In a show of the unbreakable bond shared between New Jersey law enforcement and its Israeli counterparts, two of its leaders joined in a mission to Israel to demonstrate solidarity for the 57 Israeli police officers who lost their lives in the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas.
The two were Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association (PBA), and Michael Safris, chief of the Essex County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Division. They accompanied Rabbi Mendy Carlebach, administrator at Rutgers Chabad and a police chaplain for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Also accompanying the trio on the Nov. 6-7 trip were Brock Pierce, chair of the Brock Pierce Foundation and a major donor to Rutgers Chabad, and his assistant Yidel Perlstein.
The group went at the invitation of Israel police with whom they share a bond through the annual Police Unity Tour, which raises awareness of officers who have fallen in the line of duty and raises money for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and Museum. Every May a contingent of Israeli officers, led by current Border Chief Amir Cohen, ride in the bike tour from the World Trade Center to Washington with a stop at Rutgers Chabad. Similarly, another contingent of officers travel to Israel to participate with their Israeli counterparts in 9/11 memorials.
Safris, trustee of Police Unity Tour Chapter 18, was among those in Israel just a month before the attack and noted many of the Israeli police killed defending civilians were “our friends.”
In particular the loss of Senior Sgt. Yigal Illouz hit Safris hard because the two had become close.
“I just had Shabbat dinner a month earlier with Yigal and his family and my grandkids have come and stayed with him,” he said, adding that he brought with him $25,000 raised since Oct. 7 by the Police Unity Tour for bulletproof vests and helmets for the border patrol officers. In addition, Safris said through his chapter a new fundraising campaign has to date raised more than $3,000 to help pay for a Torah being written by a synagogue in Ofakim, which lost seven police officers and other community members, in memory of Illouz and the fallen officers.
To show its solidarity with the Israeli police who bravely stood as the first line of defense against the attackers, Colligan said the state PBA had reposted a tweet from the Israeli police of their fallen officers. He was surprised and moved to find that the Israelis were aware of that repost.
“We went to stand with them,” he said. “As an Irish Catholic I have to say Israelis must be the most resilient people on the planet. Oct. 7 was their 9/11 and just to see that life goes on. The highways were full and the supermarkets were open as the tanks and military rode by. I don’t think Americans could handle it. I went there not as a sightseer, but because I really want to help and to honor the fallen officers.”
Carlebach noted the invitation for the meetings with Israeli police had come through Cohen, who commands the southern border. He had been shot during the attack but managed to kill three terrorists. “I went to hug him and he said, ‘Mendy, be careful. I have three bullet holes in my back,’” said Carlebach.
“He was a real hero,” noted Carlebach. “He was the one who determined there were no Israelis left alive in the Sderot police station so he made the decision to call in a helicopter and have it blown up because there were about 25 terrorists holed up inside.”
The group was taken to the site of that destroyed police station, but what caught the rabbi’s attention were two nearby houses whose sukkahs were still erected because no one had been back after the holiday to take them down.
“In a sense these police officers were frontline soldiers in the attacks,” said Carlebach. “They were soldiers in a war.”
The Americans were driven around in a police motorcade and were taken to the building that had been converted into the new Sderot police station, shown a “minute-by-minute” horrific video of the atrocities that took place that day and taken to Kibbutz Be’eri, where more than 120 residents were killed and others are kidnapping victims. Representatives of ZAKA, which specializes in rescue and recovery, took them into homes. “We saw terrible things, blood-stained furniture, ” said Carlebach. Later they were taken to the site of the music festival near the Gaza border where hundreds of young people were murdered.
Carlebach handed out a project undertaken by his wife Nechuma, whereby she put money in baggies to be distributed to Israeli Defense Force soldiers to designate each as a “shaliach mitzvah,” an emissary dispatched to do a good deed under the belief that those in the process of doing a good deed are protected by God. He also gave the soldiers letters written by his daughter Chana and her classmates at Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Piscataway. He sent her a photo of the soldiers receiving the letters.
“She was so proud she printed out copies and took them to school so those 11-year-old kids in New Jersey were feeling they were making a difference to soldiers half a world away,” said Carlebach.
The group also visited a center in Tel Aviv that does therapy with wounded soldiers where he read one of the letters to a soldier who was blinded in an explosion.
The group also met with Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen, had lunch with border police where Colligan spoke, and afterward they laid a wreath at border police headquarters in Ramallah. They stopped to buy pizza and ice cream for soldiers in Hebron while visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Highlights of the trip included being presented with commemorative plaques embedded with a missile fragment and meeting with a family in Hebron whose son was kidnapped and who now has two other sons and a son-in-law fighting in Gaza.
“We sang songs with them, we danced with them, we cried with them,” said Carlebach. “The mother gave each of us a poster of their son and she wrote that her sons were fighting for Israel and she doesn’t want them (Israel) to release one terrorist. She knows if they release terrorists people will get killed.”
To make a tax-deductible donation to the Police Unity Tour Chapter 18’s Torah fund, send a check to Police Unity Tour at M.E. Safris & Co., 56 Livingston Ave., Suite 250, Roseland, New Jersey 07068. Write Torah Fund in the subject line. Donors will also receive a T-shirt emblazoned with “Ofakim Strong.”
Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.