As late spring turned into early summer, many American cities were still rocked by the violent demonstrations, riots, and looting that began almost immediately after the appalling killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. Scenes of burning police cars, smashed windows, property destruction, and violence carried out by nihilists in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities shocked the public. The violence also overshadowed the stated purpose of the peaceful demonstrations against perceived systemic racism and police brutality. With COVID-19 still suppressing much of normal life, the addition of this civic disorder has made it a long, long few months.

Watching what seemed like a meltdown of normal society has been frightening and surreal. Police as an entire group have been vilified and demonized for the crimes of a few. While mayors and city councils busied themselves with debating how much to slash police department budgets, or possibly defund them entirely, formerly thriving sections of their cities burned.

But against this grim backdrop are many sparks of light. “Defend the Police” and “Back the Blue” rallies are springing up across the country, drawing upwards of a few thousand people—even in Seattle. Participants are waving the American flag, not burning it.

“Most police officers are absolute heroes who put their lives on the line for us every single day.”

Back in June, I was thrilled to discover that several Jewish women in my local community had sprung into action to feed the morale of our local police—quite literally. Kylie Ora Lobell, who writes for Aish.com and other media outlets, raised funds with several friends for a “thank you” pizza and salad lunch she brought to 45 officers of the West Los Angeles Police Department, which patrols our neighborhood. They raised $600 for the lunch, and the local kosher restaurant providing the meal contributed to the cause by giving a significant discount on the tab.

Seinior Lead Officer Chris Ragsale with children from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood at a dinner and thank-you note delivery at the West Los Angeles Police Department.

Lobell explained, “I believe that Black lives matter. I want the Black community to be treated equally and I believe there is a lot of work to do in this country to get there. However, the rioting and looting taking place during the protests were unacceptable and did not help the cause. When I saw our communities being destroyed and police being attacked, I knew I had to step up and help. Most police officers are absolute heroes who put their lives on the line for us every single day. They risk everything to protect us. The least I (and my friends) could do was give them some food to eat. That's how we Jews show love, through our food. I hope to do it again soon and encourage others to do the same."

Great Jewish female minds often think alike, and two other funds started by other women support individual “thank you” programs. Both funds have been overwhelmed with donations. Freda Small and her friend Sarah Weintraub operate one of the programs, bringing a beautifully presented catered lunch each week to one of three precincts on a rotating basis. These precincts serve the geographically diverse Jewish community in the city and in the Valley Village area of the San Fernando Valley.

“We’ve had such an outpouring of gratitude from the precincts,” said Small. “They feel it’s a special gift, not only because it’s tough out there, but because so many of the restaurants they used to frequent have been closed. The business also helps support our kosher establishments, who have done an outstanding job. I took my grandkids so that they were able to say ‘thank you’ to the police officers in person.”

Small and Weintraub will continue their deliveries through Rosh Hashanah. With each delivery, they include a printed message of heartfelt thanks from the extended Jewish community of Los Angeles. “The message shows them that this effort is not just the work of two women,” Weintraub said.

“With all the negativity from the public, this support really keeps us going. It reminds us that we are valuable.”

I have also gone twice with other teams for meal deliveries, including a dinner brought to the West Los Angeles Police Department. I went because I wanted to do more than just kick a little into the donation pot. My heart went out to these officers, whose sirens were blaring more often during the day and evening, and who risk their lives for our safety. I wanted to see these officers in person, look them in the eye, and express my gratitude. They were very clearly very touched by this effort.

“This is great,” one officer told me as he loaded his plate with deli wrap sandwiches in the break room at the station. “We just came back from a protest, and many of us are working a double shift. With all the negativity from the public, this support really keeps us going. It reminds us that we are valuable.”

A Magen Am volunteer in full gear during the riots in late May, after speaking with a man who initially appeared threatening. "We turned this into a human-to-human experience," the Magen Am volunteer said. "It's probably the first time he got an arm on his shoulder from a rabbi."

No Jewish community can afford to rely solely on public protection from rising crime and the ever-present dangers of anti-Semitism. In Los Angeles, we are fortunate to have several volunteer and non-profit organizations whose services bolster our safety.

L.A. Shmira Patrol is a 24/7 volunteer safety patrol and neighborhood watch group of men and women from across the religious spectrum. When the riots began on the second day of Shavuot, which was also Shabbat, the LAPD notified the patrol supervisors. By 4 p.m. drivers of Shmira vehicles were canvassing the neighborhoods, advising residents to stay indoors and observe the city-imposed curfews.

