Nuisance Call Leads Police to Crash Course in Orthodox Jewry

Times Staff Writer

On an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon recently, the Redondo Beach police were called to a condominium complex in north Redondo Beach on the report of a “51-50,” a mentally ill person disturbing the peace.

What the Police Department got was a lesson in Orthodox Judaism.

When four officers arrived at the condominium near Grant Avenue and Aviation Boulevard they found that the “51-50" was actually 12 Orthodox Jews celebrating the Sabbath with songs, prayer, chants and a meal.

“When the police officers were met at the door by this bearded man with a yarmulke on his head they looked like: ‘Oh, this isn’t a crazy person,’ ” said Jonathan Bernstein, a member of the South Bay Kehillah, as the congregation is known.


Neighbors, who were unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism, complained to police about strange sounding songs and chants. They demanded that something be done.

Members of the Jewish group, who had recently moved into the neighborhood, told police that to practice their religion they must celebrate the Sabbath. But, they said, if their neighbors insisted that that they be arrested, Orthodox Jews they could not be taken to jail in a patrol car because they are forbidden to use a vehicle or any other mechanical device on the Sabbath.

“This is the first time I can remember that we’ve ever had Orthodox Jews in Redondo Beach,” said Sgt. John Berry., who helped mediate the dispute with the neighbors. “It was a very delicate situation.”

A rabbi from the Police Department’s Office of Chaplains was also part of the negotiation team and no arrests were made.


Since the congregation plans to continue worshipping in Redondo Beach, the Police Department felt it ought to become familiar with the religion, Berry said.

Thus the lesson began.

To get a quick course in Judaism, Berry called Rabbi Leon Kahane of the Reform Jewish congregation at Temple Rodeph Shalom in El Segundo. Kahane has counseled officers in the department for nine years.

“I was frantically taking notes as he talked,” said Berry. “I learned a lot” about Orthodox Judaism--the most traditional branch of Judaism.

“When it was over, we felt like we just completed Religion 101,” he said.

Capt. Roger Bass, who also helped negotiate the dispute, said: “I didn’t realize there was that much involved in it. It was a real educational process.”

Kahane said Bass and Berry were good students. “They seemed generally interested to know what makes these people tick,” he said. “They bent over backward to make sure the rights of these people were not violated.”

After the lessons, Bass and Berry said they realized that if they must arrest an Orthodox Jew on the Sabbath, accommodations should be made.


“I’ll accommodate,” Berry said. “I’ll tell them, ‘You know where the station house is, start walking.’ If they don’t show up in an hour I’ll write an arrest warrant or I’ll pick them up on the following Monday.”

Since Orthodox Jews cannot use a telephone on the Sabbath, Bass said arresting officers would make phone calls for them.

“But I doubt that is going to be necessary,” he said.

Berry passed his newly acquired knowledge on to the day shift the following Sunday morning. The 14 officers working that day learned that the Jewish Sabbath--sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--is a time of rest.

“The Sabbath is the day God rested. The Bible says you must not make fire on the Sabbath,” Kahane said. “When you turn on a light it represents fire. A car starts with a spark, and that represents fire. You do not do anything that represents fire or light.”

Friends and family get together at the home of a Jewish leader and set aside the entire day for prayer, song and a special meal, which usually consists of fish and bread called hallah.

The meal is similar to a Thanksgiving celebration, said Kahane. Traditional candles are lit, and the food and the wine are blessed. Members of the shoal, as the group is known, sing upbeat songs, known as zmirot , after they have shared the food and drink .

Most people who are not Jews know little about Orthodox Judaism, said Bernstein, who noted that the Redondo Beach group is trying to get enough members to form a synagogue.


“I understand how a group of people singing in a language (others) probably don’t understand would sound like crazy people,” he said.

“Almost everywhere we go we are strangers in a strange land because people don’t understand us,” Bernstein said. “But the city bent over backward to make us feel like we weren’t strangers.”

After the dispute, members of the Kehillah invited neighbors to an open house to learn about the religion. “They have responded tremendously,” Bernstein said.

And just in case city officials need more information on Orthodox Judaism, members of the Kehillah sent the city attorney a reference guide called, “To Be a Jew.”