“You must be the only Jewish police officer in Baltimore.”
That’s what family members used to say to Jeremy Silbert when he first joined the police department in 2000, and it was a common perception — one Silbert himself believed. He never realized how many men and women who donned a police uniform shared his religion. That is, until a fellow Jewish police officer, after much persistence and persuasion, convinced Silbert to start attending Shomrim Society of Maryland meetings about a decade ago.
“I always remember they had the meetings early on Sunday mornings, and at the time, I was a patrolman, so I was always working split shifts,” said Silbert, 37, now a detective and spokesman with the Baltimore Police Department.
“It took me a little while and required some pushing to get me to wake up early on a Sunday morning,” the Pikesville native said with a laugh. “But once I went to a meeting, I said, ‘This is pretty cool.’”
Not to be confused with the Jewish volunteer citizen safety patrol group Baltimore Shomrim, Shomrim Maryland is a fraternal organization for active and retired police, fire and other public safety officers. Locally, Shomrim — Hebrew for “watchers” — was established in 1978, and the organization remains as strong as ever, Silbert said.
The Jewish-oriented group is open to anyone in the state, even people who aren’t Jewish, though most of its members are. It counts clergy, attorneys, accountants, judges, prosecutors and public defenders among its approximately 100 members. Many are current and former city police officers, but there is noticeable representation from Baltimore, Cecil, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
In the city, at least, Silbert acknowledged it’s difficult to know how many Jewish people work in the 2,500-unit police department. The agency does not collect data on the religious affiliation of its employees.
But if he had to guess, Silbert estimates there are approximately 50, a number he said catches many people off-guard.
“Gone are the days when someone gets hired and you can ask, ‘What religion are you?’” Silbert said. “Someone can volunteer [that information], but I don’t know how many do. What I tell people is that there are a lot more Jewish police officers and firefighters than you might think.”
With its own chaplain in Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, the group provides a support system for difficult times and creates a network of fellow Jewish officers around the state.
Shomrim Maryland members, including Silbert, have made many new acquaintances and friends. Traveling throughout the state in his role as president of Shomrim, Silbert said he is always meeting officers he didn’t realize were Jewish.
Part of his responsibility as Shomrim Maryland president since 2011 is to serve those who have made the decision to put their lives on the line to protect and serve their communities. He takes pride in being a valued resource for Jewish public safety officers around the state, he said.
“If officers reach out to me, regardless of where they are in the state, I will do my best to help them,” Silbert said. “But if I can’t help them, I will at least pinpoint what resources officers might need or who I can try to reach to help.”
Service to the community is an important part of Judaism, and Shomrim Maryland is not alone in offering outreach to Jewish public servants.
There are dozens of Shomrim chapters scattered around the country, and some cities’ chapters, such as New York, where the first chapter was started in 1924, boast membership numbers in the thousands.
Rabbi Tzvi Berkowitz, chaplain of the National Conference of Shomrim Societies, said he believes spiritually that every law enforcement officer has a contract with God to safeguard God’s laws peacefully.
“As a Jewish police officer, it’s double, because not only are you doing God’s work, but you are also an ambassador of goodwill for the entire Jewish community and world,” Berkowitz said.
Out of Tragedy Comes Action
Recognizing there was no group specifically for Jewish police officers, a trio of Baltimore natives — Theodore “Ted” Weintraub, Sidney Hyatt and Mervin Spiwak — spearheaded the formation of the Shomrim Maryland chapter in 1978.
There already were fraternal organizations for Italian, Irish and African-American officers, among other ethnicities, that were recognized by the city police department. So Weintraub thought it only made sense for Jewish officers to have a unified group to preserve their own ethnic identity and turn to in fraught times.
“It’s tough to do things on your own,” Weintraub said of the inspiration to create Shomrim Maryland. “We thought it would help not only us, but the entire police department if there was an organization for Jewish officers and others to serve the community.”
For years, Weintraub had heard that some Jewish officers had trouble taking off for the High Holidays. But what inspired the formation of the chapter was Jewish officers having to bury one of their own, something Weintraub said he and the others had never done before.
That changed in 1977 after a Jewish officer, Dennis Sweren, was killed in a car accident while off duty. News of the death hit especially close to home for many Jewish officers, including Weintraub, who had to inform the Sweren family of the incident.
“The toughest part was that Sweren’s mother was a widow, and she was a very high-strung woman,” Weintraub recalled. “We went over to her apartment around 5 a.m. to tell her, and while we start telling her what happened, she starts cleaning up, and we said, ‘What are you doing, Ms. Sweren?’ And she said, ‘I have to clean up for the shiva house.’”
The exchange prompted Weintraub, a major at the time, to spring into action at the request of then-Baltimore police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau, who contacted Weintraub to assist with making funeral arrangements for Sweren. Sol Levinson & Bros agreed to perform the service for free, Weintraub said.
Hyatt remembers the funeral home performing this service in earlier decades as well.
“Old man Levinson, if you were a cop, you were buried free,” Hyatt said of Sol Levinson, the former owner of the business who died in 1957. “That’s the way it was. He really looked out for officers.”
While grateful to Sol Levinson & Bros., Weintraub felt a more structured response needed to be in place to respond to such tragic events.
Unsure of how to deal with the death of a Jewish officer, Weintraub turned to district commanders stationed throughout the city to determine how many Jewish officers there were. To his surprise, he learned there were about 60. Based off that number, he said, he figured there were dozens more spread out across the state.
