The Rockland County Police Academy had never seen anything like it.
“A guy walks in with a bowler hat on, a beard, a coat coming down to his knees,” says Sheriff James Kralik. “He looks like something out of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.”’
It was Shlomo Koenig, now Deputy Shlomo Koenig, perhaps the only Hasidic police officer in the nation.
“Even in Israel they don’t have anything like this,” Koenig says, his auburn beard and sidelocks sprawling out under his wide-brimmed Smokey hat.
Koenig, 35, who runs a business that makes plastic shopping bags, had long been an unofficial liaison between the sheriff’s department and Rockland’s growing but insular Orthodox Jewish community. He helped translate into Yiddish or explained the customs of one group to the other.
For example, a driver who abandons his car on the side of Route 59 and begins walking on the shoulder might look suspicious to an officer. But it might just be an Orthodox Jew, late getting home on a Friday and forbidden to drive after sunset.
Or an officer might take offense if a Hasidic woman refuses to take a speeding ticket handed to her. But such contact between the sexes is forbidden, so deputies now put the ticket down so the woman can pick it up.
Thirteen percent of the county’s 275,000 people are Orthodox Jews, including Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox sects, and that percentage is growing because of high birth rates and overcrowding back in Brooklyn, about an hour’s drive away.
Rockland’s Orthodox Jews to some degree live outside the modern world. They don’t send their children to public schools, they avoid television, they wear simple dark clothes like those worn by their ancestors in 18th-century Poland, and they have formed their own villages, away from larger towns.
There is mistrust between police and the Hasidim.
“We’ve been brought up in countries where the government was not our friend, not working with the community but against it,” says the American-born Koenig. “The way we sustained ourselves has been by living in our own small world.”
As Kralik puts it: “In most countries, the policemen were burning their homes. They had no reason to trust us.”
It was at the sheriff’s suggestion that Koenig applied to the academy. He took 600 hours of training, graduated last year with good grades and donned the tan uniform and silver star of the Rockland force.
As a deputy, Koenig has helped draft guides for his fellow officers in dealing with his community. Getting a description of a mugger, for example, can be difficult if the victim isn’t familiar with secular clothing.
A witness might say the mugger wore blue pants, but if asked whether they were blue jeans, “chances are you’re going to get a yes, even though there’s a 99 percent chance the person doesn’t really know what jeans are,” Koenig says. “They say yes because people don’t want to be caught not understanding.”
“So we’ve tried to come up with a description-type sheet explaining jeans, slacks, trousers and fashions like hair styles.”
Koenig says that in a sense, his job is part of his religion - a “mitzvah,” or good deed.
“I’m a Jew first, a police officer second,” he says. “I still try to live on my own in my smaller world. I try to do my studying, my praying, the religious education of my kids. I also try to be a sheriff. I have to be able to work with society, and I try to do that.”