS in 1989, he was still an anomaly.
“I knew that there was a detective in the homicide division that was Jewish, and two other police officers in the city who were Jewish outside this division. Then taking into account a few people I didn’t know of, maybe there were 10 Jewish policemen.”
More than two decades later, the Jewish demographics in the TPS have not drastically changed. Sager estimated that out of 7,000 TPS officers, there might be only 40 to 50 Jews.
Jacob Berkenblit, a probation officer with the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, said the number of Jews in his field is also relatively low. He said that in his eight years in the field, he’s met only three or four other Jews and guessed that there aren’t many more working for the province in this role.
The 33-year-old Thornhill, Ont., native said that by the time he entered high school, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“After I finished university, I went through the motions of trying to become a police officer… After a couple years, I got a job working at a facility [a detention centre] for youths that offend, where we tried to transition them back into the community,” Berkenblit explained.
As he continued to gain experience in other areas of law enforcement, including as a probation officer, a job he has held for the past four years, he discovered that he enjoyed it.
“I work with the aftermath. I work with people who have been through the system, been arrested, have been in jail and in court, and I get to work with them afterward to try to give them a better outcome.”
Berkenblit suggested that perhaps the reason there aren’t more Jews choosing law enforcement positions is that parents don’t typically push children into this line of work.
“Growing up, you never heard of Jewish parents saying, ‘You should be a cop,’” he said.
Sonia Halpern, an English and writing studies professor at the University of Western Ontario, recently wrote a study titled A Yiddishe cop: An investigation into contemporary Jewish issues of police work.
“One of the issues people don’t discuss frequently is why there is not this automatic connection between Jews and police work. So I really wanted to investigate reasons for this,” Halpern said in an interview.
“In Judaism, we tend to associate particular careers, like law, medicine, accounting, dentistry… with Jewish careers, as it were. It’s interesting to me that police work, much of the time, deals with medical issues, with legal issues, with justice, so it deals with a lot of the same issues that the so-called Jewish professions deal with, and yet, it’s not really advocated as a profession that Jews should pursue.”
In her study, Halpern highlighted a number of reasons she believes Jews avoid police work.
For one, police officers belong to a para-militaristic organization, the kind of groups that historically mistreated European Jews. Jewish culture also places high value on education and intellectualism, and policing was not traditionally a career that required a post-secondary education. Another factor Halpern highlighted was that policing could be dangerous, which conflicts with the values Jews place on the sanctity of human life.
But Sager argues that perhaps the most compelling reason more Jewish young adults don’t pursue careers in law enforcement is because their worried parents try to deter them.
“I think a lot of kids have this mindset when they’re kids that they want to be a policeman or a fireman when they grow up,” he said.
“Being from a Jewish household, I knew I was never going to be a policeman. My parents were dead set against it, and no one from my community had ever become a policeman.”
Sager said his parents pushed him along a more traditional path toward medicine, or dentistry, or law, or even the family business.
“I have three siblings – two brothers and one sister. My father was in the shmatte business, and they are there with him. I had a job waiting for me, which paid a lot more than I’m getting paid now, but that wasn’t my dream. My dream was to be a policeman,” he said.
“My parents tried to dissuade me from being a policeman by saying, ‘You’re going to be living in the poorest area of Montreal, you won’t be able to afford this and that because policemen are paid so poorly.’”
He said he decided to look into the issue further by utilizing a vocational service to learn more about a career in law enforcement, and he learned that, actually, the police services pay very well.
“My parents are still sitting shivah,” he said, laughing. “But it’s funny, because my parents are very proud of me… although it wasn’t so apparent at the beginning… They wanted to dissuade me because it’s such a dangerous profession.”
Berkenblit had a similar experience with his worried parents, but they were less vocal about whether he should or should not have entered the law enforcement field.
“My mom was very worried about me becoming a cop, and she is still worried about me. I think my mom thinks… I’m in danger at all times. She’ll ask me, ‘Are you OK?’” he said, adding that his clients, who are as young as 12 years old, have committed offences [including] something as minor as petty theft, and as serious as murder.
“She knows that we’re dealing with [dangerous people] but… my parents never pushed me one way or the other. My parents were never the type of parents that told me to be a doctor or a lawyer, like a typical Jewish boy. Nothing is wrong with that type of work, but I never gravitated toward it,” Berkenblit said.
“I was too interested in being on the front lines rather than being behind a book. I’m educated, but I wasn't interested in being in a work environment like a doctor or a lawyer, because it didn’t appeal to me.”
Next week we’ll examine the relationship law enforcement has with the Jewish community, whether anti-Semitism is an issue in the field and how demographic trends may be changing the profession.