“We really didn’t know or think about it at the time,” Weintraub said of the number of city Jewish officers at the time. “You’d always hear the complaints about the High Holiday services and not getting time off, but we knew we needed more outreach and to raise more awareness.”
Eventually, leaders from the National Shomrim Society trekked from New York to a hotel in downtown Baltimore to meet with a group of Jewish officers, among them Weintraub and Hyatt.
And then Shomrim Maryland was born.
Weintraub and Hyatt immediately got the ball rolling on promoting Shomrim Maryland. At its peak in the mid-1980s, Hyatt recounted, the group boasted about 300 members.
“We saw that there were a lot of other officers out there like us, and we could sense that a support group like this would do a lot to create some camaraderie among all of us,” Hyatt said. “Shomrim was very popular, especially around that time. Officers would come from all over for our meetings.”
Fulfilling a Need
The Maryland chapter offers support mechanisms, puts on programs and provides a social network. It also connects with the community.
Silbert organizes an annual gravesite memorial for the late Ira Wiener — believed to be the city’s first Jewish cop shot and killed in the line of duty — at Oheb Shalom Memorial Park in Reisterstown. He also leads several group meetings, dinners and various events throughout the year. Tenenbaum, who also serves as volunteer chaplain for the city police department and the Maryland Defense Force, hosts Shabbat dinners and holiday programs for members.
Group members credit Silbert and Tenenbaum for their unwavering commitment in the face of adverse situations.
Former Shomrim Maryland president Gary Yamin said Tenenbaum, especially, was there for him when his uncle and father, both former Shomrim members, died within 10 days of one another this past spring.
“[Rabbi Tenenbaum] was very supportive,” said Yamin, a retired detective sergeant in the city police department. “Luckily, when I called Rabbi Tenenbaum, he came out and said blessings and lent his support to my family and me at a time when we really needed it.”
Amid the nation’s police- community tensions, Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) said groups such as Shomrim Maryland are more important than ever.
“Other elected officials have said to me, ‘Oh, you don’t want to be out in front with this stuff, because then you own it,’” Schleifer said. “I said, ‘Well, I do feel like I own it, because if we have people in our communities and our district getting carjacked and getting their doors kicked in, we need to take responsibility together.’ This is our community.”
For Silbert, along with other group members, the mission brings a real sense of pride to his own Jewish identity.
“First and foremost, it’s about helping our members and providing them with anything that they need,” said Silbert, who regularly attends Friday night Shabbat services at a synagogue in the city he preferred not to mention. “Anything we can do to support whoever we can, our members are ready and willing to do that.”
On a recent Sunday morning at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, more than a dozen men filed into a community room, noshing on bagels and lox, sipping on freshly roasted coffee and schmoozing.
A ray of sunshine filled the room as the men traded old stories, cracked off-color jokes, playfully heckled each other and served up sarcasm-laced comebacks.
After everyone was settled, Silbert called the order to meeting. He summoned Tenenbaum to conduct a brief prayer, keeping with a tradition that begins each meeting. In his blessing, Tenenbaum prayed for all Jewish uniformed service members’ continued protection of their communities and to thank them for their contributions.
The strong group dynamic and the impact it has on its members is critical, Tenenbaum said afterward.
“It’s interesting to know how many Jewish public safety officers there are, especially in the city police department, and to know the importance of their work brings them together is special,” Tenenbaum said. “It’s something I didn’t know when I first moved to Baltimore [in 2011], and it was something that I was quite happy to hear. The fact that I can offer them support now is something very special to me.”
Giving back has been one of the major pillars of the organization and one that Weintraub feels will continue to define the organization for years to come, he said.
Looking to the Future
For group members, Maryland Shomrim keeps them connected and provides a strong sense of community and belonging. It’s something that Silbert also doesn’t see changing anytime soon.
But as the years have passed and members have come and gone, the group has found ways to change with the times, Silbert said.
“One of the biggest things I did when I came on board was to focus on recruitment and to move the organization into the times we’re in now,” Silbert said.
Maryland Shomrim is not alone when it comes to finding new ways to recruit members. Berkowitz of the National Conference of Shomrim Societies estimates there are more than 30,000 Jewish police officers nationwide, but there are far fewer who are involved with Shomrim.
“Not every Jewish cop joins Shomrim,” Berkowitz said. “They may not be aware of it for whatever reasons. We’re coming up with ways to change that.”
Facing the same challenges as many other service clubs and fraternal organizations, Maryland Shomrim is working to shore up and build its membership, Silbert said. With the advent of email, social media and other electronic forms of communication, members have had an easier time staying connected and paying their dues through PayPal. It has also expanded the group’s reach and enhanced its profile.
“Everyone is on the internet, and everyone is on social media,” Silbert said. “In 2009, we didn’t have a website or any social media profiles. So what I did was create a website, which is where we draw everyone to. Not only can you find out information about us, but you can donate to us and join us.”
Looking ahead, Silbert is confident Maryland Shomrim can draw on its storied lineage and a promising future to lure new members. In turn, he hopes that will spark enthusiasm to ensure the survival of the organization for future waves of Jewish public safety officers.
In the meantime, Silbert said that retirees and other members who want to stay sharp, learn new information and reminiscence about the past have come to the right place.
“I think the bonds these guys have built is something that is really valued,” Silbert said. “It certainly is for me, and that’s something I think will never change with this group.”
For more information, visit shomrimmd.org.
You can certainly see your enthusiasm in the article you write.
The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid
to say how they believe. At all times follow your heart.
Ted===Very nice article. I was friendly with Dennis Sweren. Regards Charlie