On profiling - a Jewish Perspective

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

The Zimmerman trial is over. Or is it? The announcement by the Attorney. General of the United States that the investigation regarding the so-called human rights dimension of the case is still ongoing focusing in on the question of did Zimmerman profile Trayvon Martin, that profiling in and of itself constituting an act of racism, demonstrates that the case against Mr. Zimmerman is alive and well no matter its distortion.

When I first became the Rabbi of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation more than fifteen years ago,, the congregation rented a Sabbath apartment for my family and myself in a building at the corner of Lawrence and Kenmore Avenues in Chicago. Our fellow residents in this rather rundown apartment house were a colorful lot – including dope pushers, a smattering of transvestites and prostitutes. In fact, one of the pass times, my sons engaged in on long Friday winter nights, was observing the scene playing out in front of their bedroom window as our neighbors pursued their profession negotiating with the “Johns” pulling up to select the neighbor most appealing to their carnal desires. Sometimes these negotiations would become quite animated as the pimp interceded. On occasion they would evolve into physical encounters resulting in four or more squad cars appearing on the scene. This ever changing panorama of perversion entertained my sons for hours.

We would arrive about two hours before the onset of the Sabbath. We all had Sabbath attire at the apartment. We would shower and dress, and then, as a family unit, walk to synagogue about three blocks away.

Uptown at that time was a rather difficult inner-city community, The blessing of gentrification was years away. On several occasions our walk to and from synagogue on Friday evenings resulted in confrontations with Uptowners who didn’t particularly care for Orthodox Jews being in their neighborhood. At times this required my sons, the three of them all six footers, to defend us from the vile language accompanied by physical attacks. On one occasion my late son Rabbi Yosef, literally picked a fellow up and flung him five feet to the ground in front of us. The confrontation ceased.

Parking in Uptown is at a premium and it was not uncommon for us to cruise the neighborhood to find a parking space for the Sabbath. Observant Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. This circling around the block could take as long as 20 minutes. Eventually this problem was cured as my very good friend Fr. Richard Simon, then of St. Thomas Roman Catholic church, located directly across the street from the building where we stayed, arranged for us to park our cars in the church parking lot over the Sabbath.

On one occasion my son Levi driving directly from his job showed up only three minutes prior to the onset of the Sabbath at sundown on Friday. He was quite upset and told us the following story.

After circling the neighborhood block many times, Levi noticed a car pulling out ahead of him and quickly got there to park his car. Reaching in the back seat for some last-minute items he brought for the Sabbath, he was grabbed from behind, his hand twisted behind his back and forcefully pressed down on the hood of his car spread-eagle. When he got over the initial shock he realized he was being held down by a policeman, the policeman’s partner standing by his side. “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” asked the policeman in a very accusative voice. Levi replied ever so innocently, “I live here.” to which the retort was, “White boys like you don’t live in Uptown.” I should point out that Levi wears a kipah, skull cap, and on many occasions as this one his Tzitzis, fringes, are worn hanging over his pants. “You are cruising looking to score some dope.” continued the cop, “Let’s see your ID.”

Unfortunately for Levi he had forgotten that his ID listed his address at our permanent home on Maplewood Avenue in West Rogers Park.

The fact that it was now established that he did not live in Uptown and had lied about his residence, infuriated the police. They told him they were going to run him in and then find out what he was really doing in Uptown. Terrified and upset that he would be forced to violate the Sabbath by driving in the sqad car, he blurted out, “My father is the Rabbi in the synagogue on Kenmore Avenue – Rabbi Lefkowitz. Please check this out.” Fortunately for him, one of the policeman called in and they learned that he was telling the truth. He was the Rabbi’s son. They let him go with a perfunctory apology.

My son. Levi had been profiled by the police because he is white and perhaps because he is Jewish. He appeared to professional law enforcement officers as an individual who “didn’t belong in the neighborhood.”

My family spent the entire Sabbath discussing this issue and how we should react to it. Initially we were outraged. My son was dressed in a shirt and slacks driving a clean late-model automobile. How dare the police profile him, rough him up, accusing him of being in the neighborhood solely to make an illegal buy of narcotics! We determined that I would file a formal protest with the local police district and contact the Alderman about this outrageous event.

As the Sabbath progressed and we cooled off a bit, we gave it more thought. Why did the police handle him in such a fashion? We realized they must have watched as he cruised the neighborhood for at least fifteen minutes before parking his car. A white young man decently dressed in a late-model car cruising Uptown? To them. it was a simple deduction to determine that he was obviously seeking a connection for narcotics. Their gruffness in grabbing him and pushing him down on his car’s hood was understandable. They had no possible charge to bring against him. What they were trying to achieve was to strike fear into his heart, so that he never would come to Uptown again seeking narcotics. They were simply doing their job.

And so by the time the Sabbath ended, my family came to the simple conclusion that while in terms of my son this was an awful and harrowing experience, nevertheless in order for law enforcement to truly provide for a safe community profiling was essential.

Today, while the Department of Justice is revisiting the human rights aspect of Trayvon Martin’s death prompted, in the main, by the unrest and demands of crowds taking to the streets – for, as we all know both the F.B.I. and the local states attorney’s office, after extensive investigations already determined that there was no racism involved in Zimmerman’s profiling of Trayvon Martin – we in the Lefkowitz home, think back to my son’s encounter with the Chicago police, understanding from our own experience that such situations must be seen from all perspectives.

I pray that those Americans experiencing anger, will calm down and use their common sense in dealing with this situation. The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. The loss of a human life at the hands of another is always a tragedy, no matter the nature of the individual. For, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away...” We must, however, not add to that tragedy, by allowing our society to be further divided along racial lines. For this would demean the memory of Trayvon Martin. Let the result of his tragic death be greater introspection on the part of every American regarding how all of us can deepen the sensitivity needed to advance the cause of mutual respect and the dignity of each human being in our great society. May Trayvon’s untimely death result in America moving ever forward toward the utopia it can be for all of us – truly “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”