“We are here to patrol, observe, and report any crime to the police,” explained Avi, a supervisor with the organization. “During those ten days or so of the riots, we fielded close to 200 calls for suspicious persons, crime, and information requests on how to keep safe during those difficult times.” He also credits the LAPD for their responsiveness to the Jewish community’s security needs. “When we call, the dispatchers try to get us what we need in a timely fashion.”

Many Jews who had never considered doing so are now signing up for training in the use of firearms and applying for permits to purchase guns.

The Community Security Service (CSS) began in 2007 with a clear mission: “Protecting Jewish Life and Jewish Way of Life.” Starting with security for a single synagogue in Manhattan, CSS now has more than 4,500 highly trained volunteers protecting synagogues, events, and institutions across the country. Locally, hundreds of community members, including many shul rabbis, have been trained in best-in-class security and safety methods, empowering local Jews to identify threats and proactively protect themselves.

In today’s volatile political and social climate, and with police budgets under the knife, many Jews who had never considered doing so are now signing up to learn how to responsibly handle firearms and applying for permits to purchase guns. Many of the most popular small guns have long waiting periods because gun sales have skyrocketed.

LA Shmira units responding to a hotline call regarding a homeless woman breaking into cars in the Pico-Robertson area, waiting with the suspect until police arrive.

Two local Jewish groups offer such training to individuals and to small groups. NDF Training was founded and is run by Rabbi Raziel Cohen, who goes by the handle “The Tactical Rabbi.” He’s done dozens of media interviews, including one where he offers tips on how to feel protected during civil unrest, whether armed or unarmed. As a Chabad rabbi, he also has a video about the most effective ways to quickly access a concealed weapon under a buttoned-up kapota or a bekesha. Now that’s something you won’t find either in the Guide for the Perplexed or the NRA handbook!

Magen Am (magenamusa.com) is the only private Jewish group in L.A. that is licensed as a Private Patrol Operator through the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services. Like NDF Training, Magen Am offers extensive training in handling firearms, de-escalation techniques, and self-defense.

All these community-based security organizations reflect the wave of the future, where public-private security coordination is the name of the game. In fact, one reason that Los Angeles has not suffered from as much rioting and as serious an increase in crime as other cities is because the LAPD has one of the most successful community policing programs around. The police have invested great effort into going into various communities and making themselves known and accessible through community liaisons.

Baila Romm has served as the volunteer liaison with the LAPD for fifteen years. On the morning of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in October 2018, for example, Romm, who is Shabbat-observant, was called by one of her connections at LAPD at six in the morning. He asked her for a list of all local synagogues and their addresses. Romm compiled the list right away and sent it over. As a result of this connection, our local shuls were monitored on a tense and terrifying morning.

“The Pico-Robertson neighborhood has the most Jewish institutions and shuls in Los Angeles, not just Orthodox, but every branch,” Romm said. “We are fortunate to have such an amazing captain and lead officers in the West L.A.P.D. They are always so responsive to the community, and they rely on our efforts to support them in community policing.”

During the riots in late May and early June, Magen Am deployed their volunteers, fully kitted out in body armor and clearly armed. “We presented a hard target,” noted Rabbi Yossi Eilfort, president of Magen Am. “The LAPD was overwhelmed during those first days, and our job was damage control.”

Though the rioters appeared on a mindless quest to destroy and loot, Eilfort observed that many could be calmed. “My body armor says ‘Rabbi,’ and when people tried to get aggressive with me, I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m a rabbi. I just want to talk.’ Believe it or not most people relaxed and let down their guard. When not in an actively dangerous situation, our protocol is that everyone we stop gets a smile, a wave, and a ‘Be Safe’ greeting. It’s hard for someone to fight with you when you smile at them and keep that balance. We are often very successful with deescalating situations this way.”

Until last Pesach Rabbi Eilfort’s day job was as a shul rabbi. Since then, he has needed to expand the scope of Magen Am and its services. Demand for firearms training is way up, and on August 11, the organization announced a new program offering support to lone soldier veterans.

I owe thanks not only to the LAPD for their dedication to keeping our community safe while under unprecedented pressure, but also to the wide network of Jews in our community who are backing the men and women in blue. More Jews in the community are learning how to feel more empowered during unstable times. We are seeing the fruits of community policing at its best, and expressing the quintessentially Jewish value of showing well deserved gratitude.