Fifty-two police officers from the United States attended a weeklong Police Unity Tour in Israel from Sept. 7 to 13 to honor fallen law enforcement officers, both American and Israeli.
The U.S. officers were hosted at the Israel Police National Headquarters in Jerusalem, and participated together with Israeli police in a 24-kilometer bike ride in Ofakim, a partnership community of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, as well as in a special tribute at Israel’s 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza.
Taking part in such a memorial ceremony outside the United States and approaching the 15th anniversary of the 2001 attacks was particularly moving for many of the American visitors, some of whom lost loved ones on 9/11, and others who had participated in rescue missions at the attack sites.
“This is the first 9/11 memorial that I will not be at Ground Zero” in Manhattan, said Benjamin Salerno of Perth Amboy, a retired police sergeant who lost his best friend in the attack. “But if I can’t be in New York, there’s no better place to be than in Israel, surrounded by Israeli officers who understand what it’s like to be under attack.
“The truth is when you hear about a police officer killed in the line of duty, even if the officer was a complete stranger thousands of miles away, you feel that pain and emotion,” Salerno said. “We are here for you; we support you. You bleed, we bleed; you cry, we cry.”
For Greg Boyle of West Orange, a minister and retired police sergeant who served as chaplain of the Unity Tour, the rescue operation 15 years ago still haunts his memory. “Your eyes were telling your brain it’s not real, and your brain was telling your eyes it’s not real,” he said. “America has always felt the support of Israel. I can’t think of another nation that showed such support.”
During the weeklong tour of Israel, Boyle held a baptism ceremony for 13 U.S. police officers in the Jordan River. The majority of officers on the tour were Christians visiting Israel for the first time on what Boyle called “not a good-will mission, but a great-will mission.”
The program was the brainchild of Michael Safris of West Orange, a GMW federation Partnership2Gether steering committee member and a volunteer in the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, and David Bitan, immediate past chair of the Partnership2Gether steering committee in Ofakim/Merchavim and a high-ranking police commander in Israel. The encounters between Ofakim and NJ police officers started 12 years ago.
The officers from the recent delegation were from seven states, with a large delegation from New Jersey. About 15 members of the U.S. delegation are Jewish. The Unity Tour was supported by El Al Israel Airlines, and officers paid only $1,100 for the weeklong trip.
The Americans observed training exercises at the Israel Police Academy, where they were welcomed in a ceremony with Israeli police personnel, and the national anthems of both nations were performed, Israel Police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld told NJJN at the Ofakim bike tour event.
“9/11 was a tremendous changing point in America in terms of terror awareness,” said Rosenfeld.
“Israel has dealt with terrorist attacks of all sizes for many years. Since 9/11 the United States saw an increase of transfer of information, understanding, and learning from Israel. Since the 9/11 attacks, the Israel National Police work with U.S. Homeland Security almost on a daily basis.”
The intensive conversations between the officers helped the American delegates better understand what Israel is going through, Boyle said. “I am learning that the young people in Israel have a passion to survive. They know they have a posterity to protect. We’ve also learned that there’s a greater emphasis here on the character of a police officer when he or she is off duty. They know that they are never really off duty; there’s always a potential danger lurking around the corner, so they are always on alert.”
Scott Hobbs, a sergeant with the Bridgewater police, was moved by the personal connections his delegation had with Israeli police, particularly during the desert bike tour. He and other officers swapped uniform patches and hats with their Israeli counterparts. “I was riding with an officer who was attacked by terrorists while he was on a SWAT team in Jerusalem,” Hobbs said. “It was chilling to hear his story and to ride alongside him as he supported his fallen comrades.”
The journey also increased the officers’ understanding of the intensity of Israel’s law enforcement profession, said Arthur Fredman of Millburn, who joined the delegation on his 15th trip to Israel. “We were impressed by the dedication and patriotism of the Israeli officers. Israel is developing a generation of elite law enforcement professionals that any country would be proud of. I think they are a model for global law enforcement — for being humane yet effective.”
The Police Unity Tour is yet another example of connecting communities through the Partnership2Gether program, said Amir Shacham, the GMW federation’s associate executive vice president for Global Connections. “I always anticipate that something major will come from every visit we host,” he said. “We have seen so many developments that started from P2G connections.”